Q: I have been interested in writing for a newspaper for a while now, but there happens to be a problem: I am an English/language arts high school teacher who has not been exposed to the newspaper business. People have told me that I have a talent for writing, and I would like to see if I could apply this skill in a field that does not require grading scales, chalk dust, and "lunch duty."
Don't get me wrong, I love education and plan to move up to an administrative position in the near future. So, with that said, are there "side jobs" for those who would like, and could handle, a newspaper assignment once in a while? If so, how do I get involved in these freelance positions? My local paper does not seem to post these kinds of jobs. I may be wrong, but I feel that my degree in English/language arts education would be somewhat of an asset in applying for a position with a newspaper.
A: Journalism is just one segment of the writing world, as you know. The side job you’re seeking -– occasional opportunities with no regular schedule -– is as a freelance writer or stringer. Such writers are paid by the article. Some stay quite busy; others are in just occasionally.
Editors generally do not see these as positions that need to be advertised. Assignment editors call the freelance writers they have worked with when they have an assignment. One becomes a freelance writer by pitching a good story idea to an assignment editor, getting the go-ahead and then performing well on the article. Few editors will give assignments they really need to have covered to people about whom they know next to nothing.
So, it’s up to you to get things started.
Study the publication you want to write for. Pay attention to what they use. Look for signs, such as different bylines, that may say that one of the writers is a freelancer. For example, at the Free Press, a staffer’s byline will say “Free Press staff writer,” while a freelance byline will say “Free Press special writer.” It is a small but telling distinction.
Once you figure out what the publication uses and where it uses freelancers, come up with a story idea. Don’t write the story yet (maybe the newspaper covered it a month ago –- or has a staffer working on that piece). Call the editor in the section where your article would play and say that you have an idea to pitch. The editor will either here your pitch or dish you off to someone who handles freelancers -– or say that the paper is not taking any freelance work.
Once you have had something accepted by an editor, grow that relationship with more ideas. It is too time consuming to pitch a new editor on every article, so try to establish relationships where the pitching will be easier, leaving a greater proportion of your time to go for the writing.