By Mark Freeman
There are five people who have broken into the newspaper business strictly based on the notion of, “If Mark Freeman can do it then why can’t I?’ ”
There is no reason you can’t become No. 6.
If you do, it will have less to do with the hunting and fishing skills that likely catapulted you into the Outdoor Writers Association of America. What gets you into the newspaper racket will be a combination of basic reporting and newspaper writing skills and leveraging your skills effectively.
This is not rocket science. It’s barely brain surgery.
Start by preparing yourself.
First, familiarize yourself with newspaper style. The Associated Press Stylebook and Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” are required reading.
AP style is the basic by which newspaper writers write. If you show no grasp of style, you’ll never get a chance to show editors what you can do.
“Elements of Style” is the bible for brevity, tightness and succinct writing.
You’ll also have to get a functional grasp of basic newspaper writing. Familiarize yourself with story-structure styles like the inverted pyramid and the martini style. Tim Harrower’s book “Inside Reporting” is a very functional text on the craft of newspaper writing. It stresses simplicity.
Remember, newspaper editors will be far more impressed with your basic professionalism than anything you’ve ever accomplished in the woods and waters. That means accuracy, clarity and your ability to always make deadline rank supreme.
What happens next depends upon your target publication.
Breaking into the weekly market
If you live in a region with weekly newspapers that contain little or no outdoor writing, approach the editor about adding it. Offer to do a few small stories you already have lined up, and pitch them to the editor. Also, offer to add a local fishing and hunting report.
Figure on doing three on spec, getting them published for little or even no money. That could create enough reader buzz to leverage an opportunity to negotiate a per-week deal.
A good time to approach editors is well before the start of a particular hunting or fishing season. A month before the start of trout season or the start of fall hunting seasons are golden opportunities.
Think small and think local. What’s Hot and What’s Not are things editors want to see.
Write small features of 350-500 words about what’s happening that particular week, focusing on the action on local rivers and lakes.
Include real people, not just the stars. Find real people fishing on the lake you’re featuring and write about their experiences.
Don’t focus your work on you or your friends, and avoid first-person stories at all cost. They are a slippery slide to unemployment.
Remember, no one cares about us and the stuff we do. Over time, these seemingly innocuous pieces collectively become almost like a tease to the readers, the “Look at me and my friends having fun” effect that will turn readers off.
No one cares about you and your friends. They would prefer to read about regular people doing interesting things.
Expect to add natural-resource professionals in most stories you do. Rely on them for additional facts that put your subject’s adventures in perspective.
For a feature on spring bass fishing at a local lake, add the opinions of the state fish biologist for that lake about its best features, list of managed fisheries and its immediate future. For a piece on deer season, add buck ratios, recent herd trends and other information from a local state wildlife biologist. Be exact. Don’t write “about 20 bucks per 100 does.”
And spread the wealth. Use different sources, different biologists, so you don’t look like a mouthpiece for a single entity.
Over time, you can establish yourself at one local paper. Most weeklies are owned by chains, with single owners often gobbling up all the weeklies in a single region. You can easily use that to springboard into the other weeklies, each paying for your stuff. You can create a nice little fiefdom for yourself.
Dealing with a daily newspaper is decidedly different.
Most dailies already have an established staff writer or a stringer covering outdoors. Most likely, the fact that you’re in OWAA means you probably know the local newspaper writer and probably even covered some of the same stories.
You can become colleagues, and you can do so without creating bad blood or appear to be working on a coup.
First, offer to do the paper’s fishing and hunting report. Pitch it as a more effective use of the current outdoor writer’s time. There isn’t an established newspaper outdoor writer who hasn’t felt like paying someone out of their own paycheck on deadline to manage the fishing and hunting report.
Once you get the report duties, own them. Make the calls religiously and create a useful and accurate weekly report while laying the foundation for expansion. And do the work, if possible, from inside the newsroom or sports department. Work near your editor. Be available to watch the editing process. Learn and don’t repeat mistakes. Editors hate having to correct the same style error over and over.
Once you’re established, offer to do outdoor notes and briefs while the staffer works on other, more important pieces. Make sure you follow the newspaper’s style and do your briefs consistently. Follow directions, for instance, on the placement of time, date and place in a sentence.
Always double-check your stories for accuracy. Magazine writers might be used to relying on the publications’ fact-checkers as a safety net. You get no net at newspapers. Get it right the first time.
Start writing secondary features and stories, particularly on issues and topics not being covered by the main outdoor writer. If he or she primarily covers hunting and fishing, offer to do ski stories in the winter.
Any time you can add to the depth and breadth of your paper’s coverage, you will be considered an asset. While doing this, consider the staff writer to be a mentor. Look at what he or she does and how he/she approaches the work.
Finally, offer to do the main packages and columns while the staffer is on vacation or working on other projects.
Write about people in your community doing things in your community. Stories about trips far away are all right a few times a year, but most readers want to read about what’s around them.
Over time, you may not be added to the staff. But this approach could get you lined up as the staff writer’s replacement when he or she retires or moves on.
In newspapers, what you don’t do could be as important as what you do. Don’t write first-person stories unless as a last resort. First person works only if you have no other alternative, or if it’s a self-deprecating story. You can’t heap as much abuse on someone else as you can yourself.
Don’t use the job as a source of free outdoor gear. Newspaper editors rightly cringe at anything that even smacks of a conflict of interest. Naming reels in a fishing story is like adding whether the guide wears boxers or briefs. It’s irrelevant to the story and gets in the way. Don’t play that game.
Don’t turn in a story without running it through a spell checker. That squiggly line is under a word for a reason. Usually, it’s because it’s misspelled. Fix it.
If you don’t know, ask. About anything. If you’re not sure of the difference between antlers and horns, ask. If you can’t tell the difference between a coho salmon and a chinook, ask. You have to learn about your subjects to write about them effectively.
When working at a newspaper, you must cover all aspects of the outdoors. You don’t need to ski to write a skiing story. Just find people who ski your local runs and write about their experiences.
Contrary to what many non-newspaper writers believe, newspapers are not anti-gun or anti-hunting. They will run compelling hunting stories as well as interesting or relevant stories involving guns.
What newspaper editors are against are gratuitous hunting stories. “Me-and-Joe” tales don’t work. Simple stories about a local guy’s hunt need to be put into perspective, like how this person is a snapshot in a collage of what’s going on right now in the woods.
Finally, there is a new genre for newspaper outdoor writers, and it’s as wide open as anyone can imagine.
Launch your own outdoor Web site to show you have Web prowess. Offer to assist and/or help manage part of the newspaper’s outdoors Web site.
Write shorts for the newspaper’s Web page.
Blogs – embrace the opportunity, but don’t go overboard.
Cover club events for the Web site.
Help expand local coverage. Newspapers live on local coverage. Include local hunters and anglers.
Write about extreme sports or other non hook-and-bullet activities. ◊
Mark Freeman is the outdoor reporter for the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford, Ore. He is co-chair of OWAA’s Newspaper section and an OWAA member since 1993. E-mail him at email@example.com.
By Mark Freeman