A new writer can find one of the greatest learning experiences at a small town newspaper. That’s not to say a small town newspaper will tolerate a lesser quality writing. But, on a small town newspaper you can learn the ropes of newspaper writing while developing your writing style.
When my daughter was in high school I wrote for a small Christian newspaper but didn’t receive any pay. But, I did receive experience pitching story ideas, researching topics, finding and interviewing sources and meeting deadlines. It was a great learning experience. During this time I continued to work an office job. At one point I changed jobs to try to improve our finances as we prepared to send her to college. After only a few weeks that job suddenly fizzled and there I was with a senior in high school and no job. While continuing to look for “regular jobs” I decided to create a writer’s resume, gathered some of my best clips and sent them out with a cover letter to several local newspapers hoping to find some freelance work.
One day while pouring over job possibilities I received a phone call from one of the newspapers I had contacted. It was the managing editor who wanted to discuss my resume and clips. Then he asked me a defining question. “So, are you looking for full-time work?” After a heartbeat and a second to catch my breath I said, “Of course.” I met with him the next day and started to work as a full-time Education Reporter the following Monday. He knew I didn’t have a college degree in journalism and my published clips were written for religious publications. But, he was willing to give me an opportunity to learn from him and his editing staff writing for a subject he could tell I was passionate about, education.
My writing responsibilities included writing about any education related subject from the local schools to state and national education subjects plus any general assignments I was given. Then, about three weeks after I began one of the most momentous events in United States history happened. I was working at my computer in the newsroom one day and suddenly everyone was rushing into the conference room. Someone asked me, “Did you hear what happened?” I had not. Then the editor called everyone into the conference room and I walked in just in time to see the second tower fall live on television on 09/11/2001.
We all just stood there in shock for a minute. The editor shook us out of our frozen state of mind and asked, “What are you all standing around for? Get out there and get community reaction.” Over the next several months all the reporters for that newspaper wrote any story related to 9/11 that could have a home town connection.
Over the next year I wrote stories about a wide variety of subjects, learned how to pitch specific stores, how to plan and paginate my Education page and even wrote a column and some important feature stories. More importantly I learned how to accept changes to my stories by the editors and how to take constructive criticism.
At the end of that year, for several personal reasons, I moved away from my hometown area after my daughter went to college. My writing has been freelance rather than staff since that time but I learned many valuable lessons about newspaper writing. Be sure to check out your local papers for both staff and freelance writing opportunities.