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Why and How to Freelance for Your Local Newspaper

Freelance writing for small local newspapers is an excellent way to break into the writing business. Most every small paper uses freelancers for a logical reason—they cost less than employees. Newspapers often call freelance writers stringers, and they’re not employees; they're independent contractors.

Generally, stringers develop their own story ideas. They then present those ideas to an editor, which is called pitching a story. The editor either approves the idea, turns it down, or suggests a different angle.

However, if you're a regular freelancer who consistently does good work, you'll find the editor will assign you stories instead of you having to pitch ideas.

Newspapers need two broad types of stories—features and hard news.

Writing feature stories

You’ll probably stand a better chance of publishing your first newspaper story with a feature. These stories focus on the unusual aspects of a person or situation. The situation doesn't have to be extraordinary or unbelievable. In fact, what you're looking for is circumstances that are unusual, but not outlandish.

An endless variety of topics can be turned into feature stories. I've written about a 90-year-old man who still sings in his church choir, a married couple who own a collection of more than 2,000 coffee cups (they glued some of them to the outside of their house!), and many more topics.

Here are a few examples of feature stories:

Personality features

A personality feature describes one interesting aspect of the person's life. One story I wrote was about an 86-year-old man who rose at 4 a.m. every day to bake goodies to donate to his church.

Historical features

Anniversaries and historic events often give you an opportunity to write features. Say your town will soon observe the 40th anniversary of a big fire. Such anniversaries, whether positive or negative ones, provide many topics for feature stories.

Adventure features

These stories describe an exciting experience in someone's life. The experience might be travel to an unusual location, a dangerous job, or even an accident. I wrote a story about a woman who climbed Mt. Rainier.

Holiday features

Holidays provide good opportunities for feature stories. Don't just think of the major holidays—there are innumerable minor holidays to write about. When was the last time you read a feature on Flag Day? Run a search for “little known holidays” for ideas, such as “National Spaghetti Day.” There are no doubt enough minor holidays and events to keep you in story ideas all year. I once wrote a story about how people named Valentine celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Writing hard news stories

Small local papers are in dire need of hard news. But most small papers already have a staff member or a regular freelancer to do that job, so you may not be able to break in with a hard news story. But circumstances change. People move on to other jobs. For example, the freelancer who regularly covers city council meetings may leave the paper, and if you've been doing a good job on features you might be offered that work.

Working with local newspaper editors

If you’re going to write for your local weekly, you must of course contact an editor. There are a couple of ways to do that:

You can write a complete story and email it, asking the editor to consider it for publication. A minor snag is that the editor will probably assume you're not expecting payment. But that's not all bad; it's a foot in the door.

Never email a story to "attention: editor." Make sure to address it to a particular person. Check a publication's web site, or call, to get an editor's name and email your story to him or her.

You can also call the editor. Your call has two purposes: 1) To find out if the he or she is open to freelance material. 2) To pitch a story idea, assuming the editor is open to freelance submissions. It's best to have two or three ideas to pitch. Again, you may or may not get paid for a story published as a result of this call. But do an outstanding job and there’s a good chance it will lead to some paid work.

Most cities and towns, regardless of population, have one or more small weekly or bi-weekly newspapers. Read one or more of them, think of some story ideas, then contact an editor. You might find it’s the break you’ve been looking for.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Joe Wisinski