Writing makes it all better, believe me.

You can get your byline in the local newspaper–all you must do is hunt down a great story. Impossible? Hardly. Follow this editor (and freelancer) as he shows you how to “track and trap the wild story.”

When I got a job at TPC Magazine in North Berwick, Maine, it was time for me to start breathing life into our fatigued feature pages–and I had no idea how I was going to do it.

So I worked out a system, saving my skin and increasing the circulation of the Sunday paper. And in the process I bought hundreds of stories from dozens of freelancers. Later, my system helped me become a successful freelancer, with sales to newspapers such as the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts (one of the largest dailies in New England), and the Providence Journal-Bulletin’s Sunday insert, The Rhode Islander Magazine.

The same system will help you make sales to daily and weekly newspapers–if you’re willing to do your homework. I call it “tracking and trapping the wild story,” though it works equally well for mild-mannered subject matter, such as an article about the first straw bonnet made in America, a piece I sold to The Rhode Islander Magazine.

Knowing Your Prey

The key to the system, and the first thing to realize about daily newspapers, is that they never lack for material. The great majority of them subscribe to news services such as The Associated Press, so editors always have 149 stories to choose from about the latest situation in Bangladesh. The news services also provide generic food stories, movie reviews, news from the state capital and so on.

What daily newspapers often need is good local material–stories from the towns in which they circulate. Since these are the towns in which you live, shop and visit friends, you’re in a perfect position to find those stories.

So what makes a good story? Something surprising. Something offbeat. Something wild. Above all, something that the newspaper’s own reporters aren’t going to find. (Trying to sell an editor your own version of the town council meeting story is the quickest way imaginable to be shown the door.)

Some examples: almost anything of historical importance that has a surprising twist. A freelancer once sold me a story recounting the time that Glens Falls changed its name–for 24 hours–to Glenn’s Orbit, in honor of John Glenn’s historic space flight. Another time I bought a story about a brave war veteran who had been honored with a statue. The surprising twist? The statue was of a horse that had courageously served our country.

freelancingThe first freelance story I ever sold was about the Busch Brewery–not the world-famous Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis, but the John B. Busch Brewery that was once operated in the small town of Washington, Missouri, by the less-successful brother of Anheuser-Busch’s founder.

Newspapers also like stories tied to holidays and particular seasons. Again, the focus must be local. Don’t write about the legend of St. Valentine–try a story about a couple in your own town who’ve been married for 50 years or more. For Mother’s Day, find a mother with seven children. I once sold a story, for instance, about one of George Washington’s visits to Massachusetts. Instead of focusing on one of the many houses he’s said to have slept in, I wrote about the time he was turned away by an innkeeper who didn’t recognize him. That story appeared on Washington’s Birthday.

Another tip: Most daily papers, and many weeklies, run bridal guides in the spring or summer. Try talking to ministers, wedding photographers, justices of the peace and caterers about wild wedding mishaps. A writer once turned in a story recounting the time that a wedding came to a halt after the priest told the groom that he could kiss the bride.

The groom didn’t understand English too well, so the clergyman puckered up his lips to show him what he meant. The groom smiled, nodded–and kissed the priest! I bought that story.

Stalking Your Prey

So, your story is local, has a twist, and is perhaps tied to a special time or season. Where do you find these good stories? It sounds like a cliche, but friends, relatives and neighbors really are the best source of story ideas. Once a freelancer was telling me about this wacky friend whose whole house, from rooftop to toilet-paper dispenser, was decorated as a miniature Christmas village. “So write about it,” I told her. It was a great story to run in the paper a week before Christmas.

My little brother once pointed the way to a good story. He was working in Kansas City as the manager of a comic book store. Every week, the store was selling hundreds of dollars’ worth of cards from a new game called Magic: The Gathering. This game was going to be bigger than Dungeons and Dragons, he told me. So I called the manufacturer, a company in a Seattle suburb, and got information about it.

But the story wasn’t local–I lived just outside of Boston. So I went to a comics store near Providence, Rhode Island, and wrote a story about how popular the game was there. Then I Went to a comics store in Worcester, Massachusetts, and did the same thing. I sold that story three times.

Besides other people, there are a great number of places to look for off-beat story ideas. Bulletin boards. Local historical societies. Phone books. There are two listings under “cryogenics” in my local yellow pages, for instance. I wonder what that’s all about.

Selling Your Prey

Once you capture that wild story and put it down on paper, how do you get it into print? The culture of a newspaper is different from that of a magazine–it’s faster-paced and more personal. Once you send your story, the editor will almost certainly want to talk with you face-to-face. After all, you’re most likely in the same city. Treat this meeting as an informal job interview. You don’t have to dress up–most editors don’t–but you do have to present yourself professionally.

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

Know the players. If you know anything about medieval kingdoms, you’re well on your way to understanding the management structure of most newspapers.

Think of the individual editors–the features editor, the sports editor, the local news editor–as dukes or duchesses who all answer to a central authority (the editor in chief), but who have great autonomy within their own small fiefdoms. If you think your story should be running in the features section, send it directly to the features editor.

If you don’t know who the features editor–or any other editor–is, call the main switchboard and ask. Newspaper editors are much more used to the idea of taking phone calls from their readers, so the switchboard operator may transfer you directly to an editor. In general, the smaller the paper, the more likely an editor is to talk with you. But realize that newspaper editors are under daily deadline pressure, and may not have time to talk at length.

Be aware also that different editors will have different reactions to a story. They have different taWs, and different budgets. Not every story is for every paper.

After I wrote about Champ, the legendary sea monster said to live in Lake Champlain, I was invited to watch the filming of an Unsolved Mysteries episode about Champ in Burlington, Vermont, where many sightings were reported.

The local paper in Burlington ran a short item, ridiculing the TV show and anyone who believed in sea monsters. My readers thought it was fun; the Burlington editors thought it was hokum. If one editor or one newspaper doesn’t buy your story, simply take it somewhere else.

Follow the rules. A short letter to an editor explaining who you are and why you’ve written the story you’re sending is sufficient. Include day and evening phone numbers–most newspaper editors work second shift. Always enclose SASE.

Be sure to discuss in your letter any personal relationship you may have with a subject that would affect the way you’ve written the story.

For instance, if you eat lunch occasionally at a diner that’s a community landmark, and you find out that the owner is planning to retire, it’s not a conflict of interest to write a story in which he reminisces about his 25 years of slinging hash. But if you’re buying the diner from him, that’s a conflict.

There are often different rules governing different types of writing in newspapers. Once, a freelancer quit after I told her that I wouldn’t pay her for an opinion piece she wanted to write. Most papers simply don’t pay for opinion essays and letters to the editor.

Pay attention to details. Facts are of paramount importance in newspaper stories. Newspapers don’t just insist on correct spellings of people’s names, they want the proper name and middle initials (Robert E. Lee, not Bob Lee). Newspaper editors want ages, job titles and street addresses of the people named in stories. Editors hate phrases such as “about 20 years ago.” That’s an invitation to an editor to call you at bedtime to ask whether it was 19 years or 21 years ago.

Sometimes, if your information is surprising, like the correspondence I turned up that convinced me George Washington was a flirt who enjoyed bantering with teenage girls, an editor will demand to check your sources.

If any of this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Newspapers are the easiest places to get published, and have a long tradition as a training ground for famous writers–Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, to name just two. Newspaper editors, though sometimes gruff and harried, are generally accessible. And most of them are willing to give some helpful advice to a novice, because that’s the way they started out themselves.

You won’t get rich writing for newspapers–pay can be as low as $25 per story–but it’s a great way to get those clips that help you build credibility, and can lead to future sales and perhaps even full-time writing jobs.

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