By Phil Philcox
Give or take a few thousand, there are over 23,000 daily and weekly newspapers in the United States. Weekly newspapers are published for the most part in small towns where there is no competition from large dailies. A weekly newspaper survives with advertising from local businesses, offering rates that are far below that of a daily newspaper. Of course, weeklies have a limited readership, so they reach a local audience with local news and local advertising. Operating on a budget, many weeklies have a small staff and there are weeklies that have 1-2 people doing everything from writing articles to shooting photos to selling advertising to running the presses and distributing the paper around town.
In my forty-plus years of freelancing, I’ve discovered a good market for my articles in weekly newspapers, but you just realized that small newspapers have small budgets. The Atlanta Journal (not a small newspaper) paid me $450 for a 1500 word travel article on Panama City Beach in Florida. I could never get that kind of money from weekly newspapers, but I could earn $450 if I sold that article to 45 newspapers at $10 each or 10 newspapers at $45 each. I always retain the rights to articles by offering First North American Rights only. That way, I can turn around a month or a year later and sell the article again and again. I’ve sold one article as many as 30 times over a period of a few years, updating it as required to keep it current. This works with magazines as well as newspapers.
Sending out your writing via the old paper/envelope/stamp system is no solution if you want to reach 10, 45 or more newspapers. With a list of weekly newspaper website addresses, anyone can get a glimpse of the current issue and possibly the papers archives and get an idea of what type of non-local material they use. A writer’s competition at weeklies is syndicated material that includes a variety of stuff (fillers, puzzles, comic strips, self-help articles, etc.) for only a few dollars each. Because there is no overlap in readership (the readers of a weekly in upstate New York never see an issue of a weekly published in downtown Cleveland), they can sell that material over and over again. A column like Ann Landers that appears in over 2,000 or more papers could be offered for $4 per column and everybody involved gets rich. With that kind of pricing, it’s difficult (but no impossible) to get paid fairly if you’re working on a one-on-one basis. Write a 650 word filler on how to save on your income tax and if you find one weekly interested in buying it, they might offer you $10-$15. I’ve been offered as little as $2 for an article and it cost me (at that time) $1 to mail it flat. You can’t survive under those conditions. But you can survive if you send that article to 10, 50, 100 or more newspapers and you can do that directly from the newspapers web site.
Almost all newspapers (dailies and weeklies) have some means of getting in touch with the editors. While dailies are usually staffed with people who can turn out a variety of material at no cost to the editor other than salary, there are dailies that buy material from freelancers. The Atlanta Journal article sale was the result of a query. They bought the article because I know more about Panama City Beach than any of their staff writers. If you know more about any subject then they can uncover through their normal research/writing routine, you can even crack the dailies. With website access, you can send you material off with a click of the mouse and if they respond, find. If not, there are others out there who might.
Here’s how I sold some humor columns over and over again to weekly newspapers around the country. You can do the same thing with a column on any subject or articles on any subject. I started writing the column for two upstate New York weekly newspapers in the mid-80s and over a period of two years had fifty columns, ranging in length from 500-750 words each. The papers in New York paid me $10 a column. The subjects were general in nature (dieting, paying taxes, living with a spouse, the cost of living, vacationing, politics, etc.) These were subjects that newspaper readers anywhere in the country could relate to. If readers can relate, then there are probably newspaper editors out there interested in what you have to say…if they can afford you. I started putting together the websites of daily and weekly newspapers and concentrated my sales pitch on weeklies for all of the above reasons. I picked two sample columns, opened an e-mail link (letters to the editor, staff e-mails, contact us, etc.) with a “…if you can use this at your normal rate of payment, I have some other columns I’d like to submit. If you can’t use it, just delete it.” I sent the two columns off the first time to 25 editors, using their e-mail link or the BCC block. When you send something to someone by typing in their address in the TO: box, only their address appears when it arrives at the other end. When you send something to more than one person and use the CC: box, they see the entire list of addressee…not a good idea. Using the BCC: (which stands for Blind Carbon Copy), they only see their address even if you send it to 500 editors. Check the e-mail HELP to see how to do this. Sometimes you have to insert a comma between each address.
I sent those columns to over 1,000 editors. While it was tedious, it’s my way of selling material over the Internet. The responses ranged from “…take me off your mailing list” to “sorry, not interested” to “we don’t buy freelance material” to “we don’t have any money” to “we like the columns. How much do you want for them?” I deleted all the negative stuff and wound up with 14 newspapers saying “how much?” If I had to do this by regular mail, I’d go looking for another way to earn a living. From previous experience, I knew if I asked for too much they couldn’t afford it. If I left it up to them, they’d probably pay $5. If I quoted them something in the just-over-reasonable range, say $40, they would probably counteroffer with something in the $20-$25 range. That’s fair enough for me.
Remember now, we’re working with weeklies that have only a limited amount of funds to buy outside material. If you have something good to offer and reach out to enough newspapers, somebody is going to respond. If not, you probably have a bad product, you’re probably too expensive or you’re not contacting enough newspapers. This type of marketing isn’t for everyone. There are writers out there who work on a piece for months and expect to be paid for their time. That’s certainly a reasonable request. But I’ve done both and realize that with the Internet, newspaper and magazine web sites and e-mail address, I can start selling my writing a new way and it works for me. All of this takes time, but once you get the hang of it, you can write something and send it off to a variety of newspapers both dailies and weeklies. Using e-mail links, you can send it to everything from The New York Times to the Marathon Keynoter in the Florida Keys. If they delete it and don’t respond, that’s just part of the marketing process.
Phil Philcox wrote this in the nineties. Keep that in mind.