I am fortunate enough to be both a national columnist on politics and world events through Cagle Cartoons, Inc. and a blogger at www.marthacarr.com on writing, faith, and whatever wild adventure is going on in my life. This weekend that means a 5K followed by a second jump out of a plane. Don’t tell my agent. I’m celebrating learning to walk, and then run again after a whopper of a bout with cancer.
However, there has to be a question in everyone’s mind these days whether it’s worthwhile for writers to still strive to become nationally syndicated columnists. The decline of newspapers and the rise of blogs (like this fabulous one) must make people wonder if there’s a place for the journalist who provides content through a clearing house.
Both a column and a blog can become a source of income and it takes time for that to be true in both instances. There’s really no shortcuts, so that’s the same.
But despite all of the advantages to having a blog, and there are many, there are still some pretty big benefits to writing for others for a living.
- Accountability – there’s a constant weekly deadline with a required word count. No longer and no shorter than 700 to 750 words. The grammar has to be correct, which means AP Style and the facts have to be checked and sourced. An occasional mistake is okay – it’s bound to happen – like the time I mistakenly wrote interred instead of interned. Just one letter off and I accidentally buried two people.
- Editor – my column appears in about a thousand small town newspapers and some pretty big websites such as MSNBC, Politicus and Moderate Voice and so that means about a thousand editors are combing through the piece to make sure I’m not going to make them look bad. There’s also an editor at Cagle Cartoons that is reading the piece as well. Occasionally that means a conversation about a statement I’ve made, to make sure it’s correct and can I back it up with facts. That’s always in the back of my mind and keeps me rigorously honest. It also means I’m not going to reprint something I heard from friends, saw on the internet or even read in another publication if I can’t find original, reliable sources. Great training for every other kind of writing as well, including fiction. As writers, we want to get it right but knowing when to even ask a question or where to go takes practice.
- Size of the Audience – These days a lot of syndicates, like Cagle, are going to a subscriber format instead of making their customers, the newspapers and websites, pay for each piece individually. They pay one flat fee and can use as much of the content as they want on any given day. That means I’m under someone else’s established banner and it immediately translated to a million new readers for me when I started three years ago, and now translates to four million readers a month in four different countries. I’m very big in India. Also at the bottom of every column, every week there sits my web address, an email address and the name of any recent book. It’s even better than a paid ad because all of these people already know me.
- More Profitable Book Tour – Unlike a blog, my audiences are concentrated in large numbers in specific towns and I can design a book tour around that information. I choose to speak as fundraisers for nonprofits such as United Way and sell books afterward in partnership with a local bookstore as a way to raise funds. That also gives the newspaper that runs my column an opportunity to promote it for free, for me, and do some good work for their community as well.
If you are interested in getting started as a columnist, start by going local. That’s how I got started, at the Brunswick Times-Gazette, home of the world famous Brunswick Stew in Virginia. I still get the paper here in Chicago. They need your content and you in turn, can learn how to tell a concise story on a wide variety of topics while getting used to a constant deadline. Then after a year or more, take all of those clippings and start shopping larger newspapers individually and at the same time the big syndicates. Those clippings will tell them you can handle the basics and that you have a few things to say that are worth reading. If you want to know more on the topic, send me your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk.