How to be a Stringer Journalist
What is a stringer?
As a writer, when I started working for local newspapers a rival journalist was introduced to me by an event promoter. She glared at me, cocked her head to one side and said in the most sarcastic way possible "Stringer, yeah?" and walked away like I was a minor inconvenience. At that time, I had no idea what a 'stringer' was. I had never heard of the term. So I looked it up. The dictionary defines a "stringer" as:
A part-time or freelance correspondent for the news media
Well, I thought. That makes sense.
A good quality camera.
So How Do I Become A Stringer?
Start with what you know. If you're a professional writer, great. If not, you need to be writing every day and have good feedback from readers. Are they understanding what you write? You need to know how to answer the five journalistic questions: who, what, where, when and why. And you need to know how to write in the modern journalistic voice, what's more commonly known as the AP style. It's also a great thing (and will earn you more money) if you can handle a camera or a videocamera. Keep in mind that for many of the stories you will be covering, you may be the only journalist present. It may be that you are a recent college grad with a degree in journalism. If so, being a stringer is like an internship, only you'll be paid for your work. It's a great way to get experience in the field.
Once you're confident (or maybe somewhat confident) of your abilities, look for stringer opportunities. Large and medium news organizations will post calls or internship opportunities for writers or bloggers to cover specific topics of interest. You need to have a portfolio of your work or a sample to show them. Sometimes, a resume is required. Usually there will be a meeting of prospective stringers and the editor will select those that show an interest or special knowledge of the topic they want covered. They know it's a lot easier to get good copy from someone who knows something about what they're covering. At the meeting or shortly after, the editor will tell you what you will be paid per story/photo/video. All stories must be 'pitched' and approved before you go to work.
Some media outlets offer the stringer classes on how to write for their organization. They cover things like note-taking, grammar, punctuation, voice and review the AP style to help you improve as a writer. Understand that they want you to succeed because the money they save utilizing a stringer is substantial. After all, they won't be paying you benefits or vacation pay!
So How Much Money Will I Make?
As a stringer, not a lot. A little more than you do for online articles. If you're lucky enough to be published in print, you'll get substantially more. Pictures and videos are extra money and should be included with your story. You will not get rich doing this work, but it will help you build a portfolio and get noticed.
The key in stringer work is to impress your editor. Provide good quality work. Go the extra mile. In some cases, you could end up with a full-time job as a journalist if you desire!
Here's a few tips I learned along the way. It may save you some grief as a new stringer.
1. Take GOOD notes. When working on a story, be cautious about how things are worded and make sure you record everything as it happens. Don't rely on memory.
2. Triple-check names. When I first started these kind of assignments, I didn't check the spelling of names nearly as often as I should have. On the third story I did, I got it wrong. Way wrong. And the person I interviewed was NOT HAPPY. You can get mistakes like that corrected, but the best thing is to make sure it does NOT happen!
3. Time-management is essential. Keep in mind that you will have to find the stories you're going to cover. You have to submit the idea to the editor and wait for approval. Then you have to gather all the information to submit your story, including attending events. After that, once submitted, there may be several days before the story goes up. I try to plan my stories around a week to ten days from start to finish once I get an approval. The stories I find are at least two and a half weeks in advance whenever possible.
4. Circulate. You will never find good stories to cover if you sit at home all the time. Get out. Go to local events and talk to others. Network. Always be on the lookout for a story.
5. Get your equipment ready BEFORE it's needed. Gosh I could fill this page with my experiences where I've been out on assignment and had my videocamera die suddenly or had my still camera go wonky! It took a month of disasters before I figured out how to get my equipment ready no matter what. Make sure you have a backup battery and chip. Take your charger WITH YOU to the event. Bring a lint-free cloth for your lenses. Make sure you have access to a tripod. Take a backup camera with you. And always, always, always have it fully charged!
6. When doing interviews with people, get it in writing. I interview many bands and singers and have found the best way to do it is to submit my questions via email and have them respond. Artists generally like that because it means they can get to it when they have a moment and the response you get is carefully considered by the artist. The key to getting a good interview is giving the artist TIME to respond and asking good questions. I try to give at least two weeks prior to the event and haven't had any problems getting it back in time.