By Jim Low
If you haven’t noticed that economic times are hard, you can quit reading now. This column is for those who have recently lost jobs or who approach the doors of your offices each morning wondering if your keys will work.
Full-time writing jobs are scarce in both the private and public sectors these days. The Internet has diverted vast sums of money from magazines and daily newspapers. I have watched with sadness as big papers like the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch repeatedly slashed their news staffs. You have seen it in your states, too. This isn’t just a trend we hear about on the national news. Friends are losing their jobs.
Consequently, it struck me as odd when I recently received the Missouri Press Association’s 2009 directory and noted that the section listing weekly newspapers didn’t seem to be any thinner than it was 20 years ago. It made me think of another surprising fact I have noticed. Over the past decade, the weekly Potosi (Mo.) Independent Journal has seemed to grow fatter by the year, until today it has considerably more pages than the state’s largest dailies. The PIJ is so flush with ad revenue that the editor has trouble filling the enormous news hole all that advertising space creates. I know this because he prints every news release I send him.
Wondering whether this is an aberration or evidence of a larger trend, I contacted the director of the Missouri Press Association and asked if I am imagining the relative prosperity of weekly papers. He told me I was dead on, and he sent me a thick packet of survey and study results demonstrating that weekly newspaper subscriptions and advertising revenue are extremely healthy. Running weekly papers still is hard work, and you aren’t likely to get fabulously wealthy in that line of work, but they are consistent profit producers. How many businesses can say that today?
Reader surveys reveal that weeklies have an an incredibly loyal following. Why? Because weekly papers provide something no other medium can: intimate coverage of the people, places and events that touch people in their day-to-day lives. A good weekly can tell you who is competing in the Miss Merry Christmas Pageant, who just opened her own beauty salon, who won the local bass tournament, who went to jail for possessing child porn, who was arrested for DUI last week and whether the basketball team has a shot at going to the regional playoffs. They can show you photos of all those people, too. Weekly papers can tell you about raffles, foreclosure auctions, estate sales, concerts and a host of other events that no other medium takes note of. Good weekly papers are thriving because they make themselves indispensible to small, local audiences.
I don’t tell you this to convince you that the Internet is not the wave of the future. Smart weeklies are getting ahead of the digital curve and putting content online, too. I mention it because those of you looking for jobs or wondering where you would take your skills if you lost your present employment should be looking in your backyards.
Many towns of fewer than 15,000 people have weekly papers. Those papers need local content. Their staffs sometimes consist of two or three people who attend sports events in the evening to take photos and divide their time between selling ads and writing copy during the day. Paying an outside writer $10 or $25 each for quality filler items looks pretty good to overworked editors. Someone who knows how to write news and columns and can supply local content can make decent money a little at a time.
Let’s say you find 15 newspapers near enough to you that you can provide local content. Then assume you sell each one two items a week at $20 each. That’s more than $30,000 a year and a pretty solid foundation for a diversified freelance business.
Make yourself indispensible. Send “your” newspapers local personality profiles they don’t have time to write. Ferret out follow-up news features based on papers’ own basic news stories. For example, if the daily record page reports a residential fire in a lower middle-class neighborhood on Dec. 20, offer the editors a heart-warming feature about how the family coped with the loss of their Christmas gifts, how their neighbors helped them and how the experience reaffirmed their faith in people and their bonds with the community. Increase your chances of a sale by including photos – for an added fee, of course. If you make yourself valuable enough, weeklies eventually will start contacting you to cover events.
This all adds up to work. And to those who have lost jobs, that is not a four-letter word.
Jim Low, of Jefferson City, Mo., is print news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation and a former president of OWAA.
By Jim Low