For many writers, the dream of a regular newspaper column is as heady as the scent of fresh newsprint. The bad news is that shrinking circulation and bottom-line management are making it tougher for would-be columnists to land coveted spots at large metropolitan dailies.
"It's probably fair to say that the golden age of the columnist is past," notes Sam G. Riley, author of The American Newspaper Columnist (Praeger) and a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. And yet, Riley suggests, if today's newspapers lack pluck and personality, then "talented columnists are the best antidote."
The editors of smaller local papers agree—and might be willing to give your column a chance.
Flaunting my experience as a freelance feature writer and essayist, I was able to talk the editor of my suburban daily into surrendering space for a weekly personal column. That was six years ago, and once my ego stopped spinning off its axis, I realized the challenge had just begun. Columnists, like gourmet cooks, are expected to dish out better-than-average fare. To keep readers coming back, week after week, you must woo them with exceptional material.
Investigate the market
Award-winning metro columnists, including Dave Lieber of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, borrow techniques from several genres—humor, story-telling, investigative reporting—to keep readers surprised and interested.
"Every column I write is built on interviews and research and attending events," Lieber says. "This gets tough three times a week, but I know no other way to do this, and the readers notice the work."
Study several newspapers to determine how various types of columns fit their sections, and, ultimately, how and where to pitch your own column proposal. Look for these in your local paper:
Opinion-editorial (op-ed) columns appear on the editorial pages. The op-ed column delivers local political commentary (as in the writer's take on a new city ordinance) or ruminates on a current cultural issue such as juvenile violence or single parenting. In either case, the columnist might quote sources the way a reporter would, but is free to assert personal opinions. Including factual information and quoting reliable sources are surefire ways to avoid the danger of sounding too windy in the op-ed forum.
If you plan to compete with Maureen Dowd—or at least land a regular op-ed column at your hometown paper—you'll need a few convincing clips to sway an editor. Build an op-ed portfolio by publishing well-crafted, one-time guest columns in various local and national papers. (one caveat: Smaller newspapers usually don't pay for guest columns.)
Local (or metro) columns often strut local color or unsung heroes, such as the retiree who entertains school children with her trained parakeets or the surgeon who donates his services to aid the homeless. The best local or metro columnists get involved with their communities—and eschew pulling material from news releases.
Most local columns for large metropolitan dailies are staff-written. At papers with smaller budgets, however, reliable freelancers fill local column spaces—and offer their unique view from beyond the newsroom.
Niche or specialty columns provide practical information on a single subject, say, bird watching, computer games or herbal medicine.
Review columns offer critical commentary on movies, restaurants, books, plays and music. Like niche columnists, reviewers must prove they possess in-depth knowledge of (or experience in) their subject. It takes more than a passion for food to make a good restaurant critic, who must back his reviews with extensive knowledge of culinary arts and restaurant management—just for starters.
Personal columns run in the lifestyle section, or occasionally sneak into the metro pages. Anything from quirky human relationships to local pollution issues is grist for the personal columnist's mill. These columns rely heavily on the unique voice and adventures of the writer. (See "Ever So Humble" for more on writing a personal column.)
When choosing your own topics for any type of column, aim for universal appeal but anchor your wisdom with precise detail. I've learned that I can't please everyone, of course, but while I'm proofreading my columns, I always ask myself: Is this information helpful or useful? Is this something my readers can relate to?
Find your own voice
Every editor in America can boast a slush pile of resumes from would-be Anna Quindlens, Bob Greenes and Erma Bombecks. Copycat efforts rarely dazzle anyone.
Successful columnists in every genre have "a recognizable voice, a literary signature that sets their work apart," says Barbara Brotman, whose personal column appears in the Sunday Chicago Tribune's Womanews section. Warm, witty or irascible, your voice is the vehicle for your column's personality. Ride it well, and you'll charm readers. Abuse it, and you'll turn them off.
Learn how voice works by studying the pros in major-league newspapers or in published column collections. Read favorites aloud. Pay attention to paragraph transitions and sentence length. Notice how natural cadence and conversational style carry the tone of each writer's ideas.
Corner a market
Once you've found your voice and your niche, how do you grab that golden column spot? Think local, promote your credentials and be persistent.
"If you have talent and passion behind the talent, you'll find a place for your column," says Regina Brett, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Brett started as a reporter at Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal in 1986 and wrote for the paper's Sunday magazine. She's been writing her popular metro column three times a week for five years, sharing views on everything from chastity belts for teenagers to her own experience with breast cancer.
Brett worked hard to get her column, initially submitting a detailed column proposal plus a dozen sample column topics. At first her editor refused; he didn't want to lose another skilled reporter. But Brett persisted and the editor backed down six months later.
Freelance writers can learn from Brett's strategy. But don't be surprised if you have to start for as little as $15-$30 per column — or write for free.
That's how Mike Bellah launched Midlife Moments in his hometown newspaper, the Amarillo Daily News of Texas. He wrote a book on aging targeting baby boomers, then repackaged the chapters into 550-word vignettes when he couldn't find a publisher.
"I took a sampling to the paper's managing editor and told him I would provide the column free of charge until it gained a following," he says. Since 1994, Midlife Moments has gained an enthusiastic readership and is featured on Bellah's Web site, Our Best Years (www.bestyears.com).
Fame is a relative thing
Even if you don't gain the type of fame the columnists quoted here have, never underestimate the privilege of having a voice in your community paper — and a chance to make a difference at the local level. At the very least, it's fun to be recognized at the grocery store.
"I think columnists are, as Ezra Pound said, the village explainers," says San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. "Now that villages are breaking apart, we need explainers more than ever."
Cynthia G. La Ferle's award-winning Life Lines column appears in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, Michigan. Her essays have been published in Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion and other national publications.
Learn from the Pros
Here are the Web sites for some nationally known newspaper columnists:
New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd, William Safire, Frank Rich, A.M. Rosenthal, Anthony Lewis, Bob Herbert and Thomas L. Friedman: www.nytimes.com/library/opinion/
George F. Will, William Raspberry, Tom Shales, David S. Broder and other Washington Post columnists: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/edit/columnists.htm
Suzanne Fields and other Washington Times columnists: www.washtimes.com/op-ed
William F. Buckley Jr., Dr. Laura, Georgie Anne Geyer and other columnists syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate: www.uexpress.com/ups/opinion/
Cokie and Steve Roberts, Donald Lambro and other United Feature Syndicate columnists: www.unitedmedia.com/info/ufs.html#commentary
National Society of Newspaper Columnists: www.columnists.com/archive/index.html