How to Become a Local Freelance Journalist

By Andrew Mentock

Most freelance writers begin their careers dreaming of bylines in Time Magazine, the New York Times and the Atlantic. These are the dreams I had when I first started out as a writer. Unfortunately, that level of success is usually out of reach for most writers who are just starting out. Typically, this is because we lack the experience and portfolio necessary to attract attention from major publications.

This quickly led me to the realization that it would be better to focus on lower-paying, local publications when first starting out. They are much easier to break into, largely because their editors are much more accessible. It also helps that they get fewer pitches than major publications, so it’s easier to come up with original ideas, and there’s less competition.

As a freelance writer with two years of experience, local markets have been the foundation for my career. They give me the clips I need to get the attention of larger publications, and helped me grow and develop into a better writer.

There are several different ways to reach out to local publications. Below are a few strategies that have been successful breaking into local publications.

Reach Out With a Great Idea

One of the most common ways to a local editor’s attention is to send them a pitch. This is also a valuable skill that’s good to start developing as soon as possible.

Most local newspapers and magazines list their editors’ email addresses and phone numbers on their website. Unlike the editors at the New York Times, local editors at smaller publications generally aren’t bombarded with queries or other pitches, so they are much more likely to take the time to respond.

Try to come up with an idea that’s undercovered by the publication. For instance, a baseball player from my hometown made it to the Chicago Cubs’ AAA team this summer, and yet the newspapers hadn’t covered it.

Rather than complain that the media wasn’t talking about this baseball player’s success, I decided to look at it as an opportunity. I got the player’s’ number and then pitched the story.

The pitch was quickly accepted, and I ended up with an awesome sports clip that I am proud of. Plus, if the player ever makes it to the Major Leagues, I’ll have access to an even better story.

Letters of Introduction

Coming up with new story ideas every time you want to reach out to a local publication can be time-consuming and difficult. While a pitch may be the best way to get an editor’s attention, a letter of introduction can also be effective.

The purpose of a letter of introduction is to tell an editor a little bit about yourself and the skills that you have. Then ask the publication if they accept freelance submissions. If they do, great. Then it’s worth your time and energy to send them a couple of queries. If they don’t, then at least you didn’t waste your time pitching them.

When writing a letter of introduction, make sure to include what skills you have, relevant writing experiences, where you’re located (this seems obvious, but it’s important to include), and why working with you will benefit them.

Letters of introduction are also great to send to local businesses to see if they are in need of any copy editing or writing work. Since it’s unlikely a pitch will be effective when pitching them, a letter of introduction may be the only way to reach out to a business unless you already have a connection.

Who Do You Already Know?

Utilizing connections that you already have is the best way to get your foot in the door with local publications. You just need to figure out what people you know can help you advance your career. Heck, one of your connections could be best friends with a local editor or go bowling with them once a week.

To figure out who these connections are, it’s important to talk about the work that you’re trying to do, and don’t be afraid to ask people you know who they know in the writing world.

That’s how I connected with one of the local media companies I write for. A family acquaintance is the CFO at this company, and he told me that he would be happy to pass along my resume to his head of digital content. It turned, out at that time, they were already looking for a freelancer to handle their overflow. After one quick meeting, I had a gig that consistently pays me and helps me add clips to my portfolio.

On the other hand, sometimes a family-friend can pass along a letter of introduction for you, like my friend Tom did for me:

Letter of Introduction

This email was sent earlier in my career, so there are certainly come changes that I would like to make to it (I didn’t have a portfolio yet and my writing has room for improvement). But it got my foot in the door, and I have gotten better at marketing myself since. I look back on it as a learning experience that worked out well.

Identify a Need You Can Fill

As local newspapers and magazines continue to downsize, their need for freelancers increases. In the past, a newspaper may have had several reporters available to cover local sports, area politics, and more. But today they just don’t have the manpower to cover everything that’s going on.

For example, one of my local newspapers can no longer cover all of the area high school football games on its own. This is a common problem since pretty much every team plays on Friday night at the same time. To solve this problem they now have a group of stringers, who they assign to a different game each week. It doesn’t pay much, but it is consistent.

A friend of mine also found a consistent writing job this way when her local paper no longer had the staff to write one of its biweekly columns. She saw this and sent the editor a couple of column ideas. That was two years ago, and she has been writing the column ever since.

Networking Events and Writing Groups

I’ll be honest, as an introvert, networking events are one of my least favorite things to attend — but I’m open to going to them because I know how beneficial they can be. This allows editors and business owners to build a relationship with you in person, as opposed to over email.

Typically, there are a lot of networking events for creative professionals To find these, check out the social media pages of local marketing businesses and creative groups.

Another way to network in person is to join a creative or writing group. This will help you to meet and learn from other writers in your area, who also might be able to put you in touch with an editor or two. This is actually how I got my first real clip as a freelance writer.

While living in New Zealand, I joined a bi-weekly creative writing group to help improve my fiction. After a few months, one of the group’s members told me about a local magazine she was writing for and gave me the publisher’s email address. I picked up a copy of the magazine and, after reading it, sent the publisher a couple of story ideas. He accepted one — and I have been pursuing a career as a writer ever since.

Hopefully, each one of strategies discussed in this post will help you break into more local markets, and get your writing career on the right path. They have all helped me, and the best part is that now I have the confidence to pitch some of my dream publications. Of course, I still get rejections, but I’ve also gotten a few articles accepted as well. It’s pretty amazing to look back on how far I’ve come.



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