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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Freelance Toolbox

Life in the hyperlocal trenches

By Mary Ellen Walsh

While I was writing recently for Newsday.com, the editor asked me to upload video off a Flip camera onto TwitVid.

The article — a short piece on a folk music open mic night at a Long Island venue — begged visuals. I was not a photographer, let alone a videographer. But now, at websites, writer and photographer are the same person. I take a digital camera and Flip video camera to every interview or event. I did have one question: “What’s a TwitVid?”

“You can upload video through Twitter and we’ll grab it,” he answered.

I logged onto my existing Twitter account, loaded the video, e-mailed my “story” and within minutes the article, photos and video appeared on Newsday’s site. It didn’t add to my pay — newspaper online sites pay $50 to $200 per article, art or no. But that I have the skills keeps me in demand.

It used to be that covering local town news as a stringer translated to weekly deadlines. If you could shoot a photo, editors considered it a bonus, not something they paid you for. Stringers would rush to the 24-hour photo services and hand-deliver stories and film. What’s changed is that local news deadlines are now hourly, and digital photos — as well as, increasingly, video — are imperative.

In fact, the more skills a freelancer brings to the table, the more attractive you’ll be to online editors and the more work you’ll receive.

Carl Corry, online local editor for Newsday.com, including 274 “town” pages covering Long Island, says hyperlocal writers need to “understand their community, be nimble and operate on multiple platforms.”

You may be wondering whether there is money in online writing. There is. But you can’t measure it against print journalism. That’s comparing apples to oranges.

I contribute regularly to AOL’s Patch.com, which has 40 sites on Long Island, including a weekly column, “Mewsings.” I also write news pieces for a handful of sites. Online writing for hyperlocal news adds up in volume. Unlike guides or contributors for content providers, like Demand Studios or About.com, Patch is an online news initiative. Patch encourages us to stream articles on Facebook or Twitter, but freelancers are not paid per click. We’re paid per article, and it can add up to several hundred or even a thousand dollars in a month, depending upon the amount you choose to produce.

Look, at first I thought, “Wow, that pay’s pretty low.” But in the 10 months I’ve been doing it, I’ve found it complements my print work and some public relations consulting I do. It pays for my cell phone bills and for extra activities for my three kids.

Sometimes it does make for harder work. David Reich-Hale, Patch.com’s senior regional editor for Long Island, also teaches a journalism class at Hofstra University on Long Island. He says he tells his students “in some ways it’s a lot harder to be a journalist today. You not only write but need a social media strategy, as well, and have to pull it all off simultaneously and seamlessly.”

But writing for hyperlocal sites has also literally reshaped the way I see stories, by forcing me to think about how to shoot photos and videos.

Plus, I’m able to write about my community, and bring to light shared residents’ concerns, while earning money as a writer. Hyperlocal provides a magnifying glass that has been sorely missing until now.

So don’t disdain hyperlocal sites. And next time you’re on assignment, grab a camera and a camcorder and start shooting.

Mary Ellen Walsh is an award-winning freelance journalist currently writing for Newsday, Newsday.com and AOL’s Patch.com. Contact her: maryellenwalshwriter.com, Twitter @mewsing or at MaryEWalsh@optonline.net.

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