By Geri Jinks
Writing for local publications is a great way to polish feature writing skills and become more experienced in conducting interviews and researching topics. However, no matter how limited your list of published articles, do not be drawn into working for nothing. If a publication makes money in any way, whether by subscription or advertising sales, or is published by a business that exists to make a profit, do not provide them copy for free! Never consent to writing just for a byline.
I worked eight years in the newsroom of a local daily newspaper – circulation 8,000 over four counties – as a copy editor and feature writer. I learned a lot about publishing and how publishers make their money. Since it was a small newspaper, I worked closely with the advertising department and came to realize how much money publishers make from advertising. It suffices to say that I learned that there is NO EXCUSE for an ad-selling publisher not paying writers.
After I left the newspaper, I sent gardening story ideas to state publications. I was treated nicely by Mississippi Magazine. They have regular writers, but take essays from readers (for about $150) and sometimes accept story ideas from freelancers. They published two of my features at $400-$500 per story. Not huge pay, but not too bad for the effort involved, especially since they sent a staff photographer to take the photos.
Contrast that pay with Mississippi Gardener (one of a chain of state gardening magazines) which paid me $75 for a story and photos. The editor wanted me to write more articles, but I told him that with film, development costs (the year was 2003) and travel expenses, I couldn’t accept. He allowed that someone with my experience deserved more, but swore he couldn’t pay more. Having seen national advertising in the publication, I knew his comment wasn’t true, and said thanks but no thanks.
A regional publication has been distributed free in my area for years. They cover a large section of the state, including my county. Several local people wanted me to write about our area, and someone gave me the name and number of the publisher. I called her, and she said that almost all of her writers wrote for FREE. That helped explain the quality of their essays and stories – written by locals in her city who were so hungry for a byline that they wrote for no compensation.
The publisher’s husband was the photographer for the advertising. Basically the writing was merely a vehicle for them to sell advertising. She went on to say that she “wished” she could afford to pay someone with my feature writing experience to contribute stories from our city. I told her if she ever decided to pay for features, I’d be glad to submit ideas. I never heard from her. Now they mostly print society photos – weddings, baby showers, bridal showers, local galas – all sent in by people excited just to get their photos and names in print.
I now encourage beginning writers not to fall into the trap of writing for no pay at all, or for pay that doesn’t cover their expenses and then some, for local publications that are only out to sell advertising and make a nice living for the publisher. Just because it is local doesn’t mean it’s not turning a profit.
Don’t sell yourselves short. Your hours spent researching and writing are just as valuable as time spent in a paying occupation. Don’t waste your time writing for someone who won’t pay for your efforts – instead, concentrate on finding the ones who will. As Hope Clark often says in Funds for Writers – they pay everyone else, so they should pay the writer.
Geri Jinks is a freelance writer and editor who lives in southwest Mississippi. www.somewheresouthofsomewhere.com