There’s an old cliché in real estate that only three things really matter for any property: location, location, location. One of the advantages of freelance writing is the ability to be location-independent: we can write from virtually anywhere. As with real estate, however, you can still use your current locale as a major selling point.
In October, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Northwest Science Writers Association that also included Seattle-based environmental and health writer Maria Dolan and Kirk Johnson, Seattle bureau chief for The New York Times. The event, “Writing Local Stories: From City Magazines to National Publications,” focused on questions like how to find stories that have broader appeal, how to hone these narratives for different outlets, and how to use your location as a professional calling card.
Separately, the National Association of Science Writers recently hosted its own panel discussion, “Think Small: How to Write for Local and Non-Science Publications,” that touched on some of the same issues. “Your hometown is a breeding ground for national stories,” panelist Rebecca Boyle, a St. Louis-based freelancer, reminded that audience.
So how can you develop those hometown stories in ways that lead to a flourishing career? Try thinking of BANE. Yes, I know, it’s an unfortunate acronym, but many tips fall into four main categories: Branding, Access, Niche, and Ethics.
Branding: First, how do you want to be known to other writers and editors? As I told our audience, I decided to use @SeattleBryn as my Twitter handle. Sure, it will be awkward if I ever move, but marketing myself as a Seattle-based writer has helped me land freelance gigs about local scientists, research institutions and even cultural phenomena with broader national implications (marijuana legalization, for one).
As Dolan says, billing yourself as a teller of local stories may help editors see you as a go-to person whenever they want a story from your location. “At a time when fewer publications have travel budgets, local stories allow the writer to report in-person—usually leading to better details and more in-depth interviews than a ‘phoner’ might,” she says.
As a regional correspondent, Johnson travels often to craft his onsite narratives. Helping the reader get a good sense of place can mean the difference between a ho-hum and truly memorable story. For his 2011 story about a dinosaur dig in a Colorado reservoir, “Pleistocene Treasures at a Breakneck Pace,” the fossil hunters were given only 70 days to complete their work before the site would be flooded. Johnson contrasted the paleontological clock with the ticking clock of the fast and furious dig to create the tension driving the entire story, beginning with the very first line: “Two different time scales collided in this place.”
Johnson also talked about how he personalized a story about the 2001 anthrax attacks by focusing on how they had impacted a Virginia postal worker who survived inhaling the spores. Johnson landed the crucial, in-person interview the old-fashioned way: he knocked on the front door of the worker’s house, and won the trust of his wife. The worker’s very personal account provided a compelling narrative thread for the bigger national story about bioterrorism, fear and epidemiology.
Access: How can you put yourself in position to tell these local stories? Being “local” means you have potential access to people, places and things that may be unique to your area and fodder for broader stories. But getting and maintaining this valuable access may require some upfront legwork to build up a roster of contacts. Visiting labs, institutes and potential sources, for example, can be a great way to connect with local experts. (For more tips on in-person lab visits, check out this recent post by SciLancer Liza Gross (bio) on The Open Notebook).
In addition, reading local publications can help you spot trends or the seeds of a bigger story. Dolan explained how she came across a story idea about Vaux’s swifts from a local birding site called Tweeters. By following up on the lead, she was able to turn a small item into a major feature for Smithsonian magazine about how the decline of chimneys was significantly reducing the birds’ remaining habitats.
Similarly, Twitter can be a great source of story ideas, Johnson reminded the crowd. To cultivate your sources, seek out people and organizations that may coincide with your writing interests and make an effort to follow them or read about their latest activities.
Niche: What kinds of stories interest you the most, and how can your location help you? I initially found out about the planned construction of Seattle’s ultra-green Bullitt Center through a neighborhood blog. By emphasizing the broader impact of a commercial structure that might be the greenest office in the world and a blueprint for how people can interact with self-sustaining buildings, I was able to turn a local story into two features for The New York Times. That initial experience piqued my interest in the green building industry in the Pacific Northwest, and in learning more about related structures I’ve been able to begin developing a new reporting niche.
Dolan also reminded the audience of how a story written for a local publication can be retold as a national story, thus allowing you to mine your research, deepen your knowledge and add to your total income. If you’ve done the hard work of digging into a topic that really interests you, after all, why not continue to extract more value from it? Dolan talked about how she first wrote a story on ocean acidification for a local publication, Seattle Magazine, and then recast it as a national issue for Slate.
One lesson: never assume that what seems to be old news where you live is old news everywhere. It often isn’t, meaning that there are usually new audiences to reach. Using the same sources is definitely OK, Dolan says. But widening an article’s scope will normally require additional sources and a different angle, she advises. And using the same quotes is a no-no.
Ethics: Finally, where do you want your stories to appear? To make that happen, think about who you should – and shouldn’t – write for to keep those doors open. Once you’ve become a known commodity in your community, it may be tempting to write for a local organization that approaches you with an enticing opportunity. But doing so can also create real or perceived conflicts of interest (and limit your pool of sources) that may derail later efforts to write for your dream publication.
During our NSWA discussion, we talked about how editors need to know about any potential conflicts from the start, and why transparency is always a good policy. Writing for a local nonprofit or institute may very well be worth it, especially if the subject matter is far removed from what you hope to write about in your journalism endeavors. But it’s always a good idea to think carefully about the pros and cons before you take the plunge (the Poynter Institute has an excellent and very relevant piece about the ethics of brand content here).
As part of their summary of dos and don’ts, Boyle and her fellow NASW panelists also reminded their audience not to pitch similar stories to competing publications, or to withhold information from editors about whether you’ve previously written about a topic. If your location is to be a strong selling point, so should your integrity.