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Trying to diversify? Be a general interest columnist

By Pat Wray
If you ask a hundred outdoor writers whether they make a living as freelancers, only 10 will answer in the affirmative and eight of them will be lying. The two telling the truth will be case studies in diversification: book authors, slide show presenters, part-time educators. They will be accomplished photographers, travel writers and write occasionally for home and garden sections. They are likely to be involved in radio and/or television. At least one of them is married to someone with lots of money.
With the exception of marrying into money, I have dabbled in every one of the possibilities listed above, but the most satisfying, if not most lucrative, has been my experience as a general interest columnist with the Corvallis Gazette-Times. There are several reasons to recommend the general interest realm.
paperpileFirst, expanded subject material. Although I’ve never lacked for outdoor subjects, as a general interest columnist my choice of subjects is essentially limitless, provided I can establish some local connection.
Second, a whole new audience. It is amazing just how many people never open the sports section but read news and op-ed sections religiously.
Third, being a general interest columnist provides a hedge against the declining outdoor sports section.
It’s not always easy transitioning between outdoors and general interest; there is an unspoken but very real prejudice in many newsrooms against sports writers in general and outdoor writers in particular. Without quite saying so, your newspaper editor may question your ability to deal with what he or she considers the substantive issues of the day. You may have to prove yourself. Even though I had written outdoor stories and columns off and on for the paper more than 20 years, it took me a year and a couple test columns before convincing my editor to give me a chance as a general interest columnist. I’m no Herb Caen, but the column has been well received and I’ve learned several important lessons along the way.
The previously mentioned localization of a story is all-important. No matter how tenuous, you need a local springboard to any discussion of national or international significance. Every large issue makes local waves. You just have to learn to ride them. Local support of Oregon’s death with dignity statute allowed me to propose the opening of clinics to help people (who have had required counseling and support) commit suicide in controlled conditions.
You never know what subject is going to elicit the most vehement feedback. A column about cats generated weeks of letters to the editor. I suppose the response might have been caused by my casual description of cats not as pets but as targets. Luckily, a number of people came to my defense, explaining how my column was tongue-in-cheek. Little did they know.
You can have an impact. I’m no crusader, but I’ve been able to focus attention on aspects of our local community in need of scrutiny, maybe even making a few important things happen around town.
Outdoors activities and the environment have been the focus of my professional life for 30 years; but my interest in the local community has provided new opportunities and increased income, something to consider as you deal with a declining economic situation.
Pat Wray, of Corvallis, Ore., is a freelance writer, photographer, book author and regular contributor to Game & Fish Magazines. Contact him at patwray@comcast.net.

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