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The following material is provided by WRITERLIST a Free service providing marketing and other information to writers. This material is copyrighted by Allen Rolf, but permission is hereby given for reproduction and distribution for non-commercial purposes. For more information, email WRITERLIST


What Is A Stringer?

by Allen Rolf

Check out this interesting and profitable writing job!

It is no accident that the growth of large metro newspapers in the last quarter of the 19th century paralleled the growth of railroads in the US. Following the Civil War, railroads became the primary mode of transportation across the country. They also made large daily newspapers available to the nation, where formerly only small community newspapers had flourished. Now, large dailies could penetrate the rural circulation areas easily and the railroads provided a low-cost means of obtaining news quickly from remote rural areas. Hundreds of housewives, school marms, retail clerks, postmasters, even sheriffs supplemented their income by becoming newspaper stringers.

The term "stringer" is, of itself, descriptive of how these far-flung part-time rural reporters operated. Stringers, for the most part, were common folk who gathered news from their communities and forwarded it to editors in the large cities by rail. Stringers were paid for each column/inch of copy that the newspaper printed and kept track of their accounts by measuring their printed article length each day by tying a series of knots in a ball of twine. At the end of the month, the stringer would send his twine to the editor who would measure the total length on a yardstick fixed to his desk and send the stringer his pay. Thus, a stringer was a reporter who was paid by the length of his string each month!

Many writers today are totally unaware that stringers still exist and that stringing can be, not only financially rewarding, but a valuable source of experience and resource for developing other writing assignments. Stringers are still used by large dailies, but also write for a multitude of business, industrial, retail/wholesale, professional, and other trade publications.

A typical stringer in this age of modern publishing is still paid by the published column/inch. Rates can be as low as twenty-cents per column/inch to as much as several dollars. Payment for photographs typically run from a low of $1.00 to as much as $20.00. Special freelance or assigned feature articles can pay as much as several hundred dollars; special supplements or editorial sections can go into the thousands.

The nice thing about stringing is that you can sell the same news articles to several different publications with little or no editorial changes. This means a 10 inch article at a rate of $1.00 a column/inch can be sold simultaneously to five, or more, publications to bring in $25.00 or more dollars. Another advantage to stringing is that much of it can be done over the phone.

How To Get Started

If you are interested in becoming a stringer, perhaps the biggest problem is where to start. As mentioned, there are dozens of local, regional, and national publications that are looking for stringers in almost any community. Basically, the categories can be broken down as follows:

State/Metro Newspapers & News Services:

Even though you may live in a large metropolitan city, you may be surprised to know that many outlying smaller papers will hire stringers as well as out of town metro newspapers and news wire services. As an example, in Little Rock, Ar, the capitol of Arkansas, several outlying newspapers in secondary markets hire stringers to cover political news and commentary. Metro newspapers in Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Washington DC, and New York also hire stringers, as well as news services such as AP, Reuters, CNN, NPR, and many others. And, don't forget the tabloids!

Industrial, Retail/Wholesale, & Professional Trade Publications:

There are a potpourri of these; everything from trade publications for the barber/beauty industry, to industrial trade publications and newsletters, retail and wholesale hardware, appliance, metal-working, timber, mining, and electronic manufacturing trade publications. There are dozens of professional and technical publications that depend on stringers for local and regional news.

Local & Regional Trade Magazines:

Many trades have state or regional tabloid magazines that report news on the local retail and wholesale activities. Among these are appliance, air conditioning, hardware, transportation, educational, and trade union publications that print weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly. These are ideal publications to break into the stringer business with, since they normally employ small staffs and are constantly in need of good reporters. They are always interested in feature articles on their advertisers, readers businesses, employee training, and general business operation. These magazines will also frequently pay an extra commission on any advertising sales that their stringers pick up, typically as much as 20-30%.

How To Find Magazines To String For!

Magazines and periodicals that use stringers seldom end up on the magazine racks of the local library or news stand. You have to use a different approach to ferret them out. Here is how it's done, using appliance magazines as an illustration. The process can be duplicated for almost any publishing area you are interested in writing for.

Step 1: Appliances are distributed by authorized distributors and the products generally covered are air conditioners, radio & hi-fi, TV, refrigerators, kitchen ranges, garbage disposals, and small lines of repair components for these appliances. Start by looking in your local telephone yellow pages under Air Conditioning Equip & Systems. You probably find several large display ads showing retail dealers and at the bottom of the ad, the name of the wholesaler. You will find a wholesaler for. say Fedders Air Condition, Carrier, Bryant, Rheem, and a number of other manufacturers. Use 3X5 index cards and list these wholesale distributors with their addresses and phone numbers. Next check the yellow pages for Major Appliance Dealers. You will find similar ads also showing the set distributors in your area. Note these on 3X5 index cards, also. When you have completed this, you should have between eight and ten distributors. (In the metro-Little Rock AR area, I came up with 12).

If you happen to live in a smaller town, it is possible that you will find no local distributors. As an alternate, list five to ten retailers in the categories mentioned above.

Step 2: Next call each distributor and ask for the name of the secretary to the sales manager. List her name and the sales manager's name on your card. Next, ask if you can talk to the secretary: "Thank you, this is Allen Rolf, may I speak to Miss Staford, please."

When Miss Staford comes on the phone, use this pitch: "Miss Staford, this is Allen Rolf, I am a writer and I am doing some research on trade magazines covering the local air-conditioning/TV & Electronics in our area. I know Mr. Smith, your sales manager, is probably busy and I wanted to ask you for some help in this project."

It is important to establish this contact, she will be your contact person at the distributorship in the future. Further explain:

"Miss Staford, I am interested in the local, regional, and national trade magazines that your sales staff reads and, if possible, would like to get some sample back-copies."

Miss Staford will probably stall, so you make it easy by saying: "Gosh, I know this is sudden, so what I would like to do is call you back day after tomorrow, say Wednesday. What time would be convenient for you, before or after lunch?" At this point, Miss Staford will give you a call-back time. Thank her for her help, confirm when you will call back, and hang up.

Come Wednesday, you can call back, of course, but it is better to go by. Use the excuse that you were in the area. If Miss Staford has not gotten the magazines together, she will feel obligated to do it at this time.

Using the above approach, you should get a response from about half of the distributors you call and you should get from five to ten sample publications.

Step 3: Take you samples back home and analyze them for the following:

A. Is news being printed about the distributors on your list?

B. How long is the average news item? Does the editor use many photos?

C. Are there any ads sponsored by the distributor or one of his product lines appearing in the publication?

D. Is a reporter (field editor) listed in the editorial staff box?

E. Can you identify any feature articles about retail dealers in the publication?

Step 4: Write a query letter to the editor of each magazine you feel comfortable writing for, explaining that you are a professional "contributing editor" that can cover distributor/dealer news as well as provide feature material. Ask for the writer-guidelines, being sure to include a SASE. Chances are, you will get a letter back saying that they will look at your work on a speculation basis, meaning they want to see what you can do. In some cases, expect the publication to already have a stringer, in which case you come back with feature ideas. (More about this below)

The objective here, of course, is to line up as many magazines as possible, meaning that once you collect a news item, it can be sold several times. Of course, you have to be careful not to work for two direct competitive publications in the same area. Normally, this is not a problem, since you can easily work for a local, several regional, and several national publications without conflict. Everyone understands that as a stringer, you are operating a small mini-news agency.

Step 5: The first thing you do is write up a story about yourself being appointed the new field editor for the magazine and send it in with a bill to the editor. Next, get out a publicity release to the names on your 3X5 cards and give them a call on the phone about a week later.

When you call review the fact that you have been named the new field editor and explain that you will be glad to consider any news items they wish to call in to your office. Ask about upcoming dealer shows, new product announcements, promotions, awards or special programs that you can report on. Again, remember that the secretary to the sales manager is your key contact to get information on the distributor and its dealers.

Other Considerations:

PHOTOS: Publications that use stringers usually pay a premium for photographs, so if you have a camera (or care to buy a cheap one) you can earn extra income with your stinging. The publication writer guidelines will give information on submitting photographs. Many publications are still using B&W prints, so if you cannot generate these in your own darkroom, you will need to find a local lab with fast turn-around.

At one point in my stringing career, I was field editor for a regional trade magazine in five states and carried a completely portable darkroom in my automobile. It could be set up in minutes in a motel room to produce prints. I would create my copy and develop my prints and take the prints back to the distributor for "approval." In most cases, the distributor would want copies of the prints which I was glad to supply at $5.00 each!

In a second instance, a distributor owner on the board of the local March of Dimes asked if I could take some photos at a local fund raiser. I provided the service gratis, asking that they only pay for film and processing. A week later, a bank contact I had met at the affair called and asked if I could take some photographs at a local college. The fee for half day's work came to $500! I took photos for the March of Dimes for several years and ended up as the "staff photographer" and never charged them for the service ..... the network contacts I made kept me busy and provided a very good side income!

TRADE SHOWS & DEALER TRAINING: Periodically during the year (spring and late summer in the appliance trade) many distributors participate in local trade shows and have dealer training meetings. I call this beer and ham sandwich time, because there is always a quantity of free food and drink. Attending these can be both a fun social activity and valuable networking activity. While attending many of these my income from selling photographs to attending dealers exceeded my stringing fees!

FEATURE ARTICLES AND SUPPLEMENTS: Many stringers completely overlook the profits that can be made with short feature articles and even complete supplements that can be generated for trade magazines.

Feature articles are normally 500-1000 word (10-20 column/inches) pieces on new products, dealers, or how a dealer has solved a particular business problem. They typically will use one or two 5X7 B&W photos. They are easy to sell and many editors will pay special premium fees.

These features should always feature a particular dealer or group of dealers. Here are some feature topics I have done that come to mind:

"Sell Accessories! Smith Electronic's Answer To Increasing Costs!" (Interview Smith and his distributor sales manager.)

"Five Mistakes Business Owners Make in Estate Planning!" (Interview a local CPA or lawyer)

"How To Protect Your Business From FIRE!" (Interview local fire marshall, insurance agent, and dealer who has suffered a fire.)

"Are Shoplifters Sending You To the Poor House?" (Interview several dealers and report on what they are doing to protect themselves. Lots of background info in the library stacks on this one!)

Special supplements are simply a series of feature articles on a particular topic printed as a special magazine segment or as an insert. A good supplement can easily bring in from $500 to several thousand, particularly if you capture and get commission on the resulting supplement advertising.

I have developed and sold 4-12 page supplements on how to sell VCR's. computers, new technology, trade shows, seasonal business, and half a dozen other subjects.

How Much Can I Make?

This is a frequently asked question from people who are interested in stringing. The answer depends on your geographical location, how much time you want to spend, and your imagination. As a part-time income a few hundred dollars a month is easily achieved with just a little telephone work; full-time many stingers (including myself) have made a good primary income with time to spare for other writing projects. The important thing to keep in mind is that it takes time develop contacts and sources, typically one or two years. My advice is to start small and build on a daily basis.

My experience is that many "would-be" writers do not consider stringing a viable writing occupation. This is simply not true! Once you get into the field you will immediately see how important stringing is to the publishing trade and how it can be a fantastic tool to help other people. For the sharp stringer, the pay isn't bad either!

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