Getting paid for writing?
June 3, 2012 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Should I expect to get paid for the writing I do for newspapers and periodicals?

Hi All.

I'm an academic that has recently submitted a couple of OpEd articles to publications in my area (technology and education). At first I was so excited to publish these that I was happy to just send them to the editor, but now I'm starting to branch out I'm wondering whether I should be asking to be paid? I found this article which gives some great tips on how to approach editors and get items published, but just wondering how the payment system works (this is good too, but more focused on a full-time career)? In the academic field, where I come from, you usually don't get paid for publications (and sometimes have to pay them!), so this is all new to me.

Appreciate any help you can give. Thanks MeFi!
posted by ranglin to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
OpEds are generally not paid. The principle of the OpEd page is to enable people in the community to give other perspectives than those offered by the editorials.

If you'd like to write articles for pay, you want to look at pitching features to newspapers and magazines.

The Huffington Post doesn't pay for the vast majority of its content, fyi; their stance is that publishing with them is invaluable exposure.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:10 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It depends heavily on the individual publication. You should contact the opinion editor of the publications you're interested in submitting to, who will be able to tell you whether they take submitted opeds at all, and if they do what they pay.

Features and opeds are not remotely the same thing in any serious journalistic publication.
posted by brentajones at 6:24 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: So, stupid question time, what's the difference between a Feature and an OpEd? Flicking through the publications I've written for, it seems that there is not much difference between the sections that are "Comments" versus those that are "Features"... maybe that a Feature seems to be more research-based and less opinionated, but it's a fine line.
posted by ranglin at 6:33 PM on June 3, 2012

Again it depends heavily on the publication. In a newspaper context, a "feature" is frequently just a story without a strong "news hook", in other words, a profile of someone or something that's important, an interesting "did you know" type of piece, some kinds of trend pieces. In your area of expertise, I'd probably consider a profile of a high school teacher who's integrating technology into her classroom on a limited budget to be a feature. An oped advocates — for/against more technology funding, for example.

The feature shouldn't end with "And that's why the schools need more funding for technology." (unless it's a quote, and then maybe not even)
posted by brentajones at 6:43 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Features require journalistic work -- you need to go places, interview people, find out facts, specifically for the story you're writing. A features writer needs to be able to find good stories, do research, write succinctly and in a way that's interesting, and abide by basic journalistic standards and practices.

Opinion pieces are premised in the idea that the person writing them has opinions that are worth knowing, usually because they have some special expertise or insight. Someone writing an op-ed might be a terrible writer, but what they have to say is expected to be interesting/useful anyway, either because they are influential, or because they know stuff that average people don't. Op-ed writers aren't journalists and they aren't trying to make good journalism -- ordinarily their purpose is to persuade the public to believe something or know something.

If you wanted to get paid for your work then you would need to take an approach that's quite different from what you took to write an op-ed. You could still write about the same topics, but you'd need to conduct yourself as a journalist (by, like, calling up experts and interviewing them, and weaving what they say into your story). Or, if your writing is good and you have interesting opinions, you might be able to persuade a publication to make you a regular columnist. But that's a long shot, particularly at a time when the news industry is hemorrhaging jobs.
posted by Susan PG at 6:55 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The line is actually not that fine between a feature and an op-ed/commentary. A feature is generally a reported piece--it can have an angle (why fracking is bad, say), but not an explicitly personal argument (why *you* think fracking is bad). There is often a storytelling element to a feature (how fracking affects a certain community) that leads to a more general discussion of the issue (including an overview, interviews with experts, pros and cons, other examples, other examples of the issue that have concluded differently--how fracking has benefited another community, for example, etc.).

Where it can get a little muddy, and maybe what is confusing you, is that a column, written by a columnist, can be a mix. A good columnist will do a fair amount of reporting. Some of their columns will be straight reported pieces, some will be almost pure punditry.

To answer your question--sometimes you get paid, sometimes you don't. Usually this is spelled out in the submission guidelines, and if it's not, the editor will discuss it upon accepting the piece, because you'll have to sign a contract or at least give them your SSN for a 1099.

In general, you will need to develop a pretty substantial record of publication before you can start making real money doing this. If you don't have much experience with journalism, you might benefit from taking an introductory journalism course just to get the lay of the land.
posted by elizeh at 6:58 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

An Op-Ed is an advocacy piece, as brentajones says, which is why it is generally unpaid. The idea is that the reward is in getting to make your case to the newspaper's readers.

A feature you might pitch to a local newspaper might be "Three extraordinary principals and their work reforming area schools" or "Local students stress about SAT scores" or "ESL students find time for night classes" or similar. A feature you might pitch to a national parenting magazine might be "New research shows how parents can help students excel at math.". A feature you might pitch to The Chronicle of Higher Education might be about ground-breaking research on a particular facet of education, or a profile of a maverick college president, or a piece on trends in adjunct faculty hiring.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:03 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all, I'm learning a lot here very quickly. What Susan says is especially interesting; as I said, I'm an academic in technology/education, so that explains why they asked me to write an OpEd, as an expert in the field they want my opinion on it. Also interesting to note that these are generally done just to get your opinion out there, which sort of makes sense if my purpose is to try and convince people of something (as opposed to get paid).

So, what I'm thinking now is that I can probably write a Feature article and then pitch it to an editor using my experience as an expert as the qualifications for doing it? If I do this, do I mention or link the OpEd articles, or are they not worth a pinch of salt from an editors point-of-view?
posted by ranglin at 7:06 PM on June 3, 2012

I can probably write a Feature article and then pitch it to an editor

I'm sure this is heavily dependent on the specific sector, but in all my experience you'd do these two things the other way around where at all possible.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:08 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

You probably want to query an editor, not write on spec. On spec is when you submit a full piece; for a feature that's rare for a number of reasons - you don't know what is already assigned; the editor may want to be a part of the process (like asking you to be sure you include X kind of expert or Y number of interviews or focus on Z hook or write to a particular length).

If it's time-sensitive material in particular you're liable to end up with a piece you can't sell. Sometimes you can approach magazines this way, but even there query first is the best way to go.

Your experience as an expert may be fine, but it also may be a deterrent for a number of reasons. Academics aren't known for being able to write clearly for a general audience. Experts tend to have settled into a particular position.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:13 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Yes, you're right. Where I wrote that, replace with "I can probably pitch a Feature article to an editor using my experience...". Assuming a successful pitch, I would then write the article. :)
posted by ranglin at 7:13 PM on June 3, 2012

Honestly ranglin I'm not saying this to be mean, but you have no idea what you're doing. And even if everybody here gives you great background and answers--which they already have--it won't mean that you're qualified to do what you think you want to do, let alone get paid for it.

Seriously even in your first response, "Flicking through the publications I've written for..." it shows you haven't even done the basic background work to undertake this seriously. This would be the equivalent of a student coming to you and saying, I've skimmed the reading for the week, let me teach the lesson. Or having a colleague come up to you saying, "I changed a flat tire, now I want to be paid as an auto mechanic."

So no, at this point you shouldn't expect to get paid for writing, especially as the odds are pretty slim you'll be able to contribute anything (outside of op-ed pieces) that will even be printable.
posted by sardonyx at 7:15 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, you're right. Where I wrote that, replace with "I can probably pitch a Feature article to an editor using my experience...". Assuming a successful pitch, I would then write the article. :)

As the thread you linked to kind of said, this should read "maybe, just on the outskirts of possibility, my experience and expertise could help me write a kickass pitch with an amazing hook and a unique voice and point of view that might appeal to a features editor, despite my lack of background as a freelance writer and that my only mainstream clips are Op-eds."

That said, everyone starts somewhere.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:21 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: sardonyx, I agree that I have NO idea what I'm doing, hence why I asked the question! I basically admit in my question to being a total beginner at this that fell into it because an editor phoned me on the back of some interviews I did and asked me to write an OpEd piece for their publication.

Also, I should be clear that I'm an academic and I'm quite happy to continue to be an academic. My question was originally focused on being paid because it seems to me that if you're writing material that sells magazines then you should probably be getting paid for it. People here have really helped me to understand how that works now and I appreciate it.

However, even just with the few OpEd pieces I've done, I've discovered how useful this kind of exposure can be to an academic career. So, I want to get out there more and become recognized by the general public as an expert in my field. Maybe I can do that with more OpEd's, but even with my limited exposure I've noticed that OpEd's fairly rarely make the front page. It would seem a feature makes more sense if I want that kind of exposure and as a bonus, it seems it would be a worth a few dollars as well!

Don't worry, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool academic, I'm not interested in making journalism into my full-time job, but very interested in learning more about how journalism works. To use your analogy, I've changed a few flat tires and now want to learn a bit more about changing the oil and doing a service, but happy to leave the main mechanic jobs to a mechanic. :)
posted by ranglin at 7:31 PM on June 3, 2012

As a former newspaper features editor: I was pitched by non-professional writers 2-3 times a week even at a relatively small daily paper; at larger papers I suspect the pitches come even more frequently.

I probably would have rejected any pitch from you, ranglin, for a number of reasons, including:

1 - I had a limited freelance budget, which got smaller with each passing year, and as a result I was only interested in paying freelancers to do very specific types of stories that were hard for us to do in-house. Very few people who contacted me about freelancing ever pitched the types of stories I was actually willing to pay for.

2 - I had reporters on staff with specific beats. I was not going to pay a freelancer to do a story that fell on the beat of somebody who I was already paying.

3 - Most people are not good at writing in the style newspapers require. An editor is not a writing professor, he or she is an already-too-busy professional. I enjoyed challenging strong writers and reporters to make their work better, but I did not have time to teach non-professionals how to write, nor did I have time to re-write their work myself. Early in my editing career, I accepted a pitch from a woman with a good idea but no relevant experience - she'd written academic work before, but not for newspapers. HUGE MISTAKE. I still feel bad about how that experience worked out. I spent several months, on and off, trying to work with her to re-tool the story, and ultimately it never ran.

4 - Given my limited budget, the limited range of topics I was interested in, and my frustrations with writers inexperienced in newspaper work, I eventually came to only accept freelance work from people who could demonstrate strong writing via clips from other reputable daily papers, and who could also provide recommendations from other newspaper people who had worked with them before.

5 - Even when taking freelance work from great writers who had an area of expertise that no staff reporter could fill as well, who met deadlines, and who required relatively little editing, working with freelancers is still logistically annoying. They didn't have access to our story planning computer system, so I had to take charge of tracking progress and other work that I would normally delegate to the story's writer/reporter if I was working with someone on staff. Staff reporters worked with staff graphic designers and photographers to get all art accompanying a story taken care of, which I had to do instead when overseeing a freelance assignment. I had to track freelancer contracts to make sure they had signed legal paperwork that governed how we handled copyright issues. I had to communicate with the accounting department to make sure we had the right tax forms on file before agreeing to work with a freelancer, then to track how much they were gonna get paid for a piece, how that fit into my budget, and make sure payment was correctly processed when the story ran (about a quarter of the time something seemed to go wrong and I had to call accounting to find out what). Every freelance story I oversaw required considerably more time and effort than every in-house story, no matter how perfect the freelancer.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:32 PM on June 3, 2012 [12 favorites]

So no, at this point you shouldn't expect to get paid for writing, especially as the odds are pretty slim you'll be able to contribute anything (outside of op-ed pieces) that will even be printable.

The idea, mentioned twice in this thread now, that op-ed pieces are generally illiterate may be true of some publications, I suppose, but it's absolutely not a general rule of the better or more prominent/national publications. In these, your ability to have reached the acceptable standard for an op-ed may well speak highly of your ability to write in a features style, though as others have said it's the reporting, not the writing, that is likely to be the main new skill required.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:37 PM on June 3, 2012

(I should note that I'm now on the other side of that equation, working as a freelance writer, so instead of groaning about when I'll ever have time to call all these people back and tell them I'm not interested in their work, I'm now sitting around groaning about how awful editors are about getting back to me about my obviously brilliant ideas. If I did not have 12 years of professional experience, a very deep portfolio of clips on a wide variety of topics, and colleagues who've made introductions and offered recommendations on my behalf, there's no way I would expect to make money this way. People I know who've started freelance journalism careers from scratch -- rather than by leaving full-time employment at publications -- have taken an average of 2-4 years to develop enough relationships that they can live off of their writing.)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:37 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: So, following on from croutonsupafreak's and oliverburkeman's comments, is the amount of editing of my OpEd pieces any indication that they might accept a Feature from me? For what it's worth, none of my OpEd's were edited in any major way at all, excepting a few changes of where the paragraphs were broken and my use of exclamation marks (you may have noticed I am a little liberal with these).

And apologies, I'm know totally shadowing this thread guys, but am finding it very useful education!

See, damn exclamation mark, they're stalking me!

posted by ranglin at 7:46 PM on June 3, 2012

No, ranglin. I would not have asked about how much editing went in to your OpEd pieces. I would have wanted specific examples of writing that showed you could do the kind of work we wanted in the features section -- written in third person, not first person, well organized with a strong lede, relevant to the subject-matter focus of our publication. I would have also wanted a pitch that specifically spoke to our needs, without trespassing on the types of stories our paid employees were already doing.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:50 PM on June 3, 2012

Journalist and editor here. I agree with everything croutonsupafreak says, but will also add: if you're a full-time academic, you probably don't have the time to report and write feature stories. Interview subjects will not fit into your schedule -- you fit into theirs. Then, unless you can write shorthand, you're going to have to transcribe all the interviews you do with them. Even three one-hour interviews (pretty modest for a feature), could easily take six hours. Then you have to write the thing. Then once it's submitted, your editor will ask for rewrites. Often significant rewrites. They may ask you to do even more interviews. And they may ask you to turn around those rewrites in a few days.

Freelance writing is not a hobby. Honestly, it's often not even that enjoyable. Op-eds are fun. Feature writing can be soul-destroying.
posted by retrograde at 7:51 PM on June 3, 2012

ranglin: If you would like more specific advice, can you provide more detail about the types of stories you'd like to pitch, and the types of publication you'd pitch them to?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:57 PM on June 3, 2012


What I don't think you're getting here is the basics and the fundamentals.

You said you want to be better known as an expert in your field. Being a reporter and writing features won't get you that exposure or help you along your road to fame. Almost nobody reads reporter bylines.

As a reporter or a feature writer it's not your job to be an expert in the field. You won't be allowed to state your opinions, hence you'll never get known for them.

If anything being an expert in the field may hamper your ability to gain access to people. I'm going to take this down to absurdly basic levels, but if you're a well-known Mac guy, and you have to write a feature about the latest Windows OS, some people may not even be willing to talk to you, figuring you'll just do a hatchet-job or twist everything they say.

Additionally, if you're such an expert, if you're writing about something that's old hat to you, say nanotube technology, you may not realize that you have to step back and explain what that is in a way first graders could understand it, before you can even get on writing your piece about whatever the latest nanotube-based technology is.

And I'm going back to what I said above. You don't understand newspapers and magazines, so you don't have any business even talking about writing features.

If you couldn't distinguish between the op-eds and the columns and the features in your newspaper, then you really need to start doing some very basic and remedial homework.

Quick, without going back and looking at the paper, can you tell how features and op-ed pieces compared in overall length? Can you explain how the words "I" or "me" or "mine" were used by op-ed writers and feature writers? Did you see how many outside sources were quoted in features versus op-eds?

Seriously, if you didn't even see how the two types of pieces differed in those basics, you're not qualified to write features.

And has been said above, it's not just writing--although there is a profound difference between writing an academic paper and a newspaper or magazine article--it's understanding how to interview people, and how to pitch articles and how to research for non-academic purposes.

It's about a whole different skill set and a whole different profession--one that has goals and requirements that in some ways conflict at the most basic level with what you do as an academic.

I'm not saying you can't do it, or no academic can do it. I'm saying at this point if you're serious maybe you should start by taking a journalism course or talking to a colleague in the journalism department. You have to take baby steps before you can start running marathons.
posted by sardonyx at 8:04 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: My field is education and technology and the areas in which I seem to have had some success (in terms of press releases, interviews and OpEd's) seem to revolve around the change in culture that leads to more technology being integrated into the classroom and how teachers/academics/institutions are dealing with the change. For instance, I recently gave an interview about students using more "txt speak" and how it might affect their career prospects and previously did some stuff on the integration of social networking into high schools and universities.

Thoughts on Features are still very much embryonic (basically since reading this thread!) but I was thinking that I could pitch a Feature along the same lines. As an academic, I'm not afraid to do the research and find the studies that support the change in culture that is leading to more technology in the classroom, although the comment retrograde makes about interviews is pertinent; not sure I'd have a lot of time to interview and transcribe. Still ruminating on how that would work.
posted by ranglin at 8:08 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Sardonyx, consider this post the first baby step; I'm learning absolutely heaps! Appreciate your comments, especially the one about how much exposure a Feature gives to the author; that's definitely something to think about. I'm actually in the process of checking our handbook for Journalism courses, may be there is something there I can audit.

Interested in your comment about being "not qualified to write features". Everything I've read so far, both on here and elsewhere, suggests that the only way to do this is just to pitch features to editors and see if you can score a gig somewhere. If you've got an alternative pathway, I'm happy to hear it though; as I said, I'm a beginner here just trying to learn a bit more about the industry.

As for distinguishing Features from Comments in the paper, I never really paid any attention, but I suspect that will change going forward and I'll start to note the difference. Luckily I'm a quick learner! :)
posted by ranglin at 8:27 PM on June 3, 2012

I'm a full-time academic who's written op-eds, features, and other magazine pieces.

1. I have in the past gotten paid for op-eds, but this seems to be on its way out.
2. From experience I'm agreeing with the people above who say full-scale reported magazine features are a ton of work and doing this regularly would not really be compatible with academic work. But my guess is that you're not aiming to write that kind of feature, more like
3. the 800 to 1000-word piece about research developments in your area, or issues of general interest viewed through the lens of your academic area. This is the sweet spot, I think. You get paid, the pieces are quite widely read, and the difficulty for you is not very high. Slate runs tons of stuff like this -- historians writing about the historical background of a current story, linguists writing about linguistics, biomedical researchers writing about medicine, English profs writing about literature, etc.
4. Book reviews on books related to your field are also good assignments to get, fairly visible, and not hard to do.
posted by escabeche at 8:28 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ranglin: I would never EVER hire somebody to write a feature about a topic on which they had opinions and experience. That's the definition of a conflict of interest -- you have a specific interest in what people believe about the topic, and also an interest in how your own reputation is affected by how you present the topic. Google "journalism conflict of interest" to learn more. The New York Times ethics policy may help you understand this concept.

If you're pitching to a large metro daily paper that has a Sunday "ideas" section, or to a magazine that runs first-person stories like this, you may be able to fit the type of essay you're proposing in there. Otherwise, though, you're likely out of luck.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:31 PM on June 3, 2012

Actually, I will add one more thing: someone being an "expert" in a particular field, and specifically working in it, can often be a real problem for editors. As an editor, I need to be confident a writer can interview and write about people and subjects objectively.

Here's an example: I had a freelancer who was a wonderful food writer. An amazing palate, incredibly knowledgable about the many cuisines, pitched great ideas and was willing to work for the pittance I pay. Then he went and opened a restaurant. That's it for him. He still wants to write -- he still has the time and the ideas and everything else, but I just can't trust his opinions about other restaurants to be objective anymore, even if he thinks they are.

More specific to you: you often have to (or even just inadvertently) piss off your interview subjects when you write features. You ask them difficult questions and hammer them when they don't answer, you quote them on things they probably shouldn't have said to you, you have to describe them physically. Can you really do this when you work in the same field? Can you interview other academics and not worry what they'll think about you, about what they write? If you had pitched to me, these would be the questions I'd be asking myself.

And this is why your expertise in the field would mean precisely dick to me as an editor. You don't get to inject your opinions and knowledge into the article. So, at best, all it would help you do is connect with interview subjects. But then that would present a problem: if you had used any personal connections to do this, you'll find interviewing and writing about these people extremely uncomfortable (believe me, I've done it). Even if you don't care what you write about your interview subjects, you will care if you piss off the person who connected you.

I know an awful lot of technology writers and education writers, and none of them are "experts" in either field.
posted by retrograde at 8:34 PM on June 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I keep coming back to "you're not qualified" because nothing you've written in your post demonstrates that you have one iota of a clue about what "writing features" actually means.

This comment in particular--"although the comment retrograde makes about interviews is pertinent; not sure I'd have a lot of time to interview and transcribe. Still ruminating on how that would work"--just makes me shake my head.

Writing features is essentially journalism. The whole point of journalism is to go out (or get on the phone) and talk to people. You interview them to get them opinions and bring out their experiences. It's not about promoting whatever your own pet theories of the day happen to be. That's opinion writing and column writing.

The writing isn't the main point of the gig. The writing is just the tool to get the story out. If you were in radio or TV the tools would be slightly different (the writing styles would be different) but the point would be to tell other stories that aren't your own.

It sounds like you want to write big, long, academic-styled, research-based opinion pieces. Those aren't features. They may be close to the types of things escabeche describes, but they're not something that is ever going to get your byline on the front page.

Again, I realize I'm being blunt, but I'm not trying to be mean. I just feel that somebody needs to put things in black and white for you before you start down a path than can lead to frustration and disappointment.
posted by sardonyx at 8:39 PM on June 3, 2012

OK, escabeche raises a good point -- we're clearly all newspaper people and magazines and websites often have different standards and run pieces we never would. When I worked in magazines previously, I did occasionally run the kind of pieces they are talking about, although I would add that I ran those kind of pieces because I had such a tiny budget and took what I could get.
posted by retrograde at 8:42 PM on June 3, 2012

Look at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Can you imagine an article on your area of specialty that would be similar to articles you see there? If so, pitch them that. Maybe something for their "Opinions and Ideas" section, like this piece?

Many major metropolitan newspapers have "Ideas" sections. Professors and researchers often write for that section in my local newspaper, The Boston Globe. Alas, it is all behind the TimesCo paywall, so I can't link you to any examples.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:53 PM on June 3, 2012

Interested in your comment about being "not qualified to write features". Everything I've read so far, both on here and elsewhere, suggests that the only way to do this is just to pitch features to editors and see if you can score a gig somewhere.

Everyone has a different path, but I don't know many people who have pitched newspapers cold, with no experience, and been given a gig. Not good newspapers anyway. Some people start by going to j-school, others writing for their university newspaper, doing internships, writing little things like reviews and event listings. For most people, it takes years of work to get anywhere near writing a reasonably-sized piece for a good publication.
posted by retrograde at 8:56 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Sardonyx, you seem to keep on coming back to this point where you essentially say that I'm a long-winded, stodgy academic. When have I ever given this impression, or is this just a blindspot you've got about professors in general? Why do you think I can't write something that's general interest rather than academic?

I never said I want to write a 5000 word academic essay and have it published and I've already written several pieces that were deemed good enough for a general audience to be published in general interest publications, so clearly I've got some idea of how to write for a general audience, so where is this coming from?

As I said, every comment here is helping me get more of an idea and I think escabeche nails it with the 800 to 1000-word piece about research developments in your area, or issues of general interest viewed through the lens of your academic area. This seems like a good place to start thinking about things, even if it's not a "feature" in the traditional sense. Still ruminating on your comment about the byline though.

Also, to everyone else, really interesting comments about how expertise in the area can be a negative rather than a positive! On one hand I really struggle with that from the point-of-view that a technology expert would seem to be best positioned to write about technology, but can also see the point that bias could get in the way of the reporting. Again, food for thought when I think about what I want to pitch and where.
posted by ranglin at 8:57 PM on June 3, 2012

However, even just with the few OpEd pieces I've done, I've discovered how useful this kind of exposure can be to an academic career. So, I want to get out there more and become recognized by the general public as an expert in my field. Maybe I can do that with more OpEd's, but even with my limited exposure I've noticed that OpEd's fairly rarely make the front page. It would seem a feature makes more sense if I want that kind of exposure and as a bonus, it seems it would be a worth a few dollars as well!

If your goal is to "get yourself out there" then you want to the be subject of a feature, not the reporter. That's when you let your expertise in the area shine. You can expound on your theories, shore them up with evidence. But the journalism part gets done by a journalist. Nail a couple of features, continue with the OpEds and in that way you can become known to the general public. You won't get paid for being interviewed or writing OpEds. The boost to your reputation is the pay-off.
posted by looli at 9:08 PM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do some tech writing and I know a lot about technology and the tech industry. But crucially, I do not work in the tech industry, not any overlapping industry. I have a lot of friends that work in the industry, and this is why I only do "some" tech writing -- I often come across stories that I just don't feel comfortable pursuing because the people involved are too closely connected to my social circle.
posted by retrograde at 9:09 PM on June 3, 2012

We're not technical- or academic-oriented, but I work for a chain of local community newspapers. ANY unsolicited feature article or story is extremely likely to be rejected out of hand; the thinking is that if the subject is something we're interested in, we'd have one of our staff writers cover it. As far as "pitching features to editors", at least in our outfit I'd tell you to save your breath, because other than op-ed or letters to the editor, we only print columns written by paid employees --- if we're gonna be responsible for printing something, we want to be able to control what that is.
posted by easily confused at 9:13 PM on June 3, 2012

I don't know what "E.G. this" was supposed to be.

Re those pieces, yes, I get paid. Not a ton. Book reviews pay less than other pieces of the same length.

The alternative weekly I wrote for was The Boston Phoenix. Most US cities of any size have one of these -- they cover local news and arts, restaurants, etc., and they are a level less professional than a regular city newspaper. E.G. the Phoenix let me write a reported feature about the MLA convention for which my only qualification was that I was a grad student so I knew something about the existential dread of the Ph.D. As others in this thread have said, no way would a regular city newspaper assign something like that to a non-professional writer. No memory of how much I got paid for this, but I got paid. This was the exception; mostly I wrote book reviews for them.
posted by escabeche at 10:06 PM on June 3, 2012

Not sure if this kind of publication exists in Australia but they tend to be much easier to crack than higher-paying, wider-circ publications.

No, sadly there isn't really anything like the better American alt-weeklies in Australia (I'm an Australian, but I live and work in the US at the moment), which I think is a huge hole in the media industry there. In general, there are far fewer media outlets -- both newspaper and magazines and especially online -- so I think the OP may be better off pitching straight for the US market, to be honest.
posted by retrograde at 10:07 PM on June 3, 2012

(I say "better" alt-weeklies, because what Australians call "street press" -- Beat, Drum Media, etc -- are kinda alt-weeklyish, but they're mostly just event guides with music and film, and they also barely pay a cent.)
posted by retrograde at 10:14 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: retorgrade, how about something like the free mX paper you get at the train station? Or is it not in the same league?
posted by ranglin at 11:33 PM on June 3, 2012

Well mX is a daily, not a weekly, so by definition it's not an alt-weekly... but it's also owned by News Ltd., so also not "alt", either.

Also it's typically a steaming pile of shit -- mostly stuff the writers have found on the internet, and almost zero actual news. I also seriously doubt it has any freelance writers.

Alt-weeklies vary a lot -- some do seriously good investigative journalism and they're often much more culturally tuned-in than the stodgy old dailies, but many are pretty fluffy rags that aren't that much better than the street press.

The closest Australian thing I can compare an alt-weekly to would be The Big Issue, which is fortnightly, but it's independent media, provides an alternative voice on political and social issues, and has arts reporting that is a bit hipper than most of the dailies.
posted by retrograde at 1:01 AM on June 4, 2012

One thing to keep in mind, that I don't believe anyone has mentioned yet, is even if you do manage to get paid for a story - and I think you'd have better luck with magazines or websites than traditional newspapers* - it might not be enough money to make it worth it for you. It sounds like you have a good job already, and writing the occasional OpEd is enjoyable and brings you and your current academic work some extra attention. Now you're basically saying you want to embark on the years-long learning/dues-paying process of starting a new part- or full-time job in addition to the one you have. But you might not realize how much hard work (measured both in hours and, well, work) can go into even a simple little news article. For someone who's used to a "real job," freelance writing paychecks may be a shock to you, and not worth the trouble.

*Not that pitching them is anywhere near easy, or that it won't potentially take years to break in there too, just that newspapers will probably be much less likely to want to deal with you.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:44 AM on June 4, 2012

Look, I'm not trying to be cruel or anything, but I think you're going to have to re-think this from the top down. I'm sorry, and please don't take this the wrong way, but what you want to write IS NOT NEWS, it's op-ed.

1. You may be a perfectly wonderful writer of technical/academic articles, but can you honestly say you're as good as a professional journalist (someone who has *studied* writing) when it comes to writing for a non-specialized general audience?
2. Why do you think this is a good way to get a *specialized* audience interested in you and your work?
3. At best, what you propose is Sunday-supplement-type articles --- the front page is for NEWS: you know, things like that plane crash yesterday in Nigeria.... it is NOT for opinion, editorial and/or columnists (paid or unpaid), and any newspaper that would put this kind of stuff on the front page isn't worth reading.
posted by easily confused at 5:59 AM on June 4, 2012

ranglin, I suspect there's something about the supply-demand equation that you're missing.

The demand for writers at newspapers and other print publications is shrinking, because the budgets, page counts and ambitions of these publications are shrinking. The supply of writers is seemingly endless, and many writers are so desperate for exposure that they will write for free, or for a pittance (five 300 word stories for $20 total, or something like that).

In order for a would-be writer to break out of the pack and get the attention of a newspaper editor, he or she should ideally have a demonstrated ability to do the type of work we want (in the form of previously published clips), a demonstrated understanding of the demands of the industry (including ethical codes that would make it taboo to report on a topic that you are engaged in), and a recommendation from a colleague. It takes several years of effort to achieve these things.

As I and others suggested above, magazines and "ideas" sections that run essays from experts might be good ways to get your ideas out there. Business publications also often run first-person expert columns on topics, and you might ask the "X Business Journal" when it's next education-themed issue is, or when it's next technology-themed issue is, and when you'd need to pitch a story to run in that publication.

As for getting paid: Most news websites, even the most successful ones, will pay a freelance reporter, but not a freelance essayist/idea writer. Same for most magazines and most newspapers. We pay professional journalists for plying their trade, because they understand the professional standards of the industry, do not have a stake in the outcome of their work, and would not do this work if they were not making money at it. We do not pay people who are writing for us, in part, to advance their careers or put out an idea or information that is tied to their professional ambitions.

A handful of the largest, most prominent national publications may pay -- and well -- for the type of work you're proposing. I don't know this for a fact, but it seems likely that the New York Times pays for the essays it runs in its magazine and its Sunday "Week in Review" section, for example. Likewise, Harpers and The Atlantic magazines might pay if you could get their attention. If you are trying to write for one of these publications, be aware that they are major destinations for writers and the competition to even be noticed is fierce. Even if you have a brilliant idea and are a great writer you might get lost in the crowd. However, your lack of journalistic writing credentials could be less of an issue at one of these publications if you can make a strong case that you are a thought-leader on the topic you would like to write about, that you can relate this topic in an accessible way, and that you have new or surprising things to say that most readers would be interested by if only they knew them.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:12 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Yes, I do know the difference between "it's" and "its." Please forgive that and other errors above. It's early still in my neck of the woods.)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:14 AM on June 4, 2012

Mod note: Folks - let's try to stay on the narrowly defined topic and not who does/does not care for academics. OP, please do not threadsit.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:05 AM on June 4, 2012

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