Writing for 1A: For freelancers

Freelance writers who have tapped their newspaper’s outdoors budget still have other larger and more prominent sections to mine — all by taking advantage of the most desperate person in every newsroom.
Newspaper city editors are always seeking an extra story-photo package to fill the news sections. Even those who have no interest in outdoor pursuits will become fans of yours if you can fashion story packages that fill their needs.
Stories like newly created urban trails, cute kids catching big fish in city limits and senior snowboarders all fit the bill for the A and B sections of your newspaper, provided you pitch the story right and meet their standards.
First, don’t diss your outdoor editor. Don’t offer the city editor stories that your regular contact at the paper might want. It’s not only bad form to go around your regular editor but it doesn’t help you sell more stories and make more money.
For story ideas you think might be newsworthy, first pitch them to your outdoors editor as a story for him or her, then perhaps for the news pages if the outdoors editor passes. The outdoors editor will be far more likely to steer you toward the news pages if he or she already has enough material for the outdoor section. Make sure it’s pitched as an additional option to go with your regular assignment for that week.
Figure that the city editor probably has never read you and quite likely doesn’t even know your name. Ask the outdoors editor to put in a word for you and say that you’ll be pitching a piece to him or her.
Then call the city editor in late morning or early afternoon. Early mornings are spent talking with staff writers about their upcoming stories and mid-afternoon on is crunch time when all focus is on putting out tomorrow’s paper. In the early afternoon, the city editor is more likely to have a conversation with you while staring at a weekly budget with some holes in it ready for anything to fill.
Pitch stories that don’t have to run right away. That new urban trail story, photo and map you pitch can plug whatever hole the city editor finds in the newspaper that week.
Remember, city editors use freelancers to compliment what their staffers do. So focus on the stories the staffers aren’t doing. And don’t be surprised or offended if the city editor says his or her staffer is already aware of that story and working it. That’s a polite poach on the editor’s part.
Newspaper work is, after all, quite predatory.
When the editor bites, ask for the same rate the city editor pays other, steady news freelancers. News freelancers typically earn more than sports freelancers, so stick up for yourself.
But the higher pay comes with higher expectations. Adhering to Associated Press style is a must. Crisp leads and concise nut graphs are adored by city editors, so spend more time piecing your story together.
Pay very close attention to facts and be precise. While the outdoor editor might let you slide with phrases like “a dozen or so nearby trails,” the city editor will want “11 trails currently within city limits” if that, indeed, is the case.
And you better be right. Mistakes in news pages almost always require corrections.They also get you kicked back to Sports.
Also, if your assignment is for 500 words or 15 inches due Thursday at noon, consider that a one-way demand. Don’t write 400 words or 700 words because city editors detest spending extra time on freelance pieces that need to be puffed up or hacked down.
And remember, it’s their story. They bought it. They can do whatever they want with it.
Get the reputation for being easy to work with, which also includes no complaints when the 700-word piece you were told would run on 1A on Monday ends up at 450 words on the bottom of 1B on Tuesday.
Where the piece runs and how big it gets played is not an anointment or indictment of your story; rather, it’s simply how good and interesting your story is compared to what else runs that day.
Over time, you might become a regular in the city editor’s freelance stable, which means more work and extra paychecks. You’ve broadened your readership beyond your traditional ilk and positioned yourself as a small but vital cog in your newspapers’ coverage. ◊
A member since 1993, Mark Freeman is OWAA’s second vice president. Freeman is a staff writer and columnist for the (Medford) Mail Tribune. He is also an adjunct profession of journalism at Southern Oregon University. Contact him at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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