Newspaper circulation and ad revenues are plummeting. As papers struggle to remain financially viable, they're cutting staff and relying heavily on freelance photographers and writers. Learn what they're looking for in photographs and how to get paid.
Be on the lookout
Spot-news photographs are your best bet for appearing in print. When something happens (fire, car accident, big storm), newspaper photographers race to the scene but can't always get there in time. Many freelance journalists carry police scanners to tell them where the action is. Have your scanner running and before long you'll hear chatter that will point you to a compelling scene. It also helps to have good relationships with police and firefighters; sometimes they'll let you in on something they're not discussing over the radio waves.
Get in there and fire away: Once you're at the scene, take as many photographs as you can. Shoot from different angles. Get as much detail as you can (without interfering with the emergency responders. A telephoto lens is helpful.
Review and edit.: If you have a digital camera, toggle through your photos and select two or three of the most compelling and detailed images. Do some reporting, too; ask the authorities as well as witnesses what happened, and get their names. Get the names of the people you photograph as well. The general rule for newspapers is that anyone who is identifiable in the photograph must be identified, by first and last name, in the caption.
Work your contacts. Once you have a photo you want to sell, get on the phone. Call local newspapers and ask for the photo editor or news editor on duty (if it's nighttime, the newspaper will be run by very small staff, so speak with the editor in charge of the news desk). Explain where you were and pitch your photograph in detail. Don't say you were out shooting the weather; say you have an up-close shot of trees and power lines blocking the roadway, and traffic backed up for miles.
Negotiate: If the editor is interested, ask him the going rate for freelance photographs. The more you shoot for them, the less you'll have to negotiate. If they know you do good, reliable work, they'll use your work and pay you well.
Where to pitch your photos: With newspapers slowly adapting to the 24-hour news cycle created by the Internet, options for freelance spot-news photography are greater. Weekly newspapers used to shy away from buying action shots because by the time they go to press, the story is old news. Not anymore. Now, as soon as they have something to run they can get it up on the website and start attracting readers to their content (and ads). Weekly newspapers have incredibly small staffs, and often have only one or two photographers. Begin with them, but realize they might not be able to pay as much as larger daily newspapers.