Fall is the ideal time to knock on doors at the local newspapers. For some Southern readers, football is the only reason newspapers exist. Consequently, they expect to see their favorite teams in action each week throughout the season.
Each newspaper has a different audience, but one thing is universal:   no newspaper has enough PJs to cover all the sports they must cover. This is where stringers become valuable.
Note: if reading this post in the winter or spring, the spring season builds to a crescendo of simultaneous championships, rather than starting with too much work. Spring is good for newbies, fall is a time for some degree of experience.
What's a stringer?
A stringer is an infrequent, paid, freelance contributor to a publication. Unlike professional freelancers, stringers won't make a living with PJ work. Stringers work primarily for clips to get better gigs, or they're so-called "daddy stringers," who cover the game anyway for their child. Many "daddy stringers" are former staffers who decided to make more money in other professions, but still love the work.
Most stringers are happy with the weekly beer money and have a steady income elsewhere (a "real job" or student loans). Being a stringer isn't bad unless a PJ wants to be a freelancer or staffer. Then, stringing is a hard life because it requires literally stringing together enough small gigs to pay some bills.
Get a gig
To get stringer gigs, do the same as if applying for a staff PJ job. Send a shooter's resume (include awards, degrees and experience), a CD and a cover letter explaining a desire to freelance. If the paper is small enough, they'll keep stringers busy until the playoffs when staffer(s) can handle the entire workload.
Even the big papers try an extra stringer or two for the first few weeks of football season. However, if an amateur has never shot for a newspaper before, don't go knocking on the door of a 100k daily metro and expect a gig.
Pick a paper
First, aim low and don't ruin a future. New stringers are most likely to make a major mistake. If the major mistake is as a stringer at a 5k weekly, it isn't a career-halting event. If it's at the largest newspaper in the surrounding five states, it is.
Newspaper editors stay a long time and remember all negative moments. Be a good memory, not a bad one. PJs live in a very tiny world and reputations travels fast. If all goes well the first season, try the bigger paper next year. PJs' reps proceed them either way.
Understand if a newspaper has a high-power photo staff. If the huge papers steal staffers from a particular regional paper, there's a reason. Big papers don't keep fishing the same pond if the fish aren't big enough. Consequently, be adequately humble when asking for gigs at "springboard" papers.
Springboard papers are low-pay pressure cookers, but editors at the big papers see the names and understand the dues paid. Editors at springboard papers know the value of their position and consequently demand more than normal from stringers.
Also look at clip competition results. If the local paper has one or two staffers on the top 25 list, they'll expect a high level of professionalism and creative images. There is no excuse for a failed assignment. A blown gig is a stringer's last assignment.
Get in the door
At very small papers, walk into the office with some images and ask to talk with the sports editor.
At medium to large papers, call and ask for the name of the assignments editor as well as a phone number and e-mail address. Major metros require interview appointments and references.
Initial stringer interview
A PJ has landed an appointment with a large newspaper photo editor. Now what? The PJ should arrive early, dress professionally and have everything needed to complete an application or sign a contract and view a portfolio (a lightbox or laptop). Bring a extra portfolio CD as well.
The applying stringer needs to convey that s/he is confident in her/his ability to handle any assignment with consistent results and without being cocky. Here's what the editor wants to hear from the PJ:
I understand this is an honor not a "job."
The readers are the reason we get to work.
I'll NEVER make a cutline mistake.
I'll take any assignment without a complaint.
I'll make every deadline I'm given.
I'll arrive at every assignment before its start time
I'll be aggressive in getting the best images without causing problems.
I'll not leave my assignment until I'm certain I have what the paper needs.
I won't do anything to embarrass the company or its employees.
I will dress and act professionally.
I'll do my best and add to the value of the paper.
While working on assignment for this paper, I won't promote any side businesses.
I subscribe to the newspaper and know some of the shooters.
I could keep this list going, but these are the critical issues to the assignment editor. The editor wants someone who doesn't complain or cause problems and delivers consistent and compelling images before deadline.
Remember stringers work for the paper to allow one of the staffers to handle "important stuff." To the stringer, a 2A gymnastics meet should be as important as a Super Bowl is to staffers. If a stringer doesn't shoot the 2A meet, a staffer must be pulled from the Super Bowl game.
The portfolio should only have a PJ's best shots. Don't pad it. If a PJ is only happy with five shots, only show five shots. Meanwhile, it's good to show some versatility. Stick to the competition categories: sports, news, features, photo stories, and one illustration.
It's OK to add your (one) best concert photo and (one) wide-angle image of a lion ripping the heart out of a gazelle from three feet away.
The editor is primarily concerned with a stringer's ability to handle light, make proper exposures, gain access and get accurate and complete cutline info on a tight deadline. These are the core functions of the stringer (aside from the courage thing).
Lastly, the editor may try to trip a stringer with some cheeky questions. All American newspapers are "family" newspapers (this means the kiddos can see every page without a chaperon).
The editor expects shooters to return with G-rated images. Hard news can be PG. Staffers are the only shooters who get to shoot PG-13 and only the top shooters in extraordinary circumstances get to consider R images (after much debate among several editors and possibly lawyers). NC-17 will never run, so don't shoot it and don't even act like you're interested in shooting it.
Do what was promised. Deliver quality images on time without problems.
At larger papers, stringers may not get assignments for quite a while. Just send the assignment editor friendly reminders on Friday mornings and the day before holidays that you're available (if something happens to one of their regular stringers).
If you get a gig and do well, then the process continues for a few more months. After enough successful gigs, stringers can work into the regular Friday night line up. Again, if a stringer blows an assignment or isn't available when the paper needs the stringer, the gig is over.
If a PJ manages this, they're ready to move on to Sportraits.
Enough for now,