Publish date:

Tips for Landing Your Own Newspaper Column

Getting your own regular column with a newspaper today is as difficult as it is rewarding. The competition for landing these coveted spots is steadily increasing as the circulation of many dailies continues to shrink. Award-winning columnist Cynthia G. La Ferle offers advice and encouragement for writers struggling to break into this golden market.

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.

(Pitching Articles: 5 Tips for a Successful Freelance Writing Pitch)

"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.

Tips for Landing Your Own Newspaper Column

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. 

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?

Tips for Landing Your Own Newspaper Column

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."

Learn from the Pros

Here are the websites for some nationally known newspaper columnists:

Pitch an Article

This intensive two-week course will teach you how to craft a good pitch letter and do it well. Be ready to mine your life for ideas. Start thinking about a great spin on a topic or an unusual personal experience that you'd like to write about in class.

Click to continue.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Imayo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the imayo.

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Print or Online Article First Place Winner: "Surfacing an Aquatic Diaspora"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Print or Online Article First Place Winner: "Surfacing an Aquatic Diaspora"

Congratulations to Elaine Howley, first place winner in the Print or Online Article category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning article, "Surfacing an Aquatic Diaspora."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Script (Stage Play or TV/Movie) First Place Winner: "Jaguar Woman"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Script (Stage Play or TV/Movie) First Place Winner: "Jaguar Woman"

Congratulations to Olga El, first place winner in the Script (Stage Play or TV/Movie) category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning TV Pilot script, "Jaguar Woman."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Non-Rhyming Poetry First Place Winner: "won't you celebrate with me"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Non-Rhyming Poetry First Place Winner: "won't you celebrate with me"

Congratulations to Nicole Adabunu, first place winner in the Non-Rhyming Poetry category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning poem, "won't you celebrate with me."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Rhyming Poetry First Place Winner: "She Lives in Underbridge World"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Rhyming Poetry First Place Winner: "She Lives in Underbridge World"

Congratulations to MF Slattery, first place winner in the Rhyming Poetry category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's the winning poem, "She Lives in Underbridge World"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Mainstream/Literary Short Story First Place Winner: "Tracks"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Mainstream/Literary Short Story First Place Winner: "Tracks"

Congratulations to Elizabeth Rosen, first place winner in the Mainstream/Literary Short Story category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Tracks."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Genre Short Story First Place Winner: "A Brief Cameo"

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Genre Short Story First Place Winner: "A Brief Cameo"

Congratulations to D. M. Ullrich, first place winner in the Genre Short Story category of the 89th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's his winning story, "A Brief Cameo."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Children’s/Young Adult Fiction First Place Winner: "Upside Down Man"

90th Annual Competition Children’s/Young Adult Fiction First Place Winner: "Upside Down Man"

Congratulations to Sara Karnoscak, first place winner in the Children’s/Young Adult Fiction category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning story, "Upside Down Man."

Writer's Digest 90th Annual Competition Inspirational/Spiritual Essay First Place Winner: "Pop"

90th Annual Competition Inspirational/Spiritual Essay First Place Winner: "Pop"

Congratulations to Henry Hack, first place winner in the Inspirational/Spiritual Essay category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's his winning essay, "Pop."