Become a Local News Reporter

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The hat and cigarette are optional, but this young man is otherwise well equipped to put in a few hours as a local news reporter.

No matter how much of the food and other essentials of life you and your family produce for yourselves out there on the ol’ homestead (or in your small town back yard or wherever), it’s a cinch that you still need some cash money from time to time. You know, to pay off those backward individuals (like the tax collector) who haven’t caught on to barter yet. And if you still live and work in a big city, surely you could use a few additional dollars to help you meet those ever-present bills or to get yourself ready for the Big Move out into the country. But you already know that. The question is: Do I know of any relatively easy, non-time-consuming ways for you to pick up those bucks?

And the answer is: Yes, I do. If you can write—not “fancy stuff,” just plain, clear sentences that folks can understand—and if you have five hours or so a week to devote to an occupation that’s almost too much fun to be called work, you could make up to $150 a month (just as I do) as a local news reporter for your newspaper.

You’ll Need Some Equipment

The most important “tool of the trade” for anyone who wants to write for pay is, of course, a typewriter. Believe me, no editor is going to pay much attention to your work (even if you do expose a Grange hall Watergate) if it’s scribbled down on “cute” note paper or torn from a spiral-bound pad.

And whether your “writing machine” is an expensive electric or a garage sale special, keep a fresh, black ribbon in the typewriter at all times and keep the machine’s keys clean. Remember: The appearance of your written copy is the first thing an editor will notice. Make that copy neat. Make it crisp.

If you’re interested in earning the maximum possible income from this part-time job, it’s also a good idea to equip yourself with (and learn to use) a reliable—but not necessarily expensive—35-millimeter camera.

Relax. I didn’t know anything about cameras either (except for the little Kodak types) until I bought a $95 K-Mart Focal ES 35mm picture taker especially for my job. But I did memorize that camera’s instruction manual before I bought and ran my first roll of film through it. And then, a week later, I went back and spent another $9.00 at the same department store for an electronic flash attachment so I could take good indoor shots. So far I haven’t needed anything else to take photographs that a newspaper will pay for.

OK. Once you have your photo equipment, don’t go anywhere without it (you’d be amazed at the number of stories I’ve missed because my “magic box” was at home). And don’t let the camera magazines seduce you into trying “artsy” photography, at least not for your news stories. All a newspaper needs (or wants) are simple, clearly focused pictures.

You’ll need a note pad and pen, of course, to round out your “tools of the trade.” You can pick up a cassette recorder later if you think you need one; it does come in handy from time to time but isn’t really essential in the beginning.

Go Get That Assignment

Before you run down to your local daily to apply for a job, and even before you start on a sample story, get to know the newspaper (or papers) that you hope to work for. Find out what kind of articles it prints and whether its audience is rural, urban, or a little of both. Then look for stories in your community that will appeal to at least half of those readers. And remember: The paper wants news, not opinions or personal comments. Report the facts.

And when you do submit those facts in the form of a sample article, the piece should be typed with a black ribbon on white paper and it should be double-spaced, with plenty of margin down both sides (to allow the editor to make changes). Furthermore, until you learn how your paper’s editor wants it done, the article should be set up in a professional manner, like this:

On the first page, in the upper left corner, type the following:

The Date
Your Name
Your Address
Your Phone Number

… and then begin your story.

Agonize over that first piece. Sweat over that copy. Tear up draft after draft until you’ve made that story just as good as you can possibly make it. Then go to the paper and show the article to the regional editor.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most editors are always looking for good writers and will be glad to give you assistance. Especially if your “example” pieces (three or four are better than one) are interesting and concise (400 to 600 words is the best length for local features, 800 words is about the limit), and show a knowledge of the community that you plan to cover.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: We contacted the regional editor of the Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times and found that he was, indeed, often on the lookout for local “stringers.” His paper covers seventeen counties, and uses one or more correspondents from each.]

If you get an assignment (you’ll usually work “on spec,” which means that you write the stories and the paper will pay you if it uses ’em), don’t be surprised if the money—especially at first—isn’t quite as glamorous as you might have expected. My paper pays me 50¢ for every inch of printed newspaper column that it buys (other newspapers shell out $1.00 or more for the same “column inch”) and $5.00 for each photo it uses. You can also expect to be reimbursed for any phone calls or travel (at 10¢ a mile) that are necessary to a story. Most newspapers will both buy and develop your film, too. This all adds up faster than you’d think.

How to Find a Story

I rarely go out looking for articles. Instead, I just kind of make myself available in case they want to find me.

For instance, while I was at the grain elevator the other day I learned that the structure just happened to be the oldest of its kind in my area … and the only one within a hundred miles that still sells coal. A few questions, several pictures, and I had a story that earned me $15!

Then, on my way home, I stopped at the post office and became involved in a conversation with a woman who it turned out was the caretaker at the local cemetery. “How many women gravediggers can there be?” I asked myself, and the article which resulted from that question put another $12 in my pocket. And while I was taking the lady caretaker’s picture, she told me that the fish hatchery was undergoing a remodel, which—you guessed it!—led to another article and yet another check. And so it goes.

How to “Work Up” a Piece

After I’ve taken notes and snapped photographs, I type my stories up at home … and always make a carbon copy for myself. I also make it a practice to keep careful notes on the pictures that I shoot (I try to take several of each subject). I then refer to those notes as I type up photo captions (on a separate sheet of paper) to send in with the articles and the undeveloped film.

Be sure to keep an itemized statement on each story that you mail; many papers require that you turn in such a statement if you expect to get paid for your work. This “file” should include the number of column inches in the article, how many photos were used, any expenses you had while covering the story, and most anything else you can think of. Good records are a must!

Stop the Presses

Who knows where your job as a local news correspondent might lead you? (Mine gave me the courage to send an article to MOTHER EARTH NEWS!) But whether it’s the start of a career or just a handy method of payin’ the bills, that regular check from the local paper can be a first step toward a more independent (and better!) life.

At least that’s the way I look at it out here in Broadwater, Nebraska as I continue to put in a scant five or six hours a week as a newspaper correspondent—while happily cashing checks which add up to $100 and more each month. If I can do it, I’ll betcha you can too!