On Newspaper Writing
From a Mild-mannered Reporter
Most writers, new at the craft, or seasoned, are looking for publishing sites. Many suffered rejection slips, papered the bathroom with them and moved on. One avenue, wide open to writers of almost all genres, is newspapers. I discovered this by accident while sending out my slice of life stories. I saw a bi-weekly newspaper, The Staten Island Register, listed in a Writer’s Market, and submitted to them. This paper had a circulation of about 65,000, and had won many state journalism awards. My piece was rejected because they already had a humor columnist, but the editor asked me to try a few news items for him.
This began a 20 year relationship with both the paper and editor, who became my mentor and friend. I didn’t like news items much, but wrote analysis, exposes, interviews and my favorite – commentary. Almost all papers pay standard rate — $1.25 per column inch. This comes to around 40 dollars for a story running 800-1000 words. The bane in my side was that this paper did not pay at all for commentary. I still wrote them, gaining a following of readers and often received letters from companies I exposed, like the tuna industry, protesting their innocence in dolphin deaths.
Meanwhile, I published my slice of life and humor stories with the daily paper, under a pen name. The daily newspaper, servicing a city of over 600,000 people was highly competitive with the bi-weekly and on bad terms with them. The Register did not care that I wrote for the daily, but the daily certainly did mind if I wrote for the small paper. My pieces went into a “Lifestyle,” section, mostly syndicated. I would often find myself right next to or under Irma Bombeck’s column or Hints from Heloise and that was really cool! The Advance paid a flat rate of 40 dollars per story, and ran them once a week. However, they would only publish the same author four or five times a year. I was not getting rich.
The Daily, The Staten Island Advance, published their OP ED pieces from a syndication packet they purchased, so commentary was out with them. I did get what was really commentary on the front page of the paper – my finest hour. I did a story about a murdered teenage boy, expecting it to run in Lifestyle and happened to see it on the front page. It did not belong there, but the daily paper did not have the high journalistic standards of the Register, and I was too pleased to care. Front page or not, it was the same 40 dollars! So I was not getting rich, but my resume and reputation as a writer was growing. Both papers at different times offered me full time positions with them. Both times I had to turn them down due to other commitments, I was a freelance Staff Writer for the Register, which was good for my resume. I did not have a college education either.
But as a good friend remarked to me, “I love that pearl necklace you’re wearing.”
“Thanks, but I doubt the pearls are real.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “At your age people will assume they are.”
And so with journalism. They just assumed I was college educated. Possibilities with newspapers are endless. Many love cooking articles, gardening, just about any type of article, even fiction. Some papers run series of whole books, a chapter at a time. Most local papers prefer local writers. Not always. I sent stories to the Princeton Women’s Newspaper in New Jersey, circulation 65,000. I had a story in line to be printed and sent off a horror houseplant story to an editor I had a good rapport with – as a joke and reminder I was still waiting. A month later I got a check for 100 dollars in the mail and a copy of the paper – running the horror story.
There is no real way to know what an editor really wants. Of course that paper, while holding a half dozen of my stories for print, went defunct. The best and most profitable way to actually earn money freelancing for newspapers is by syndication. The journalist at the Register got her “In a Nutshell” humor column picked up by thirty + newspapers, getting paid by each one for the same column. That and working full time at the paper made her a nice living. I tried syndications and got back wonderful rejections, praising my professionalism and my work, always asking for more since they could not use the ones I sent. I have little marketing patience and after a half dozen tries I gave up.
What newspapers can do for all writers is fill time and offer writing credits and cash while finishing your “Great American novel,” or waiting for other publications to respond to your submissions. Many writers will agree that writing for newspapers, especially 1000 word essays and commentary is a wonderful way to tighten up any style or mode of writing.
So for those of you tired of rejection slips, and sick of sending out SASE’s, writing for newspapers can be a learning experience, a market for your work, and if lucky, some money too. Check the Writers’ Digest Market online and other sites for listings of both newspapers and syndicates. You never know how far writing for newspapers can take you–it’s really up to you.