Transcripts

"Building a Career by Newspaper Writing" with Ernest Volkman.

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Ernie is Ernest Volkman, a former prize-winning national Correspondent for Newsday. Currently a freelance author and journalist, his work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, ranging from Omni to the New York Times. He's written thousands of newspaper articles, over 300 magazine articles, and eleven nonfiction books.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening! I'm your moderator, Kristi Holl, and tonight we have with us Ernest Volkman who will be talking about "Building a Career by Newspaper Writing." Ernie is a former prize-winning National Correspondent for Newsday. Currently a freelance author and journalist, his work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, ranging from Omni to the New York Times. Welcome, Ernie!

Ernie: Hi. Glad to be here.

Moderator: How did you get started writing?

Ernie: Actually, I started writing when I was eight years old; I produced the "Gazette," an in-house, hand-written little newspaper reporting various activities of the Volkman family. It enjoyed a circulation of six. The Gazette only survived for three issues; when it reported some family gossip my father thought not worthwhile disseminating, he ordered an end. It was my first acquaintance with censorship.

Moderator: What is a typical writing day like for you?

Ernie: There's no typical writing day; it very much depends on how well the juices are flowing, how much work I have to do, my mood at the time, etc. Usually, though, I start working early in the morning, knock off for lunch, do some other chores in the afternoon, then do a little more work in the early evening. Sometimes, if the spirit moves me—or there's a real onerous deadline pressing on me----I'll work in the evening hours until I feel tired.

Moderator: Can you give us an overview of the kinds of newspapers you've written for?

Ernie: I've written for just about every type of newspaper in existence, from local papers (such as the SoHo News, a local paper in Manhattan, where I once lived) to the big ones, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsday.

Moderator: Why is writing for newspapers a good way to learn writing skills and get started as a writer?

Ernie: Unless you have some kind of marketable specialty—such as expertise in writing about computers—the magazine market is very tight at the moment. Many magazines are folding, and the rest are under severe economic pressure. Simply, they are not buying as much freelance material as they once did, and what they buy tends to come from a small circle of established writers they deal with. There are much greater opportunities with newspapers, which have large news holes to fill (especially Sunday editions), and they tend to look for much more general material, such as human interest features, that most magazines no longer buy.

Moderator: I've heard that the newspaper freelance market is booming. Why is that?

Ernie: Economic conditions. Currently, newspapers are undergoing a severe economic crunch because of sharply reduced ad revenue. They've been laying off or furloughing employees. To save costs, they are trying to freelance as much of their content as possible. It saves such costs as payroll taxes, fringe benefits, etc.

Moderator: What are newspapers looking for, in general?

Ernie: Generally, newspapers are trying to buy features—mainly local human interest features. That would include profiles of people with unusual hobbies or avocations, and so forth. They are also looking for people who can produce Sunday feature material. For example, many newspapers look for local writers who can write gardening columns. They don't want to hire a staffer just for that job (too expensive) and buying syndicated material means it's not local enough. Depending on the newspaper, there are any number of possibilities: consumer advice, local shopping tips, business profiles for a local business section.

Moderator: Can you give us some tips on how to deal with editors?

Ernie: Deal with editors professionally. It's that simple. Editors want to deal with dependable writers who understand the market and can produce good material on deadline.

Moderator: Do you submit freelance newspaper articles the same way you submit freelance short stories and magazine articles?

Ernie: No. To establish a relationship with a newspaper editor, that involves personal contact. You must convince him or her that you're capable of producing the material he or she needs. Newspaper editors don't have the time to read proposals, which in any event don't tell them very much. Check whatever newspaper you're interested in writing for. Contact the editor; ask for a chance to show what you can do. The editors will probably ask you to try something, just to see how you do. If they like what you've done, they'll probably ask you to do more.

Moderator: Where do you get market listings for newspapers?

Ernie: There aren't any. Each newspaper has its own unique requirements, especially when it involves local news.

Moderator: Can you simultaneously submit your articles to lots of newspapers around the country and then sell to them all? (Or do they buy all rights?)

Ernie: No, you can't submit simultaneously. Newspapers buy one-time rights. After the material is published, you're then free to sell it elsewhere. If a newspaper is truly blown away by what you do, they will attempt to syndicate you, which means selling your work to other newspapers. That's how Ann Landers started. The Chicago Sun-Times' advice columnist who wrote under the name of Ann Landers suddenly died, and Eppie Lederer, a local housewife, thought she could do the job. She contacted the editor, was given a chance to show what she could do, and the rest is history. Erma Bombeck was a housewife who began writing humorous personal essays on the vagaries of life in suburbia for a local newspaper.

Moderator: If you've had something published in a newspaper, can you resell it to another newspaper for reprint rights (as you can with magazines)?

Ernie: Usually, no. Newspapers, as a very perishable item, tend not to want to buy stale material.

If the subject matter is of universal or wide interest, they'll tend to buy such material from a newspaper syndicate, which markets comic strips, canned features, etc.

Moderator: What are some good ways to break in to newspaper writing?

Ernie: There is only one way: contact the editor(s). Before doing that, carefully analyze the newspaper: what kind of features is it buying, how much freelance stuff do they buy, what kind of writers are they looking for? You can't approach a newspaper and simply offer to write. It doesn't work that way. Instead, be very specific what you can offer, whether it's human interest features, local business profiles, whatever. Example: a woman I know in Pennsylvania lived in an area where the construction business was predominant and very important. Her husband had run a large construction concern, and she worked there off and on, enough to learn the nuts and bolts. She offered to write about the business for the local paper, which snapped up the offer. So for the past several years, she's been writing regular features about major figures in the industry, latest trends, etc. The local paper was delighted, since much of their circulation was people involved in the construction business, and it would have been very difficult for them to find a reporter with specialized knowledge of the construction business (writers with that kind of expertise tend to be snatched up by specialized magazines.)

Moderator: I find writing articles and short stories somewhat confining because of length. Is the length important in newspaper writing? Or does the editor cut it for you and use how much he wants?

Ernie: Length is the central tyranny of all newspapers. Each day, editors are assigned a "news hole," which is a finite amount of editorial space available after the ads are sold. Editors must fit everything they want to publish in that hole. If an editor tells you something has to be 800 words, believe me, there is no deviation. If you submit more, the editor will immediately deduce you're not a serious or professional writer, since only a rank amateur would fail to understand that assigned word lengths are inviolable.


Moderator: What can you tell us about the book review market (in newspapers) for freelance writers?

Ernie: The book review market is very tough. Newspapers have been cutting back on book reviews during the past few years. Most newspapers tend to assign book reviews to people with an established expertise or background in the subject of the book. For example, a review of a new Civil War book would probably be assigned to an author of several such books, or a professor who specializes in the subject.

Moderator: When writing for newspapers, freelancers tend to think of feature writing. First, what IS feature writing, and what kind of features are newspapers looking for?

Ernie: Features, simply, are non-news articles that concentrate on either the human or offbeat aspects of a particular topic. For example, a story about the appointment of a new police chief might be accompanied by a feature, which might be a biographical profile, or an interview in which the new chief explains his or her philosophy of policing, and so forth.

Moderator: Why are professionalism and reliability important if you want to write for newspapers?

Ernie: Newspapers, fundamentally, are businesses, and that means they're run like businesses. That mandates professionalism. The newspaper isn't running a remedial writing class, or a high school literary magazine. Above all, professionalism means responsibility and reliability. The editors only want to deal with people who act professionally and are reliable. If the editor is counting on a Sunday human interest feature from you due no later than 2 PM Friday, he assumes you're reliable enough for him to count on it being in his hands by that time. If not, he has to scramble for a replacement, and he will instantly stop dealing with you. The editor isn't going to stand over your shoulder while you report and write, so he has to assume you know what you're doing.

Moderator: Do you write on all kinds of topics, or do you specialize? Which is better for your career?

Ernie: In terms of marketability these days, specialty is the name of the game, for the simple reason that's what most publications, newspapers included, are most in need of . It's a complicated world these days, and newspapers are aware their readers are looking for all sorts of guidance—ranging from how to keep their lawns green to what optional features they should buy in a new car. Consider your own reading: how often do you look for specific guidance in magazine and newspaper articles? Fairly often, I'll bet. What used to be very simple things are now loaded with complexity (consider that it seems you need an electrical engineering degree just to operate your VCR.) And consider how often you read articles advising you on what to do about your retirement income, the kind of information you seek in a very complicated financial world.

Moderator: Let's talk about some of the kinds of writing that newspapers use freelancers for. First, what about personal essays? What are they, and what market is there for them?

Ernie: There's a booming market for personal essays, since most newspapers these days have op-ed sections they want to fill with opinion pieces. Ideally, many newspapers look for local talent that can write interesting personal takes on various topics. For example, many local newspapers around the first week in September would love to have a nice personal essay from a mother of small children on the topic of the first day of school, and the many complications thereof. A personal essay is a first-person opinion piece on any topic. It can be serious (abortion) or light (why the local municipality's garbage recycling rules are driving me nuts.) Newspapers greatly prefer local personal essays, since the alternative is filling up the space with canned syndicated columns that are often boring. Newspapers have found that readers love to read what their local contemporaries have to say.

Moderator: How about opinion pieces?

Ernie: Opinion pieces are fine, but to do them, you need to have a deep expertise in the subject, a strong point of view, and an ability to make your point without getting shrill. Very few people, alas, seem capable of doing that. You can't write opinion pieces off the top of your head; newspapers are looking for informed, insightful opinion pieces. Opinions that tend to be uninformed are found in the letters to the editor.

Moderator: How important is it to know your audience when writing for newspapers? We stress market analysis of magazines, but can you do the same thing with newspapers?

Ernie: Newspaper audiences tend to much more diffuse than those of magazines, since newspapers are much more generally circulated. Most people buy a particular magazine because its editorial product addresses their interests. Newspapers are bought for many different reasons; some read just the sports, some read every word to keep informed, some read just the local news. In terms of newspaper audiences, demographics is the key: if you live in an area with, say, large numbers of young families and a burgeoning school age population, you can safely bet the newspaper is looking for material that demographic would like to read, such as advice on child-rearing, etc.

Moderator: Do newspapers target certain key audiences? If so, how can you take advantage of that?

Ernie: Yes, newspapers will target key audiences. A newspaper in an area with large numbers of retirees, for example, will seek to publish material relating to such issues as Social Security, senior discounts, and so forth.

Moderator: How's the pay scale for newspaper writing? Which kinds of writing pay the best?

Ernie: Generally, newspapers pay abysmally. That's just the way it is, and always has been. There are a number of reasons for that, among them the fact that they are buying very limited rights (a newspaper only circulates in a specific area.) But trust me: those clips are invaluable, worth their weight in gold. When you become published, that serves as your calling card; anybody wanting to know just what you can do has only to look at what you've written. You'll never get rich writing for newspapers, I assure you, but it represents a great stepping stone to other things you might want to do, such as magazine work.

Moderator: How can you get to write your own newspaper column? What kinds of subjects lend themselves to a regular column?

Ernie: The odds of a freelancer becoming a columnist are very slim, unless it involves some kind of specialty only the freelancer can fill. For example, in my area, the local newspaper has a local expert who writes the gardening column. Gardening is very big in that area, so the newspaper decided it would be best to have extensive locally-focused writing on the subject. Fortuitously, they were approached by a local guy who taught gardening classes and who, it turned out, could write clearly and interestingly about the subject. So they made him a regular gardening columnist.

Moderator: What about writing for newspaper magazine

Ernie: Some newspapers have local Sunday magazine supplements (Parade magazine, and other such Sunday magazines, are syndicate products), which represent a good market for such things as human interest features. Requirements, payments, and other such things vary widely from newspaper to newspaper.

Moderator: Do newspapers have trends or hot topics or markets like magazines do? If so, what ARE some hot markets right now?

Ernie: Generally, newspapers eschew hot trends, since such trends tend to be very transitory. Most newspaper readership is based on loyalty; readers have come to trust the newspaper to provide the news and information they need to know, an area that can include anything from the local property tax rate to local movie times.

Moderator: Do you take photos for your articles too? Or does a newspaper staff photographer do that?

Ernie: Photography is a matter that varies widely from newspaper to newspaper. Some buy photos from freelancers, others don't.

Moderator: Do you have any advice for viewers on how to make newspaper editors happy?

Ernie: You keep editors happy by acting professional and reliable. The editor is a businessman, fundamentally, producing a product each day that he hopes will keep his customers happy. The editor deals with all the components of that business—the writers, the editors, the copy boys—in a businesslike, professional way, because that's the only way a business survives. And an editor won't buy from you because he likes you; he'll buy because you're selling what he wants, and he can count on you.

Moderator: Dick, thank you so much for taking the time tonight to give us insights into the newspaper business from your many years of experience! It's been very helpful!

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