Writing shorts for local markets can pay off
Yes, there are potential disadvantages, but sometimes their benefits are worth the effort
Published: June 25, 2010
|Successful freelance writers often advise against writing for local markets and writing shorts. Their reasoning is sound: You make far more money for the same amount of work writing for national magazines than you do for local ones. And while editors rationalize that shorts don’t pay much but are quick and easy to write, the reality is these pieces usually take much longer than the editor says, so they wind up not being worth the small fees.|
So it makes sense not to write those kinds of pieces, right? Well, yes and no. There are several reasons why doing both might work out well for you.
Several months ago, I got a call from an editor of a local college’s magazine. It’s a local college, but it’s a national magazine and, as such, it pays well. The editor gave me the kind of argument I’d been warned about. He said he needed four short profiles, 150 words each. “They won’t take long at all,” he said. Yeah, right, I thought. “They’ll be really easy,” he said. Yeah, right, I thought. “They pay $250 each,” he said.
“When do you need them?” I said.
I figured that at a rate of $1,000 for 600 words, it was worth a shot. Then, to my surprise, the editor’s selling points turned out to be true: I spent only 10 or 15 minutes on the phone with each subject, and another 15 or 20 minutes writing each profile. That amounted to a total of two hours’ work for $1,000. (I waited a week to turn them in so it would look like they took longer.)
Steven Slon, former editor of AARP The Magazine and of Success Magazine, and former managing editor of Men’s Health, says that at AARP “we had numerous people who were getting what amounted to nice monthly stipends to do four to six shorts, each in a certain category—like health, travel or money. ... We were paying $2 a word, sometimes, for a short, so we would pay a thousand bucks for a 500-word short.”
Slon also points out that shorts sometimes turn into longer pieces.
Another reason I sometimes take local assignments I know will not be as lucrative as others is simply because I want to interview the subjects, often celebrities I may be able to write about later, for better-paying publications.
For example: I live in Cleveland, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and I write a lot about rock-music history. Until a few months ago, there were, essentially, four major publications in town that covered rock music. I freelanced regularly for two of them. One of them, now closed, was a monthly arts-and-entertainment magazine that normally wouldn’t have had space for a big article on rock-history topics. The other one is an e-zine, which has lots of space but seldom pays enough to make big pieces worthwhile.
A while back, the Rock Hall’s PR department contacted me, saying the semi-famous musician brother (working under the name Mike McGear) of a rock superstar (Paul McCartney), was coming to the Rock Hall for the opening of his photo exhibit, and they asked if I wanted one of the few interview slots. I sold the arts-and-entertainment magazine a short up-front piece about him, and the e-zine a review of his exhibit.
The results were: a) I got paid something for the local pieces; b) I established a connection with the musician; c) I made the PR people happy, so they’ll continue to offer me these opportunities, and d) now I can pitch stories to national publications about the artist, and I have his contact information.
Here’s something else that can happen: After I’d written several columns for the e-zine for little pay, two national publishers contacted me. An airline magazine based in North Carolina and a college publication based in Massachusetts needed articles written about Cleveland, and their editors had seen my essays in the e-zine. I got both of the assignments, which were relatively easy, and averaged about $2,000 each.
Reap dividends later
Slon, now editor in chief of ChopChop, a healthy-food magazine for children, approves of this approach. “You never know how much exposure you’re getting,” he says. “When I was editor of AARP and Men’s Health, I made a point of trying to read local publications from around the country to see who was doing interesting stuff. ... You pick up good newer talent that way. A lot of the big writers started at their local magazines.”
And sometimes it’s good to simply do an editor a favor. It’s bound to pay off later. Local editors often move on to national pubs. In fact, two people I hired to be assistant editors when I was editor of two local magazines are now editors in chief of national magazines.
“Also,” Slon says, “it’s an opportunity for discussion with an editor—you’re talking to them on a regular basis, and you become someone they rely on, and they’re likely to give you longer pieces.”
Ohio author and freelancer Sherry Beck Paprocki says she wrote for Columbus Monthly for years “out of a sense of dedication and keeping somewhat of a writer profile at a local level as I pursued national assignments and books. Generally, the assignments worked for my overall goal: earning a second income for our family. Though there was a low fee—probably 30 cents a word—I got to a point of earning about $75 an hour, due to the simple editing process.”
When the magazine’s parent company was sold, the new publisher needed a Homes editor. “I was able to land an independent contract as Homes editor for five issues a year,” Paprocki says. “It pays about double the amount I earned per hour in the past. I get a regular monthly stipend and assign articles to others, and still write some myself. It also gives me the flexibility to work on a range of other ... projects.”
I’ve interviewed business owners, heads of organizations, and others for local magazine or newspaper articles—and shorts—who later hired me to do various types of writing for them, ranging from press releases and brochures to speeches and annual reports.
So, yes, I agree that those of us who live and work in markets like Cleveland should get unstuck from the easy groove of only writing locally, and also resist most offers of writing “shorts.” But we should also stay open to the opportunities those things sometimes afford.
David Budin, a former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, has been freelancing since 1992. Web: http://davidbudin.com.|
A version of this article first appeared in the newsletter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.