Many beginning freelance writers assume the path to wealth and success is found in the pages of glossy, popular magazines that line bookstore shelves or novels from New York City that reach the best-seller list.
But do you know you can collect steady paychecks, amass numerous writing clips and make a name for yourself right in your own backyard as a stringer, also known as a freelance reporter, for a community newspaper?
Community newspapers that focus on smaller, local news angles and human interest stories that bigger newspapers don’t cover are a perfect place for writers to gain experience in the freelance writing field.
I spent more than four years as a writer and editor for a community newspaper, and I’ve worked with numerous stringers, ranging from recent college grads and stay-at-home moms to established freelance writers who enjoyed being involved in their community. I’ve edited hundreds of articles by stringers, and my experiences can help you get your foot in the door. If you’re a beginning writer, community newspapers are a perfect place to start your career. The editors of these newspapers are easier to contact and they’re willing to work with new writers.
Where do you find article ideas that these newspapers need? One visit to a municipal council session or local school board meeting will provide a wealth of topics, such as tax hikes, lawsuits, construction and business development. You’ll also find human interest stories involving teachers, students, war veterans and retirees. There’s no need to develop angles for magazine articles or fret about your query letter making it out of an editor’s slush pile.
When you secure a meeting with an editor, bring your writing clips if you have them. Don’t worry about not having cover stories or features that span many pages. Articles that cover municipal and school board meetings do not include long lead paragraphs or anecdotes. Newspaper editors are constantly looking for ways to conserve page space, so an ability to write efficiently and informatively will persuade an editor to give you the nod for these assignments. After receiving the go-ahead from the editor to cover a meeting, arrive at your destination 10 or 15 minutes before the meeting starts. Learn what hot topic has people talking. The two women sitting behind you at the municipal meeting may be up in arms over a major road closing in their area of town. Or maybe the parents standing beside you at the school board meeting are angry over a teacher being suspended by the district’s superintendent. The people who attend these meetings are the same people reading the newspaper for which you’re writing, so write about what they feel is important, not what you feel is important.
Once your article is published and you receive a check in the mail, your work isn’t finished. Secure personal contacts from your meetings and stay abreast of lawsuits that may be appealed, construction plans that may change and any new developments with stories you wrote about days, weeks and even months ago. Stringing for newspapers at municipal and school board meetings means there is never a lack of story ideas. Another subject worth reporting will come to light at the next meeting. Keep your eyes and ears open, inform your editor about story ideas and work quickly. Editors are always looking for writers who want to be the first to break a story.
After you’ve attended a few of these meetings, people will recognize you and your work, and some may approach you with ideas for stories. Congratulations! You’re on your way to becoming a respected writer. And you didn’t even have to travel to New York City.
Eric Seiverling is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He received his BA in Media Communications from the University of Pittsburgh. He has been published in numerous local newspapers as well as Vintage Guitar Magazine and Byline Magazine.