Changes in the newspaper industry have opened opportunities for writers who can understand the market. Here’s what you must know to break into today’s newspapers.
The daily and weekly newspapers published in 2015 are significantly different from the straight news and plain gray pages of past decades. (There’s even color on the front page of The New York Times!) One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is newspapers’ need for freelancers to help fill their pages.
But not just any freelancers. To get your byline thrown onto porches all around town, you must understand how newspapers have changed in the 2000s and how those changes affect the way you must write for them. You can also try blogging for fun, or in order to make money, which is the main topic of IHelpYouBlog.com.
What’s New in Newspapers
That’s because many newspapers aren’t adding staff, but are branching into new markets. Besides its daily paper, the Chicago Tribune publishes Exito, a newspaper written in Spanish, and two publications for health professionals, Nursing News and Allied Health. It also hires writers for its World Wide Web site.
Along with the new markets have come changes in the readership. America is changing. Fewer babies are being born, the senior population is growing, and cultural differences are more pronounced. As a result, people read different literature. We don’t even watch the same television programs anymore–compared to, for example, the ’60s, when the entire country was captivated by such shows as Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. “For example, I’ve never seen an episode of Friends,” says Chicago Tribune writing coach Mary Knoblauch.
Jean Gaddy Wilson, executive director of New Directions for News (an organization that studies journalism trends for businesses), says language is also a barrier. According to Wilson, one out of eight people living in the US was born in another country. “Eighty-seven different languages are spoken in the Los Angeles consolidated school district, and in New York, people speak 119 different languages,” says Wilson. “I never say minorities anymore, because by 2032, the so-called minorities will be a majority.”
This increasing diversity makes it harder to find commonalties when you want to draw an analogy in your writing. “News writers in the ’90s must understand what’s unique to their own experience,” Knoblauch says, “and be aware of their own bias and specialized knowledge.”
Before putting fingers to keyboard, think how your writing could appeal to readers who are 20 or 30 years older or younger than yourself. How would someone of a different marital status, culture or race relate to what you’re saying?.
“We have to be more sensitive to different cultures and viewpoints,” says Jean Rudolph, a features editor at my suburban Chicago daily (the Daily Herald). “And we have to accurately reflect that by writing stories about what’s going on with those groups.”
Jo Hansen, a bureau chief for 12 Pioneer Press community weeklies in suburban, Chicago, adds, “If you have, for example, a growing Asian population in your town, you should be writing more about the Asian community.”
Cultural differences aren’t the only differences between this new audience and the audience of 15 years ago. Today’s readers have less leisure time than readers did 15 years ago but more competition for that time.
“They have less intense attention spans. They’re very easily distracted,” says Knoblauch. “(You can’t) give the reader an opportunity to walk away. If they have any excuse to stop reading, they will. If something in your story confuses your readers, you may throw them right out of the story or off the paper.”
Rudolph agrees. ‘We have to be compelling. We have to give them a reason to read us. And if we don’t do that, they’re going to set us down.”
Today’s consumers usually don’t turn to newspapers as their primary news source, so papers must redefine their roles.
In the past, they often reported hard news facts only–“Tuesday morning a fire broke out in the English Channel tunnel.” Today’s papers tend to relate the story behind the story. They give more explanation and detail. They might, for example, highlight some aspect of the fire or take a slightly more personal slant:
Truck drivers trapped by fire on a freight train
in the English Channel tunnel said Tuesday
they thought they were going to die and
sprawled out flat on the club car floor to
avoid the black smoke that came rushing in.
As the form of the newspaper article changes, so does the method of delivering that article to editors and readers. Tribune editors no longer see double-spaced, stapled manuscripts with one-inch margins. Instead, text travels via modem. Specific coding routes stories directly to the assigning editor.
Wilson predicts a convergence of media. She also says that writers will need to be experts in photography and video production. “In today’s world, if you’re going to do much of anything, you had better be able to do both images and writing.”
She urges writers to surf the Internet. “It’s a perfect time for freelancers to go in, examine the animal, and come up with enterprising ways to be part of it.”
Writing for the New Newspaper
Those fundamental changes dramatically affect what–and how–you write. Very rarely do freelancers cover front-page stories–only if they have particular knowledge, expertise or access to specific information.
And most papers aren’t looking for personal essays or columnists. “It’s probably an area that’s cutting back rather than opening up,” says Bergstrom.
Freelance articles that do sell are those that fill gaps between what readers want and what newspaper staffers have time to do.
For example, although I’m a registered dietitian with a masters of science degree in exercise physiology, I’ve never sold a nutrition or exercise piece to the Tribune. Why? Because the Tribune has experienced health writers on staff.
On the other hand, neither the Tribune nor the Daily Herald has enough full-time critics to cover every movie, concert or play they would like to. So opportunities exist for freelancers with critical expertise.
Newspapers want community news and feature stories from writers who live there.
“If you are tapped into your community and can write about its schools, its neighborhoods, its people, then you’re going to be very valuable,” says Bergstrom.
If you’ve got that community connection, you’ll want to brush up on the basic tenets of journalism before sending in your articles.
First, stories must have news value–that is, relevance, proximity, novelty and timeliness. For example, a story about the Peoria High School Marching Band would have limited appeal to Manhattan readers … unless the drum major packed an Uzi.
When I suggested an article on volunteer basketball coaches, Bergstrom didn’t nibble. But she did buy a story about local students who formed a Jane Austen Club. They were the first middle-school students to attend the national convention for the Jane Austen Society of North America. At about the same time, the Austen-based movies Clueless and Emma were released.
Besides news value, editors demand basic professionalism: You must express your ideas clearly. You must be dependable and trustworthy. You must get your facts straight.
Add an Associated Press stylebook and a thorough grammar reference to your library. Morton S. Freeman’s The Wordwatcher’s Guide to Good Writing & Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books) is an excellent resource. Rudolph says, “We have so many people calling and asking `What can I write?’ and `How can I write it? We’re very busy, and we don’t have time to coach or teach writers. We need people who know what they’re doing.”
If you remember the inverted pyramid as the basic structure of newspaper writing, you’re going to have to think again. Word processing and desktop pagination have made the inverted pyramid virtually obsolete. (The inverted pyramid style puts the most important facts first, which allowed editors to trim stories from the bottom.)
Hansen says the Pioneer Press newspapers “sometimes” use the inverted pyramid. And Rudolph says the inverted pyramid “still has its place–probably more in spot news events.”
But Knoblauch strongly opposes it. “It’s gone. Forever and ever. Everywhere in any newspaper.”
Knoblauch says she more often cuts the front of stories. “People do all these interminable scene-setting leads before they get to the point.”
Without the pyramid, Knoblauch suggests following Lewis Carroll’s advice: “Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Knoblauch says, “It’s amazing how many people can’t construct a story. They double back and repeat themselves. They get very verbose and off the truck. They throw in everything they learned about the topic, instead of what a reader needs to know and the central idea.” KnoblAuch advises writers, to imitate 20-second promotional ads for shows like 60 Minutes or 20/20.
“You have to figure out ways to grab readers, sink your teeth into their jugulars,” she says, “and not let go until you’re done.”