Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Get stringer gigs

This post is for advanced college PJs and super-advanced amateurs who want to dabble in the field one night each week. I'll get back to the "get a job" series next week, but this is a time-essential post.

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 mailed-in CD is currently a coffee coaster.

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 even if I must hitchhike to the event while I should be at the hospital after the horrible train wreck destroyed my Ferrari.
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.
Bonus points:
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 last shot shows you have courage. You're stupid, but courageous - ideal qualifications for stringers. ;-}

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.

Follow through
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,


Andy Smothers said...

Amazing and insightful as always my friend. Hopefully I will do you proud and get the gig at the springboard paper. Will keep in touch...Best wishes.

Mark M. Hancock said...

The paper you're applying to is a big metro paper - No. 35 nationally. Springboards have much lower circulations.

CarmenSisson said...

Well said, all of it. I wish I had read this three years ago when I started as a stringer. As it is, I made mistakes and learned by trial and error. No, I am not a staffer. But I do contribute regularly to my paper 3-5 days out of most weeks (January and July are the exceptions. A stringer can die in those months.)

I am the first called for local assignments and frequently receive first dibs on AP/NYT gigs. I eat lunch with the staffers and contribute story ideas during staff meetings.

I am not the best shooter, nor am I the most confident. I try to make up for it by being consistently reliable and willing to shoot anything I am asked to shoot, without hesitation.

You make a very good point that the stringer frees up the staffers to do more important things.

If you want to be a stringer to win awards or pad your portfolio, you are likely to be disappointed. Yes, you will probably improve your book and get a few plum assignments now and then. For the most part, you will shoot a lot of stuff that you will consider "unimportant." The thing is, it's all important. A newspaper is a team, and the end goal is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS to serve the readers. Confidence is welcome and helpful. Egos can be checked at the door. (Or at least that has been my experience, please feel free to disagree.)

Two things I think you should have mentioned are equipment and ethics.

Most stringers, if not all, are expected to provide their own equipment, and it must be at least halfway on the level as a staffer's kit. You can't shoot Friday night football with an 18-35mm, so don't even suggest it. A well-kitted stringer will beat the hobbyist hands-down every time because a). he/she has the right stuff to do the job and b). he/she has demonstrated a certain amount of seriousness by investing in professional level cameras and lenses. If you wonder what the pros are using, check them out on the sidelines.

As for ethics, newspapers live and die by their reputations. Everyone single person who provides images for the paper must understand and adhere to a strict level of ethics. A stringer who can demonstrate a knowledge of the ethics of photojournalism will be much more valuable than a haphazard shooter who ends up damaging the paper's reputation or causing a lawsuit. There are plenty of online resources to get up to speed on newspaper ethics. In addition, most papers have an ethics policy. The stringer who asks for a copy of this document demonstrates a higher level of professionalism and a willingness to contribute to the overall good of the paper.

That can't be anything a plus in your column.

On a final note, the ability to transmit via FTP is critical. Many papers will not allow non-staffers in the building after dark. Others will not have enough work stations to deal with a non-staffer who doesn't understand the paper's system, especially on a busy Friday night when almost everyone is in-house and crunched for time.

Again, a simple piece of knowledge, but an advantage in your favor if you can provide it. If you can make an editor's life easier, solve his problems and consistently produce what he needs before/when he needs it, you'll be well ahead of almost everyone else who walks in the door, including some staffers.

Just my two cents.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thank you for the insight Carmen.

For those who haven't visited her site, Carmen isn't a stringer. She's a professional freelance photojournalist. She works full-time in the field to make her living with her fine images.

Arthur said...

great post. very insightful. maybe in a couple years I'll give it a try.

Mark M. Hancock said...

The point of stringing is to get to it early (while it's affordable). Since you're in DFW, there are lots of little papers who need help with sports. They can't pay much, but you'll learn faster with feedback and under pressure.

DapperDan said...

Hi Mark

Been visiting your site for over two years now and this post has finally moved me to say hello and thank you.
I have just completed my first freelance job for a local paper in the UK (the pictures were published today!) and I owe a lot to your always inspirational and educational comments and images.

I'll be sure to include you in my speech when I receive World Press Photo of the year in 2015 ;)

Thank you so much.


Mark M. Hancock said...

Darn. That's another year I'll lose.

I'm glad you got a gig. Keep shooting. You'll eventually need a photo assistant, and you know how to contact me. ;-)

Stamina said...

Your right "on the Mark", with what you've written about stringing.

I've been a stringer for over three. I didn't realize my interest until my mid-thirties after I had had some close calls, some accidents (injuries). For some reason, this made me think, that if I were to have died, that what I'd like to left behind before I go, are pictures.

I feel that I wasted my youth. I didn't have a camera all through High School and College. I tried to fit into regular jobs, during my twenties, but nothing seemed to fit. I didn't know what to do with myself.

When I got a job working part time on the weekends stuffing envelopes at a local newspaper which was located in the town I live in, I would look at the pictures sometimes and wonder what the life of a photographer is. It was a passing interest.

Sometimes I'd see the staff guy come in, but I didn't talk much. When this office position was relocated to another office much further away I decided not to go, so that was the end of that job.

But it wasn't the end. It was the beginning.

I had nothing to loose so I thought it was about time to try something different.

Maybe something different would work out. And it did.

I went to a local event and took some pictures. Then I printed them out and walked into the paper's office. I guess I felt somewhat familiar with the paper's office, since I had worked there.

I asked if the staff photographer might like to look at the photos. They didn't need to, as the event was already covered by a stringer.

But, by doing this, I walked out with a contract. It was for $25 per photo job, no matter how many pictures are sent (one or a dozen) and you loose your copyright since the paper owns the image and sells the photos (I can't sell them). An independent contractor as it's called.

But, putting all that aside, the point I wanted to make is that, some people may not even know that photography is for them. And the only way you can know is by doing it. By showing up and giving it a try.

I've been stringing under this contract for over three years now. I consider it volunteer work. Sometimes I feel like a good for nothing. In that I'm a good photographer for the cost of next to nothing. But, in those three years, I've won three state press association awards and I'm glad.

I have developed a "need" to do photography, despite the conditions and challenges. Some people suggest I move on to bigger and better opportunities, but the way I see it, "right where I am" is the biggest and best place to be. One of the awards I won, was for a candlelight vigil event that happened just a few miles from where I live.

I don't need to travel far, I don't need to make more money. I only need access to events, to give me a reason to be there and to allow me to do my job.

I notice that if the staff guy doesn't perform well all the time, that he still has a job the next day. But being a stringer, if I don't perform well though, I may not get a call the next day. They'll call someone else. That's the way it is. They can pick you up fast, but you can also be let go fast.

I wish I knew I needed to do photography when I was younger. I didn't discover it until later on in life. But, my motto has always been, that "it doesn't matter when you start", "it matters if you have the heart." My stamina is reduced because of my injuries, but I still go.

I recall, that my pay was raised to $35 dollars, when I was available all the time, and had no other real job. But, since I'd become destitute, I had to find a full-time job. And, since I was not available as much anymore, my pay was cut back down to $25.

But I still string. Cause I need to. When I get a picture that has meaning, somehow my life has meaning. That's something that you can't explain to everyone.

Most everyone I know has told me that I shouldn't continue doing it, since it doesn't pay much. But I still do it, at the expense of myself.

Most people at the events, don't know the conditions freelancers work under. They don't know and it doesn't help me to tell them. They don't need to know about me, they only need to know about the picture.

I am fascinated by the stories photographers tell, of what it took them to get "that shot." It fascinates me because of my own experiences and knowing what it's like to work through the process. You have to give yourself the chance and when you work for someone else, the pressure of needing to get something to send to a paper can be helpful. Some of my best shots have sprung from the urgency you feel when you know you don't have anything much yet and that you better get in there and get something quick before it's all over.

Positioning has a lot to do with photography. Where you stand and what view you have. You can't take pictures of what you can't see. So you got to decide where to be, so see who doing what, with whom, when....

My best year, while working at these rates and under this contract, earned me approximately $6,000. Ofcourse, that meant I made zero for the year. As it cost me that much for the digital SLR I needed for low light conditions.

But I still do it? Why? Because I need to. It's not my choice that the paper pays me as if I were a good for nothing, because I know, in my heart of hearts I'm good for something. My choice is only whether or not I do it. So I do it.

And besides, no matter how many years of memories I've lost, to when I was "lost" (before I discovered photography), no matter how many jobs I missed out on doing...

...the job I'm at, right now is what matters, the moment right now is what matters, and what counts.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Wow. Yes, this is the curse of this profession. Once you start, it's impossible to stop. I personally wouldn't agree to the terms you've accepted, but those are choices we must make individually.

Stamina said...

About the terms of the contract I was asked to sign, in order to work for the newspaper in the above post. It's sort of a take it or leave it contract.

I can't really leave it, because it's convenient and close to my house. Word would get around despite the conditions. Plus, that job helped develop my portfolio and a reference of some kind. This newpaper's office is also located in my home town so I often get jobs close to home.

I made contact with a newspaper that is what might be considered the next level up.

But, what kind of contract will they ask me to sign in order to work there?

After my first experiences in breaking into the field and learning the hard way, I'm sure anyone could understand my concern.

I know that I'd like to earn more money and that I'd like to retain my copyright. I want to move on in the field, but will the newspaper I ask this of, just tell me to move on.... If you know what I mean.

I emailed my website so they could view my photos. They said they'd love to have me on as a stringer.


But, what about the contract terms?

How do I go about making sure I see the contract, before I accept any work. Do I ask them, "Can I see the contract before I accept any work?" What's the right way to say that?

In the event that the contract doesn't offer what I want, do I say it as simply as you had,

"that I do not agree to the terms of the contract."

I'm sure that the terms at this other paper, must be better than the contract I'm working for now. I can only hope.

Probably, it is not a good idea to mention the terms I am currently working under, at the paper I'm started out at.

If this paper only pays slightly more and still obtains the copyright, it may not be to my benefit to work there, anymore than where I'm working now, because it is further away.

It's moving on up, or moving on out. Or just moving around.

Mark M. Hancock said...

It sounds like fear of the unknown has your heart. Be a journalist and get answers. If they have a contract, ask them to e-mail it. If not, ask the terms and pay.
You'll never know until you ask.
Since you're an independent contractor, it's not one or the other. You can work for both.
Most contracts are negotiable. Ask questions and know when to walk away.

Stamina said...

Thank you for being present to my posts.

My fear is that I may not find a contract that meets my needs in my area. I have read that work for hire (WFH) contracts are prevalent. Maybe I'd rather leave that conclusion, as an unknown.

I will respond to the email and ask if they can send me the terms.

Thank you.

Stamina said...

Also, I cannot walk away from the hometown paper. So I am afraid I will not know when to walk away.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Find out dude. It's your future. Big papers often have far better terms than the smaller papers because they hire pro shooters.
Keep an eye on this blog, something big is coming.

Stamina said...

I just emailed for the contract at the next level paper. I hope the something BIG that is coming, is a more respectable contract. Yes, I will find out, what's out there. Whatever that ends up being.

For the meantime, I'm watching this blog.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Few people read this post, so I'll let you see the beta site here. For hard-working reporters, it's the best alternative. Folks who think it's all about money won't like it.

The nonprofit organization provides information, access, outlet, income and training. It doesn't pay much for the shoot, but it actively supports aftermarket income and promotion for the contributors.

Stamina said...

I visited the beta site and look forward to it's fruition (the realization of something desired or worked for).