Posted by on Aug 10, 2013 in Grab Bag, News | 4 comments

About two months ago, I started freelancing for the South Lake Daily Tablet. It’s a digital community paper covering a portion of the Florida county in which I live. Once I would have shied away from newspaper reporting; now I recommend that every writer try it at least once. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

At two years old, the South Lake Daily Tablet feels like a start-up gaining traction. Its online-only presence gives it great nimbleness and lower expenses. Right now it’s slowly growing its staff, which means that most reporters cover a little of everything.

Weekly staff meetings with Michael and Patricia Corradino keep us on track. They’re the owners and publishers of the paper; as with any start-up, they work twelve hours and more a day. Honestly, some days they seem to show up everywhere.

I have fifteen years of professional writing and editing experience, most of it spent online covering various technology-related topics. Michael Corradino’s background is specifically in news and journalism. I’ve learned a lot from him, and I expect to learn more. Let me tell you just some of the benefits I’ve enjoyed working outside of my normal niche.

First, I’ve met lots of people. Just this last week I met librarians, retired and future fire fighters, a congressman, an interim police chief, a council woman, several business owners, and more. That’s a diverse group of people sure to spark one’s writing. If you want to write well, you can’t spend all of your time staring at your computer screen and drumming on your keyboard. Yes, you must write, but meeting and talking to people will give you something to write ABOUT.

Second, I’ve been learning new skills. As a freelance reporter, I can’t just write a story; my publisher expects pictures as part of the package. When a photographer isn’t available, guess who gets to take the pictures? I’m grateful for digital photography; it allows me to take lots of pictures and hope that some of them come out usable. Slowly, I’ve been improving, and expect to learn more.

I’ve also been learning AP style. Newspapers commonly use it, preferring it over the Chicago style. Being able to write to more than one style makes a writer more marketable. Yes, it’s easy to learn a new style, but many employers want to know that you used their preferred style before.

Third, if you’re reporting on your community, you can’t help but increase the scope of your knowledge. That’s how I learned about the upcoming Route 50 bypass around Groveland. But I’ve learned plenty of things with much wider applicability. For example, did you know that prospective fire fighter students need to pass a five-part Physical Ability Test? Or that they have to go through 16 weeks of training? I didn’t know that until I reported on our local technical school program. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Fourth, writing for a community paper lets me indulge my interests and curiosity. I like making craft projects, so I write a regular craft blog for the South Lake Tablet. I’m interested in medicine, so I’ve been sent to interview several doctors with different specialties. I’ve yet to write a story where I didn’t learn something new and intriguing.

Did someone tell you that you needed to find your niche to make money writing? Then let me tell you about a “counter intuitive” fifth benefit to writing for a community paper: it enables you to diversify your writing portfolio. You’ll cover ribbon cuttings, local community groups, Chamber of Commerce events, local fairs, local artists, a wide variety of local events, local businesses, libraries and schools…

Wait. Did I just hear you say “But that’s all boring stuff!”?

Shut. Your. Mouth. Now.

Every ribbon cutting represents someone’s dream coming true. Every local fair and event offers something fun and out of the ordinary for the people living there. Every news story, at its heart, is about people, and if you think people are boring, why are you reading a blog written by a person?

Ahem. To bring this back on topic, diversifying your writing portfolio means that you’ll be able to present recent, appropriate clips when you apply for a writing job. What’s more, you’ll be presenting professionally edited and published clips, for which you’ve been paid. Sure, you can use a blog to showcase your writing, but everyone knows that you’re the sole arbiter of what goes on your blog. When you write for someone else, you need to live up to their standards. These clips show an employer that you can do that, and you can bet that’s a point in your favor.

Speaking of living up to someone else’s standards, if you write for a community paper, you’ll be required to meet regular deadlines. I’m listing that as the sixth benefit of community reporting. Have you ever had to meet a daily deadline? Have you ever had to write several stories in one day? That’s a real-world skill you can use wherever you go.

Finally, I already hinted at the seventh benefit to freelancing for your community paper: you’ll get to find out what’s happening in your community. I found a local crafting group this way, and got current with the events at several libraries.

So if you want to improve your writing, and your knowledge, try freelancing for your local paper. I guarantee you’ll learn something from the experience.