The Oregonian, a daily newspaper with more than 300,000 subscribers in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington, purchases hundreds of freelance articles every year. Assistant bureau chief, Amy Wang, edits a weekly news magazine for the Metro Southwest bureau that focuses on community-level coverage of three Portland-area suburbs. In this month’s column, she shares what freelance writers need to know about pitching and writing for a daily newspaper.
What kinds of articles and/or subjects does The Oregonian look for from freelancers?
As a general-audience publication, we are interested in all sorts of articles and subjects. The sections that use freelancers the most are A&E (arts and entertainment), Books, Travel, FoodDAY, Homes & Gardens, Commentary (opinion) and Living (daily features). As a regional newspaper, we prefer articles and subjects with strong ties to Oregon and Washington. Our five suburban weeklies are even more narrowly focused.
What should writers keep in mind when considering story ideas to pitch to a daily newspaper like The Oregonian?
Unlike magazines, which often work several months ahead, newspaper editors typically work no more than two or three weeks ahead. Many sections that use freelancers go to press a day or two before the actual publication date. Deadlines are tighter and the turnaround from the query to publication can be very short, sometimes just a couple of days.
Before querying, make sure no similar stories have been published recently. If you are serious about freelancing for newspapers, buy a subscription to the Nexis online database, which archives hundreds of English-language newspapers.
Newspaper editors are unlikely to purchase a piece just because the topic is interesting. We’ll ask, what’s the news peg–that is, why publish this piece now instead of two months ago or six weeks in the future? A successful query will explain that your piece about a hair salon just for children is relevant now because it is about to open a branch in our area, or that we should buy your interview with Sarah McLachlan because she is about to perform in Portland.
What are the top two or three things you look for in a query letter?
In addition to what I described above, I also expect some familiarity with my section, which is available online. The articles I publish typically run about 500 words, so a much longer article is not going to get the go-ahead. Plus, more than one typo or grammatical mistake is an instant turnoff for me.
What would be a usual response time for an editor to respond to a query letter?
I generally respond to queries within a day or two; other editors may take up to a week. If a writer hasn’t received a response after a week, I would recommend calling the editor.
Once a writer has had an article published in The Oregonian, are there long-term freelance opportunities available?
If the writer had trouble making deadline or did not respond satisfactorily to an editor’s questions/concerns, or the piece required a good deal of revision or was much longer or shorter than agreed upon, the editor would probably not be inclined to purchase another article, let alone discuss long-term opportunities. If all went well, the editor would be more open to discussion. For instance, a freelancer might pitch the idea of a monthly feature and the editor might agree to plan for that feature while reserving the right not to purchase any one installment.
What current or future trends in the newspaper industry should freelancers be aware of?
Probably the biggest trend right now that affects freelancers directly is toward moving content online. Freelancers should be aware that when they sell a piece, the first-time rights that a newspaper purchases typically include publication on the paper’s Web site.
Do you have any other advice for freelancers wanting to break into
the daily newspaper market?
The better you understand newspapers’ procedures and priorities, the better off you’ll be. We don’t have fact-checkers, so we need freelancers to take accuracy seriously and not rely on us to save them from errors. I would much rather work with an unknown average writer who’s obsessive about accuracy than with a well-known talent who’s sloppy with facts. Also, after I finish a story, I send it to the copy desk, where it is read by at least two more editors who may make further revisions. Finally, newspaper editors are eternally grateful to freelancers who know and abide by the Associated Press Stylebook.
The best way to contact an editor at The Oregonian is by e-mail. For a complete listing of the paper’s staff, go to http://biz.oregonian.com/newsRoster/. Writers can also e-mail a query to: firstname.lastname@example.org and include in the subject line, “Freelance query for (name of section).” An editor checks that e-mail account regularly and will forward the query.
Lori Russell is an award-winning writer who has had the pleasure to work with several great editors in her 17 years as a freelancer. She is a contributing editor to Columbia Gorge Magazine and has been a regular contributor to Ruralite for more than a decade. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country and her short fiction and poetry has been published in several journals and anthologies. Lori recently completed her first novel, Light on Windy River.