OK, so you want to write for a newspaper. You’ve got your goal in sight. Now, there are a series of steps you’ll have to take to make that goal a reality.
1. The first thing you have to do is amass some clips, or writing samples. Preferably these would be news clips, say from a college newspaper. So if you attend college, write for the college paper. If you’re not in college, see if you can write for the small, local paper that’s always looking for help, whether you send in something to the community page or offer to cover a local event.
If neither of these options is feasible, you can always create some “mock” news stories, writing as if your work was going to be published in a newspaper, as long as you make it clear your work wasn’t actually published. You can also use writing samples from school or other types of writing you’ve done. But for the purpose of getting a gig as a reporter, news clips work best.
2. Decide which paper you want to write for. Unless you have extensive experience writing for a newspaper, you’ll probably want to start somewhere small and local. This could be a weekly paper or a small daily paper, for example. Get a feel for the papers in your area, the quality of writing, and the quality of the paper. See which you like best, and which you’d be best suited for.
3. Contact an editor at that paper. Ideally, e-mail an editor in the department you want to work for, whether this is local news, features, sports, arts and entertainment, etc. Ask them if they need freelancers, and tell them about your previous writing experience. Keep it short in your first e-mail. Give them the basic facts – who you are, your writing background, and your interest in freelancing. Then wait about a week.
3a. If you don’t hear back from the editor within about a week, follow up. Many times editors receive so many e-mails that some get lost. So you may have to be a little persistent. Send another e-mail, basically repeating what you said in the first. Wait another week. If you still don’t hear back, send an e-mail a third time and wait another week. If you still get no response, give the editor a call and leave a brief message, basically re-stating what your e-mail said.
3b. If you still don’t hear back after that phone call, give it one more shot and call again. And if you still don’t hear back after that, assume they’re not interested and move on to the next paper.
4. Chances are, however, that you will hear back from an editor and they’ll let you know whether they’re looking for freelancers. If they are, and most papers are, they might invite you in to meet with them for an interview. This would involve bringing your resume, some writing samples and looking professional as you would for any other interview. But most likely, if they think you’re halfway competent, they may give you an assignment right off the bat.
5. Now, once you’re actually writing for the paper, this is when the real fun begins. Maybe you just want to freelance, and don’t have any hopes to ever become a full-time reporter. Or maybe your idea of the big-time is full-time and that’s really what you’re after. Either way, these are tips you should follow to be successul and keep jobs coming your way:
5a. Be available. Many times editors need to get in touch with you immediately for an assignment that may start in a couple of hours. Provide reliable cell phone numbers and email addresses and check them often for messages. If you happen to miss a call, return it as soon as you can, preferably within the same day.
5b. Take all the jobs you can, but if you have to turn something down, turn it down. That means don’t overextend yourself to the point where you’ll be writing about something you can’t adequately cover for whatever reason. It’s better to turn a job down than to take it on and do poorly.
5c. View every assignment as if it’s your last, and do the best job you can. Never look at an assignment like, “oh, it’s just xxxx” or “this doesn’t really matter” or “what a stupid thing to cover.” Look at each assignment as if it’s the most important thing in the world and cover it accordingly.
5d. Be flexible in terms of what you’ll cover. Versaility is a good thing. Showing that you can cover a variety of topics competently will earn you clout. Don’t take on something you don’t think you can handle, but then again don’t turn something down just because it’s slightly unfamiliar.
5e. Ask questions when you don’t understand something. Don’t be afraid to clarify an assignment if you’re not sure about what you need to do. It’s better to ask a question than to produce something other than what was expected.
5f. Even if you want to be hired full-time, do not ask to be hired full-time. Express interest in and enthusiasm for your job, but let your writing do your talking for you. If they want to hire you, they will. Asking to be hired is borderline nagging, and it won’t really get you anywhere.
Related Note: Someone told me once they were getting a book published, which they hoped would give their name some clout so the paper they were freelancing for would hire them full-time. This is stupid. Papers don’t hire you because of your name, unless you’re Donald Trump writing a guest column about investing in real estate. They hire you because of the quality of your writing and reporting. Do an excellent job on your assignments if you really want to join the paper’s staff. Don’t publish a book. For that reason anyway.
5g. Buy an AP (Associated Press) stylebook, if the paper you’re writing for doesn’t give you one. These are the generally accepted guidelines and rules on grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like that all newspapers follow. When you don’t know AP Style it gives editors more work to do and makes you look unprofessional.
5h. Read the paper you write for, as well as other papers, as often as you can. Compare your stories to other stories in your paper. Note the strong and weak points in each. Look at what you already do well, and what you could do better. Look at the kind of content your paper carries. Compare that to other papers. You should be reading papers on a regular basis, to become more educated in news writing in general, as well as the nature of your paper.
Of course, while following all of these steps, you have to seriously evaluate the quality of your writing and reporting and whether you are cut out for the job. No matter how quickly you get back to an editor that calls you, if you can’t string a sentence together it’s unlikely anyone’s going to hire you. But provided you are a competent writer and a hardworking reporter and you follow these tips, you should have a successful freelancing career, and could possibly turn your freelancing gig into a full-time job.