One way I got by early in my freelancing career was to become a stringer. The term stringing goes back to early newspaper days when a reporter's copy was "strung together," so the newspaper paid him—there weren’t very many female reporters back then—by the inch. Today, that term means working for a newspaper or magazine “from the field,” turning in ideas and stories to the editor either when I find them or when the editor sends me an assignment.
Each publication sets up its stringer network differently. Some stringers receive small retainers plus a fee for an article when the publication prints it. More often than not, publications forego the retainer in favor of a loose agreement as to the acceptance of pieces or guaranteeing a certain number of them will see publication throughout the year. Or the publication will just keep feeding me regular assignments with no guarantee—the most common practice. Either way, the editor knows the quality of my work and how to get hold of me fast. In turn, I know what kind of stories they want and how to present them, including sending photos if needed. From experience, I know I can count on a certain amount of work each month which helps me plan my budget. What’s even better, I can string for several publications at the same time as long as they’re not competing for the same readers.
When I first started freelancing, it took a while to find a publication willing to take me on as a stringer. Just by luck, I was working as the manager of a mom-and-pop travel agency. A friend at another agency signed me up for a press trip to Guatemala at a trade show. At the time I wasn’t writing for any publication and needed an assignment to go on the trip. I cold called the managing editor of a travel trade magazine. She was interested in the destination and gave me an assignment to write about tourism there. Upon publication, I was to be paid a whopping $30. She liked my article so much, she started assigning me more of them. Soon, I was writing two or three articles a week for her. These pieces weren’t especially complicated to research or difficult to write, which left me time to try to get articles published in other publications.
Four years later, I had quit my day job as a travel agent and jumped head first into freelance writing. One morning I cold called the managing editor of the Philadelphia Business Journal—I live just outside the city—and explained that I had experience covering business topics (Isn’t tourism a business?) and was interested in writing for him. I pitched an idea to him, which he liked, and I got my first assignment. After completing several other assignments, he began to call on me every week, sometimes twice, to cover a variety of business stories. Some were news while others were features. He gave me feedback on my articles, telling me what he wanted or didn’t want. As time went on, he even told me who to call on for interviews and gave me their phone numbers. The Journal paid $160 for each article. In most cases, I had three or four days to complete a story from research to finished article. He knew I could turn a story around very fast and that he could count on me to be accurate. At the same time, I was still writing for my original travel trade publication.
While the per article amount may not seem like a lot in either case, it quickly became income I could count on while I tried to get published in national magazines.
Working for both publications, I amassed a tidy file of contacts in business and tourism. I knew who to call for what and could get in touch with people quickly. This was before the Internet and E-mail. The articles I wrote for these publications and others like them became the core of my freelance business—at least until I got published in larger national magazines.