Home > Tools for Freelancers > Publications > On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism > Finding work

Finding work
Tips on freelancing for newspapers

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

It started with the recession, or maybe even before. There’s not much stability in the news industry these days, in part because companies that once had large writing staffs have folded and many others have downsized. Some news outlets are turning to contract work, and many of those laid off are making at least some of their living as independent journalists.

Newspapers in particular have suffered substantial layoffs, and this trend has not abated as the economy has improved. Still, they have print and electronic publicationss to fill, and the pressure is great on the few people remaining in the industry to continue doing that job. Further, print products are under pressure from nonprofit and “hyper local” electronic publications to remain relevant, vibrant and competitive despite diminishing resources.

So, while looking around for new markets, find out whether your local newspaper is willing to farm out writing assignments. Before calling or writing an editor, however, keep these tips in mind.

Expect to start small. Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do freelance contributors receive big investigative assignments to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors determine a new freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Not even seasoned journalists shine in all these areas, but being amenable is key to getting more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small. At many newspapers, typical pay ranges between $50 and $100 per story, with higher commissions possible for feature pieces after a freelancer has a body of work under the news outlet’s masthead. Sometimes newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract for later if they are impressed with the results.

These assignments may not be frequent enough to constitute steady income. The local news outlet is likely to be only one of a freelancer’s many clients.

Know the value of deadlines. Newspapers and online news sites are fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that do not suffer slackers. If an editor says a story has to be completed and on his desk or in her email inbox by a certain time, try to get it in well before that time. If that’s not possible, stay in touch with the editor to explain the situation and ask for guidance; editors can be understanding when the situation calls for it.

Missing a deadline — just one — can undermine a writer’s credibility and make it that much harder to receive additional assignments.

Pay attention to what goes in the publication. Newspapers too often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local story angle, already were published in some form in the publication or amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people.

Take time to carefully read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences. Know what these are to have intelligent conversations with assignment editors.

How to get a newspaper editor’s attention

Around the year-end holidays, and at other times during the year, aspiring writers drop hints, notes and complete unsolicited stories on newspapers like new snow, with the intention of publishing those stories and getting paid for them. It’s become a holiday tradition: As bills mount, these optimistic writers try to salve their financial wounds by banging out what they consider news and expecting a newspaper editor to read it, publish it in the next day’s paper and pay generously for the writer’s work before the next credit card statement arrives.

Most of these gratuitous pitches and contributions wind up deleted, erased or ignored because their writers failed at good reporting — on the publications they are pitching. Instead, they have relied on their awareness that newspapers have long turned to contributing writers or freelancers to report news, particularly when their full-time staffs were swamped with other work.

But newspapers do not accept anything and everything submitted to them for publication as news. The stories in today’s print and online publications are products of careful planning, research and attention to detail. Even breaking news coverage requires rapid, incisive analysis by teams of reporters and editors — freelancers sometimes among them — to determine how and why something happened and why it is “newsworthy.”

Before shipping that free-form story to the nearest newspaper, first consider what it takes to attract a newspaper editor’s attention.

Understand the newspaper’s needs. Each paper or site provides a window into the community it serves, and what interests readers or is newsworthy in St. Louis may not warrant similar attention in Sheboygan, Wis., or Syracuse, N.Y. Reading the publication carefully every day reveals the distinction. Consider how a newspaper is organized and edited, and where certain topics routinely appear.

Sell the story, not yourself. Prospective freelancers often try to tell their life stories in their query letters when all an editor wants to know is whether the writer’s idea is worth attention. Explain the story in one or two short sentences, focusing on the key questions all news stories try to answer: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Pitch your work for what it is. Don’t try to pass off a blog post or journal entry as news; what you think, feel or believe about the news isn’t important in a news story. Cite only facts in a news pitch. Everyone has an opinion. Not everyone has the facts.

Provide verifiable sources. Newspapers aim to avoid bias in their news coverage, leaving that instead to the commentary pages, so some editors may want to check the validity of a freelancer’s idea. Naming or describing independent sources you intend to contact will sell a story pitch better than if there are none.

Send your pitch to the proper place. At all but the smallest papers, story ideas relating to sports, for instance, should not go to the news or features editor. Find out which editors work with freelancers and accept story ideas, and craft pitches and queries to them specifically. That information might be on the paper’s website, but you might have to make a phone call to confirm whom to contact for specific stories.

Consider quality and quantity. Pay careful attention to fixing spelling and grammar errors before sending any correspondence. Most newspapers also adhere to style guidelines outlined by The Associated Press (AP), so pay attention to style rules as well. (SPJ offers a SPJ information about discounted subscription to AP Stylebook

  • #APStyleChat on Twitter for style updates and invitations to Twitter chats.
  • Last updated: June 2018

    Copyright © 2012-2018 by Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved.

    Questions or comments? Please post them in the Freelance Guide Comments forum of the Freelance Community Board or email fcguide@spj.org. We’ll answer as soon as we can!


    Join SPJ
    Join SPJWhy join?