Q: How do you come up with stories?
A: I think most people asking this question want to know how newspapers come up with stories and not me specifically, because I don't always come up with my stories. Without going into too much detail at this point, newspapers come up with stories through two general methods: The story comes to them on the "wire" (when I started in 2000, the "wire" was an actual fax machine, now it's email, but it shows how old-school I am) or they go out and look for stories themselves. The degree by which the editor looks for the stories or delegates that part to interns, writers, and freelancers varies.
As for me, I prefer to not be in a situation where I have to exclusively rely on coming up with stories if it's strictly about building a long-term relationship with the publication. For one thing, my output will be limited by the ideas I have and I'd rather have more output than less. For another, I feel like a story will be less likely to be cut, rejected, or mishandled if it's the publication's idea and something the publisher might have covered. Lastly, it can be time-consuming to think of and research ideas. However, I can do both and pitching is what got me into many of my publications in the first place.
Q: OK, but how do you come up with stories?
A: Well, I wouldn't say I go out story-hunting or that I even go out more than the average person. When I do go out, however, I do keep my eyes open. It's not a conscious thing at this point either. After doing this a while, I just have an internal mechanism when I see something story-worthy that goes off in my head with the thought: "That would be a good story" and I might proceed to get more information if I feel like it. Even in the time period since graduating from college where I haven't considered myself a journalist, I might have gone about the information gathering part if the story was good enough.
Q: How do you gather information if you're not a full-time reporter or at various times didn't even consider yourself a reporter at all?
A: When you say you're a reporter, what you're actually saying is I'm writing a story or working on a story. I don't misrepresent myself but I would say, in that situation, I'm interested in learning more about this situation and I have ties to or have written before for this or that newspaper. For the most part, anyone is free to gather information. I have used this method to either break into or write articles I wasn't previously assigned for the Fairfax Times, AOL's Patch News Service, the JMU Breeze (that cross-country story), and the Minnesota Daily (where I wrote a story about an entrant to the NBA draft, Kris Humphries, who seven years later became one of the biggest names in pop culture for his 72-day marriage to Kim Khardashian, I very much lucked out on that).
For the most part, you want to gather enough information to come up with a story idea and don't overwork yourself on a story that you don't know for certain will be printed.
Q: Overworking yourself, you say?
A: Yes, the margin for being underpaid and being decently paid is very thin as a freelance writer. You'll generally get paid by story or by the word rather than per hour. As a result, spending an excessive number of hours on a project will lead to dissatisfaction and lower pay (hey, long division doesn't lie) and being a good freelance writer is dependent on optimizing your writing energy. Don't be mistaken into thinking that you should turn in an insufficient product. What this means is that you have to focus your energy (be it story/article ideas, time, or effort) on what has the most potential to achieve your goals as a writer. This struggle takes on all sorts of forms.
Example: I even had to do a lot of thought into figuring out how to write this FAQ section. Did I want to spend more effort focusing on biographical details and even expand that into some kind of massive Pulitzer-prize winning autobiography? Did I want to break this post up so as to not strain the reader's attention span too much? Did I want to be to candid in these posts so that I could provide a very transparent inside scoop into my life or did I want to keep this more professional so I could use this as a cover letter of sorts when employers are looking for a sample of my writing?
Q: What would you describe as your skill sets?
A: I think young people generally are just encouraged to expand their skill set to as many things as possible. I could easily say “I write” but that’s a vast, vast universe of activity that encompasses everyone from grant writers, to lawyers, to supreme court justices. I think it’s essential to know exactly what your skill set is and what it isn’t. My grammatical skills also are not on par with a copy editor just yet. In fact, some people (half the commenters on this blog, for example) have thought my grammar was embarrassing and indicative of someone who hadn’t graduated 8th grade.
I do, however, specialize in reporting. Part of that is being able to write in the specific language (including style, tone, structure) of newspapers. I also am acquainted with AP Style and the specific ethical guidelines behind stories and after a while, the procedure for writing stories has become so compartmentalized that it’s second nature at this point.
I also can steer content, whether it’s my own or someone else’s content (i.e. managing writers), to match a specific tone. I thrive on collaboration and networking with other writers so that feeds into it. In addition, because very few people ever read my blog and I put effort into getting more people to read my blog or other internet columns I’ve written, I have become fairly experienced at this point in content promotion.
I also feel like I add creativity or an analytical mind to what I write and in some cases I write on subjects as an expert on them. The more I write on those subjects, the more of an expert I become, so practice definitely makes perfect.
Q: How do you get into the newspaper?
A: First, you need sufficient experience being published before. With internet 2.0, being published is a somewhat looser term, but there’s definitely a hierarchy. Opening up a blog or writing for a content farm (examiner, seed, helium) has far less prestige than writing for Premiere or Salon’s website, but it’s incremental. Writing on a blog or being published on a blog with high traffic is a good step towards writing for a content farm (sites like Examiner or Seed don’t take everyone) which is a good next step towards writing for something more prestigious.
The next step is simpler than it sounds: Just contact the editors, have clips on file with which to show them, and express your interest. Generally you will need to get their attention with a good pitch or idea for a story. Most editors have some need for freelance writers and even if they usually don’t hire freelancers, they might be inclined to do it if a very good idea came their way.
Q: Really? Every newspaper?
A: This doesn’t mean you should waste your time with a magazine that doesn’t take submissions, because those exist. Generally, you should ask what their freelance policy is in your first conversation with the editor. Don’t think that Time Magazine is going to take your article if you just have a good story idea. You generally have to have reached a ceiling before they take a look at you.
Q: Do you have to have a good resume?
A: In my opinion, the wonderful thing about freelance writing is that you rarely ever need a resume or go through an interview. You’re simply judged based on what you can do and whether you can deliver a story. Not to say that I have humongous ghosts in my closet or that I love this business because we let the scum of the Earth in. It’s just a better breeding ground of creativity.
This reminds me of an interview with cracked editor David Wong on the success of his site:
“One thing and one thing only: we decided that the world was full of great, undiscovered writers, and tried to create the most welcoming and open environment possible for them to come and contribute. There are no cold rejection letters, no one is turned away, everyone has direct access to an editor if they have questions or want feedback….
The Cracked editorial team was made up of people who had kind of banged their heads against the wall in terms of trying to get writing careers going, and the first thing we decided was that we weren’t going to put other people through that. If you can write, you can write for us. There are no dues to pay. We don’t ask to see a resume, and in fact don’t allow you to show us one even if you have it. Submissions are treated the same whether they come from a Pulitzer Prize-winner or an 18 year old kid writing from the computer lab at his high school. You can back me up on this – we just sort through the ideas as they come in, we don’t even know people’s real names until we are processing their payment.”
Q: So I sent a letter to the editor and he didn’t write back. What now?
A: That can be one of the worst things about the business. Editors can be swamped and have their inbox filled with potential submissions. This is especially the case if a newspaper openly advertises that they seek submissions (Washington City Paper before 2010 was an example of this).
One tip is that newspapers that aren’t as public about their submission policy might equate to an editor with less in his inbox and an easier chance at getting his attention.
At this point (although it’s hard to say), I’ve proven I’m a capable community news reporter and there’s little reason for an editor of AOL’s Patch News Service to reject me outright, but when I started turning to Patch in November about 90% of them didn’t respond. After consistent pestering a couple of them came through and there’s currently an editor who has only contacted me back two or three times over the last 9 months and forgot who I was in between those stints. At one point, he even offered me a story which I had to turn down because I was out of town. The point is editors aren’t necessarily rejecting you if you don’t hear from them.
If they give you any feedback at all, take advantage of that feedback to further a relationship with them, by asking if they have any other stories or what might be an opportune time of the year where they’re in need of stories (for some newspapers it can be the summer as ad revenues go up, for other newspaper it can be the school year because even if ad revenues are down, there are no interns). There is a such thing as overdoing it, but it is also ok within a week to double or even triple check on the status of your story.
This process of editor contact gets far easier once you have a story in. When I tried to get to the Washington City Paper after college, I couldn’t even get an editor on the phone. The first time I got one on the phone a few years later, I instantly had a connection upon which I could eventually write stories for the paper.
Q: How much of journalism for you have been based around formal education?
A: It’s somewhat of a misconception that anyone can just go out there and write in a journalistic manner. You definitely have to have some formal training in AP style, story structure and the news pyramid. In a way, it’s a language. I took 2 or 3 courses in college and that forms a lot of my basic education. Without them, I’m not sure where I would be.
Q: What about networking?
A: Networking is everything. When it comes to checking for a publication and it’s a good experience to write for them, it is infinitely useful to have someone in your circle of friends or contacts who worked there. They could save you a lot of time by telling you if that place is worth working for. Because freelance writers shift “jobs” quite often and work for multiple places at once, it’s much more important than someone who works a 9-5 job.