Freelancing - How I Became a Weekend Newspaper Stringer
-- Example tearsheets are located at the bottom of this page --
I responded to an inquiry on a popular digital photography forum and someone suggested I post the info on Pbase for others to reference. Please note that this is my personal experience in becoming a part-time newspaper stringer/freelancer. Your experience and views may vary depending on geography, skill, demand, etc. Use only as a reference and please use common sense in your own situation.
In my county there are a number of weekly community newspapers delivered to its residents for free. Most of the content includes events of interest to the local community. Since these are weekly publications, they don't typically include fast-breaking news. Information published in print is also usually included on the papers' websites.
Having been into photography for a number of years, I thought it might be interesting to do some freelancing for these publications. I sent the managing editor of the paper an email and asked for an appointment in hopes of becoming a stringer. In my email I included a link to some of my images taken around the community. A few of the images were of a local event I knew the paper had recently covered. I purposely attended this event so that I could show that the quality of my work would be on par with (and modestly, better than) their typical submissions.
A few days later I received a reply to come in for an interview. I prepared a portfolio of "people" and "activity" images. One 4x6 image/each printed on 8x10 photo paper. The description included location and date of the image as well as info about the activity (example: Grand Opening of Main Street Zoo, Anytown USA, Mayoral Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, June 12, 2005).
The editor liked my work, asked about my experience (which was VERY light to non-existent at the time) and my preferences. Was I willing to work the entire county or just locally in my town? Am I available during the day, evenings and/or weekends? I have a day job, so am usually only available in the evenings and mostly weekends. We spent a total of 30 minutes talking and then I was asked to sign the Contributor's Agreement (more on that below) and Tax forms (for payroll).
Some things you should be aware of or ask your editors:
1. What format do they require for submission and how? Jpeg (usually)? Via email? File size? The last thing you want to do is clog up an editor's inbox with a 20mb D2X file!
2. What are the deadlines per assignment?
3. Get detailed info on the location of the assignment and start times/schedule. This way you're not driving all over town trying to determine if the editor said Main Street or Main Drive :)
For all day events (music festivals, holiday celebrations, etc) a schedule is handy so that you chose, with your editor, the most important part of the event to cover.
4. How many images do they want per assignment? For some assignments I submit 3 images and let the editor choose. For others (like big name concerts where it's going to be a half page spread) I'll submit 8-10 images.
5. Always carry pen/paper with you so that you can accurately record the description of each image and other required details of the event. Ask your editor how they want you to record the captions. My newspaper requires the name of the people in the picture, from left to right, along with their hometown and any other info pertinent to the image. A good command of grammar is a plus.
Example: From l-r, Mary Jane Smith of Fayettville, and her sister Josephine Clark of Little Rock, enjoy the opening ceremony of the Third Annual Race for Life marathon held at Mason Beach on Saturday.
6. Will you get a photo Press ID / company press pass? Business cards? This is important for many assignments, especially non-community type events (sporting events, concerts, political events) where you need to be upfront or in the "media pit". By the same token, large events may require your editor to send a letter of introduction so that your name is already on the press list for a given event. When I covered the presidential campaign, I had to submit to a background check... For events where children are involved, it helps to have a legitimate ID when you ask parents for permission to photograph their children. Also on that note, I ALWAYS identify myself upfront and ask for permission before photographing ANY child. This is a MUST in today's society.
7. Ask how and when you get paid (and you SHOULD get paid - my opinion - all papers make money, even if they are local weekly papers). Per assignment, per photo published? Per SERIES of photos published per event? How much do you get paid? Do you get paid even if the editor decides not to use your images? This is something to consider especially if you've used your own funds to get to the event. You've obviously used your valuable time getting images to the editor.
8. As a correspondent, you may be required to keep your personal views/opinions about a particular subject or person in check. If you accept an assignment, you are there to do a job and do it well.
9. Read the fine print BEFORE you sign the Contributor's Agreement. This might also be called a "Correspondent's Agreement/Contract", "Submission Guideline/Agreement", "Copyright Agreement", etc. You get the idea. You'll want to ensure you understand your rights and the paper's rights to your images and usage of such images. Individual assignments may require additional agreements. For example, if you are covering an event sponsored by a promoter or big company (Verizon, Coca-Cola, Nike...), you may be asked to sign their agreement before you are allowed to photograph the event or enter the media pit. Don't let your excitement of being at the event cloud your judgement. READ THE FINE PRINT! I'm not a lawyer and therefore, won't comment any further on this topic except to say that I have signed some agreements and walked away from others.
Many times there will be multiple media coverage at an event, whether it is multiple newspapers or live media (radio, television). Be considerate of the others as they try to capture the event with you. Yet be confident (not arrogant) and make sure you are in the right position to capture the images you need.
Make sure you are prepared for the day. Do you have adequate backup and enough battery power (a motor drive in one of my telephoto lenses decided to die right before the main act at a concert was about to take the stage, luckily I had a backup lens to cover me)? What's the weather forecast and environment? How physically fit are you for some assignments? If you are using your own equipment, is it worth $40/assignment to cover the regional Little League Championship in the rain with your non-weather resistant camera? Just something to think about.
Now it's time to make a few comments on conduct and ethics in photojournalism. With the widespread use of digital imaging, it's up to all of us to preserve the rules of ethics. While I see no problem in using Photoshop to improve lighting, exposure or color-balance, I DO have a problem with photographers using Photoshop to alter history though imaging for use in photojournalism. This means I will not alter an image so that it changes the appearance of what actually happened as news.
On conduct: you need to remember that you are representing the organization that hired you to cover various events. Common sense dictates that you conduct yourself accordingly and dress appropriately for each assignment. At a beach marathon I'd probably wear shorts and a blouse.. and sandals. At a politcal press conference I'd obviously dress alot differently. This holds true for your initial interview with the hiring editor. You want to make sure you're personable (they want to know you can interact with the public) while being professional (you don't want to tarnish the publication's assumed good name).
On equipment: Don't think you need to run out immediately and buy the most expensive digital SLR with the most megapixels on the market. For the smaller, local events I've seen PJs arrive with nice point and shoot cameras. For more demanding events such as concerts, fast-paced assignments or low-light assignments (or assignments where most of the media are full-fledged professionals) you may be wise to use a good lens on a SLR or Digital SLR. Six megapixels are more than enough since the file you send to your editor will be 1-2 megabytes max.
I'm sure I've forgotten to include a ton of info, but will update the site as I remember the little things.
Good luck and have fun! Below are a few examples of my assignments.