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BY BILL GRAHAM
An outdoors column in a weekly paper can work double-fold to fuel that need to play outside and bring in some dollars.
I’m not saying your words about fins and feathers in a weekly will lead the way to a six-figure salary. However, they might put you on the paper’s website and broaden your reach to readers. The weekly can boost your revenue stream and give you a writing outlet that’s often more carefree than what’s found at magazines, big-time daily newspapers or fast-paced websites.
I’ve worked at both types of newspapers. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I was laid off from The Kansas City Star early in 2009 as the nation’ big dailies shrank due to recession and media changes.
But lucky for me, the publisher of a weekly newspaper near my home called and asked if I wanted to write for him as a freelancer. I did. In addition to the general column he wanted, I also sold him on the idea of an outdoor column for the sports section.
Before you can be an outdoor columnist for a weekly newspaper, you must be a salesperson. Lucky you, if the editor in your town hunts and fishes and is desperate for outdoor content. But I’ve yet to find that type of an editor at a weekly or a daily. Most must be persuaded.
Once my outdoor column at the Platte County Citizen was approved, a wonderful freedom arrived in my writing life. I didn’t need permission to cover the start of the white bass run up the Little Platte River or autumn duck hunting in the Missouri River bottoms. I simply piled camera and notebook into the pickup and went on my way.
The writing was my own. There was no gauntlet of editors and a copy desk to run before the story appeared in print. I shot the photograph and edited the cutline. My satisfaction was large, even if the pay was low.
But for the writers with pride, there are pitfalls.
Sharp editors at a good daily newspaper provide a safety net. I did not have that safety net. Most weekly editors don’t have time to pay extra attention to your work. Early on, once stories were in print, I noticed bumps in my writing that made me wince.
For a good writer to have fun at the weekly — before, during and after the story is written — you must be extra vigilant about your word choice, avoiding wordiness and clichés.
Another lesson I learned early on, as I set my own schedule, is that procrastination and deadlines are just as difficult for the freelancer as for the newsroom reporter with a badgering editor. You’ve got to push yourself to get moving in the field and get the words flowing in the computer. Otherwise, both the fun and the paycheck are missing.
I did discover an unexpected advantage to my outdoor column.
My work continued in the shadow of the large daily newspaper, where Outdoor Editor Brent Frazee of The Star produces one of the best Sunday outdoor pages in the nation. His stories take him to locations throughout Missouri and Kansas, and justifiably so for his readership.
But that means he has less time to report outdoor stories in my two-county area. My readers enjoy reading about hunting, fishing and nature close to home. I am also lucky to live in an ecologically diverse, semi-rural area with many outdoor opportunities.
When I started the column, I worried about running out of topics because I chose to localize my coverage. What I found instead was the opposite. I didn’t have time to do all the stories that could be done. The column format also allowed me to be versatile in how I approached stories, ranging from opinion to straight-ahead story style.
My weekly outdoor column, post-layoff from the daily, did a lot for my spirits but also paid some bills. Pay for a weekly outdoor column is not great, usually ranging from $50 to $100 in my Midwestern environment. But weekly paychecks add up at the end of the month.
While $50 is not that much, there’s competition from those who write for less. One editor told me he had offers from two different outdoor writers seeking to sell him columns for $12 to $15.
But there are weekly markets that, when cultivated properly, can pay more than $100 per column. Selling to several papers (or websites) at once is also an option to increase pay. Some editors might pay extra for photos, though mine did not.
My situation changed late in 2010. A new job writing and doing media relations work for my state’s conservation agency prompted me to retire my weekly outdoor column to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
But I’d enjoyed a very satisfying couple of years on the outdoor trail, fielded some nice compliments from readers and earned some badly needed revenue.
I’ve never enjoyed writing more.♦
–Bill Graham is a media specialist in the Kansas City region for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.