Win Assignments to Cover Breaking News By John K. Borchardt

How can freelancers get assignments to cover important breaking news stories? During most of my freelancing career I felt I was on the outside looking in as magazines and newspapers assigned their staff writers to cover breaking news stories. It’s often difficult for freelancers to get assignments to cover important breaking news stories. Many, if not most, don’t even try. The query submission and review process takes time. Most assignments are given to newspaper and magazine staff writers because of time constraints. However, freelancers can surmount this problem and win rapid acceptance of their queries, or sidestep the querying process completely. The ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico provides interesting case histories on how freelancers can win breaking news story assignments.


First you need to make editors aware that you are available and have the skills needed to cover the story. For example, freelancer Craig Guillot announced his availability on Facebook and provided a very brief synopsis of his experience along with the address of his website. I sent e-mails to publications for which I have previously written announcing my availability and provided a short summary of my knowledge of oil industry technology. Before freelancing fulltime, I worked in the oil industry for 34 years. I know the technology and have written articles on it for both consumer and trade magazines. I telephoned editors who knew me quite well rather than using e-mail for our initial contact. The result of my campaign (so far) is that I have written two feature articles relating to the oil spill.


Experience in a writing niche often means you have access to sources that a general assignment staff writer wouldn’t have. Let editors know you can capitalize on this asset. It also means you may have name recognition with editors making assignments to write about breaking news, and perhaps have written for these editors before. For example, freelancer Michelle Rafter says, “I have gotten assignments to cover breaking news from trade magazines with which I’d had long-standing relationships. They were familiar with my daily newspaper background and we’d worked together long enough that they knew I could be counted on to turn a story around in a day if I needed to. In most cases these kinds of stories have been assigned to me rather than me pitching them.”

Freelancer Claire Leschin-Hoar provides another example. She covers sustainable fishing and commercial fishing issues. When the oil spill occurred, one of her editors at “Slashfood” approached her and she wrote an article for their website.


Another strategy is taking advantage of your geographic proximity to the story. Craig Guillot capitalized on living in the New Orleans area close to the scene to win a news reporting assignment to cover the situation for “The Times” (of London). Proximity was also helpful in winning him an assignment to write an environmental article for the National Geographic website on species of birds dwelling in Gulf Coast marshes put in danger by the oil spill.


Cultural affinity helped Craig Guillot as he drove through southern Louisiana coastal towns in the path of the oil spill and interviewed shrimpers and fishermen whose businesses were being shut down by the spill. He commented that the people in the area tend to be suspicious of outsiders but opened up to him. This helped in write human interest stories on people impacted by the spill.

It was the inventor of pasteurized milk, Louis Pasteur, who said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” That’s what freelancers need when a news story breaks that they are well qualified to cover. It helps to maintain an active presence on social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn to announce your availability. The long lead times for writing many types of freelance articles don’t exist for breaking news. So you have to be prepared to research and submit manuscripts rapidly.

John Borchardt has written more than 1,200 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is currently working on a new book, Accelerating Innovation through Effect Laboratory Management and has started a weekly blog running on the Lab Management magazine website.