If you’ve pitched stories to national outlets before, you know to expect a rejection within two weeks or so. That’s because these media organizations typically have larger staffs, and might call on another editor to look at your pitch.
However, local publications are often much smaller and might not have as quick of a response time. That’s why the first pitch is so important.
After freelancing for almost a year, I finally broke into an independent regional magazine.
Now, I regularly contribute to city-specific publications, including an alternative weekly and hyperlocal, neighborhood-specific news blog.
In addition to discussing my experiences, I reached out to a few editors and writers about breaking into local publications for the first time.
1. Find a local angle
You may be tempted to pitch a national story to a local newspaper or magazine, but think again.
Although national issues affect the smallest of towns, you need to find a hook to make them locally relevant.
“Do look for local angles on national stories,” explains Ken Schlager, editor of New Jersey Monthly. “Don’t pitch the obvious, like a review of a new restaurant. Do pitch local trend pieces that might not be obvious to the average observer.”
For instance, in February, some local punk bands hosted a benefit show for a 24-hour LGBTQ suicide hotline. Although the story began as timely coverage of an event, the story was an opportunity to localize transgender rights and discuss bathroom bills in different states.
“Get a good sense of what’s been done already and try to find uncharted territory, or perhaps a different angle on a story that’s already been told,” says Lindsay Lennon, who regularly contributes to her local Patch site and other regional publications. “If there’s a seemingly great story that hasn’t been covered yet, try to get the scoop on why.”
2. Always look for stories
If you’re truly committed to telling your community’s stories, try adopting a new mindset. For every event you attend, remind yourself that you are the storyteller in the room and rock it.
“Walk your beat,” Lennon stresses. “Talk to people. Go to local government meetings. Pick up the phone. Do not just send out emails. Sit down and have a chat with the mayor or the town supervisor or anyone who is considered a local magnate.”
While many journalists and writers search for sources on social media, especially those in the millennial generation, Lennon prefers to stay within her own network. When you’re working with strangers, including those you’ll never meet face-to-face, credibility could be taken for granted. That’s why she prefers to only interview those she knows.
Personally, I have used the internet to get connected, but I usually try to contact sources to verify their interest in going on the record before pitching a story.
3. Pitch far in advance
Especially for print publications, you want to give editors a lot of leeway when it comes to timeliness.
For example, in February, I pitched a local print magazine editor June, July and August stories.
“A lot of times, local magazines have annual themed issues — top doctors, best & worst surveys, best new restaurants — and you can easily find out what month those issues come out, so you can time your pitches,” explains freelance writer Kate Andrews, who has been reporting on local issues her whole career and currently contributes to several publications specific to Richmond, Virginia.
Andrews recommends pitching magazines three months ahead of time, as well as looking over the submission guidelines. “Of course, read the publication thoroughly before pitching so you know what they cover and know what they have written about recently, so you can avoid pitching the same story,” she adds.
4. Know your competition
If your community has multiple publications dedicated to local stories, it’s best to familiarize yourself with all of them. Likely, they’re all competing with each other.
As a freelance writer, you might not have to commit yourself to one, but reading different publications helps you understand the tone and style of each one.
“If there’s a competing publication, pay attention to what they are writing about, so you don’t pitch that story to the first publication,” Andrews mentions. “I guarantee the editors for both are paying attention to the other one. That’s not to say you can’t write for both, but it’s probably smarter to pick different subject areas so one publication doesn’t feel ‘robbed’ if you write a story for the other one.”
The writing world is a small one, especially when it comes to local publications.
“Be aware that if you’re in a smaller or midsize city/region, most of the editors/staff at local and regional publications know each other,” Andrews adds. “So, if you burn bridges in some dramatic way at one place, word will travel and you may not get any work. On the other hand, if you have a good reputation at one publication, you may get work at a second place.”
5. Emphasize your familiarity with the area
Show the publication you’re an expert, and make a personal connection.
Shoshi Parks, a contributor to Hoodline who lives in San Francisco, contacted the publication first with her qualifications. In her introduction email, she explained her familiarity with the neighborhood —in addition to having lived there for a decade, she owns a small business in the city and is active in a few local nonprofit organizations. She also included a writing sample.
“Your perspective on your city is valid and unique,” Parks elaborated. “Think about what’s in your world and use it to convince editors that you have a valuable point of view. Having a writing sample or two is also helpful, even if it’s self-published, so that editors can see your skills for themselves.”
When reaching out to local publications, you should take pride in where you live. Promote yourself as a local authority who is qualified not only as a writer, but an expert, to report on regional issues that matter the most to the surrounding community.
“I find writing for local publications to be so fulfilling as both a storyteller and a consumer of information and lore,” Lennon adds. “Having a sense of place is one of the warmest and most oddly comforting phenomenons I’ve experienced in my life, and I think writing about a place and its inhabitants only enhances this sense.”
Challenge yourself as a writer to find interesting stories through events, people you know, and of course, everyday life. Ask yourself what your community needs to know through local journalism, using your insight as a community member.
Chances are, you probably have a lead under your nose to break into local publications.