For the full-time freelance writer, the newspaper industry is one of the easiest — if not always the most lucrative — markets to break into. Think about it: newspapers require new content every day, or every week. They’re often chronically understaffed, with publishers cutting back on jobs, but still demanding the same level of editorial coverage. Almost all newspapers accept freelance contributions, and use freelance writers on a regular basis. But how do you break into the market?
1. Contacts, contacts The newspaper industry, more than any other, is built around contacts. The best position to be in is one where you’ve worked in a staff position for the newspaper, before going freelance. In that situation, you’re ideally placed to submit freelance pieces: you know the style of the publication, you know its readership and — most importantly — you know its commissioning editor. If you don’t have those all-important contacts, it’s time to get them. Here, you have to be creative. Many freelancers I know (myself included) got into the newspaper industry through work-experience. No, it’s not paid, and we all know that working for free is to be avoided at all costs. If it brings you experience and contacts, however, I’d argue that in this case it can be worth it, even if you only do it for a small amount of time. Another way to get contacts is to take the bull by the horns and introduce yourself. A phone call to the editor (make sure the paper’s deadline isn’t looming when you call!), short email to say hello… It doesn’t take much in the way of time and effort, and it will pay off in the long run.
2. Persistence pays So, you have your contacts. The most important thing now is to keep in touch with them. In the newspaper industry, people move around all the time. That junior reporter you struck up a rapport with at your local paper may well be editing a newspaper somewhere else this time next year: keep in touch with her so that when she needs to commission something (or to recommend a freelancer to the person who does), your name will be on the tip of her tongue. Persistence also comes into play when it comes to pitching your ideas to editors. Make no mistake here: you will be rejected and you will be ignored. The important thing to remember is that it won’t be anything personal. Editors receive hundreds of approaches from freelance writers every week: yours is just one of them, but if you keep plugging away at it and coming up with new ideas, yours will be the name that sticks in that editors mind.
3. Right place, right time Be in it. Remember that newspapers work to tight deadlines, and have an ongoing requirement for editorial. Remember, too, that their favourite freelancers aren’t the ones who write the most technically-perfect copy, but the ones who file on time, on topic, and within the word limit. Newspapers place a higher importance on accuracy and reliability than they do on style and flair: if you’ve promised to deliver a freelance piece for a newspaper, neither hell nor high water should stop you. A reputation for reliability is one of the best things you can take with you into the unreliable, but always exciting, world of newspaper journalism.