Becoming a Nationally Syndicated Columnist

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 martha@marthacarr.com and let’s talk.

Q: Do you still read newspapers? If so, do you read a print copy or view the paper online?
Have you ever considered writing for your local paper? If so, what topics might you cover?

47 thoughts on “Becoming a Nationally Syndicated Columnist

  1. Great post, Martha! I can honestly say that I didn’t have the first clue about what goes into being a nationally syndicated columnist. You have offered incredibly helpful tips and clear direction. Thanks so much!

  2. Martha, this was very interesting information. I’d never even considered writing for a local paper. How did you decide what you wanted your column to be about?

    • That’s a great question. It’s a lot like trying to pick a genre. Ask yourself a few basic questions about what really draws your attention, what topics are you bringing up a lot in conversations with friends and what national news items do you find yourself paying more attention to? I grew up in Washington, DC so politics was a natural and it’s great fun. Yeah, I know, not everyone would agree with me on that one but it’s a constant thriller with twists and turns. Politics also makes it easy to comment on all sorts of world topics such as hunger or housing.

  3. Hi Martha. I have frequently thought of writing for our local paper. I work for hospice so I’ve thought about some educational, “did you know…?” kind of things. Most recently I’m planning to establish a non-profit ministry in my county and would like to submit a regular article about that ministry and the other needs in our community. The goal is to engage people from all different churches – create some unity and excitement about grass-roots ministry. I always enjoy reading these columns by other people, especially in small towns. It seems to create a community or gathering point for people; a reminder that we’re all in this together. Thanks for the information and for sharing your story. I would love to do this and now I’m going to set a goal for myself to start – make a plan!

    • Hi Sherri,
      I love this sentence: I always enjoy reading these columns by other people, especially in small towns. It seems to create a community or gathering point for people; a reminder that we’re all in this together.

      I grew up in a small town, and also visit relatives in small towns. You’re so right about how they connect over the columns in small town newspapers.

  4. What a great post, Martha! I’m impressed that your column is nationally syndicated…wow!

    I have written for local papers and been featured in them for my teaching career. I much prefer holding the pen than being the subject of someone else’s pen…I guess that makes me a writer, huh? πŸ˜‰

    Great information here, and it inspires me to try my “pen” at writing more local columns. Thanks again for sharing!

  5. Thanks for all the great comments. Look forward to seeing some of your columns too!

  6. Martha, your energy….wow!

    Thank you for this article. I’m not sure I could handle the kind of pressure you receive from so many editors, but maybe it would be good for me since I often have typos. I cracked up when you said you buried two people with one mispelled word.

  7. Thank you, Martha, for such an informative look into another part of the writing world. Like Lucille, I laughed at the though to burying two people with one typo.

    The advice to start small is such a good one. I know the community newspapers around here are always looking for consistent, professional articles of interest to their readers. It’s a great place to jump in.

    • It’s a great place to jump in and the big city papers and the syndicates respect those papers. You get in good with a small paper and do your best and you’ll be amazed how far it will take you. Plus, the town of Brunswick asked me to give a speech on Secretary’s Day and the whole town turned out! There was such a bond from having a weekly conversation with an entire town. Can’t beat that!

  8. A reader sent me a great question asking how much criticism I get for my opinions and how does that go over with me? It’s so good – I wanted to share the answer. My favorite criticism was the gentleman who said it was a good thing he changed the newspaper in his pet’s birdcage every night. I loved that, mostly because he continues to this day to come back and read something again. Most people write to me to say how much something I wrote lightened their heart and that let’s me know that I’m in the right spot, doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But there are days when I get bricks thrown in emails and I still wouldn’t change what I said. On those days I remember who’s really in charge and that my idea of self is static and comes from within, not without. Both types of comments keep me humble and the right size in my own life and very, very grateful for all that I have.

    • Martha, your comment above inspired me! Thank you! Love that part where you said your “idea of self is static and comes from within.” I will carry those words with me. Have an amazing weekend running and jumping. πŸ˜‰

    • Loved this post, Martha!! I have not pursued syndication, but love writing occasional columns for The Kansas City Star. Your comment about your “fan” who uses your columns to line his bird cage make me laugh. My mother lived 8 years in assisted living. She was always eager to see any of my published pieces in the newspaper, and paid rapt attention as I read them aloud to her. I cut way back on the copies I bought for her, though, when I found my photo face-up in the bottom of the facility’s bird cage. Thanks, Mom!! πŸ™‚

  9. I absolutely loved this column! I’m a journalist too–hey, we have to stick together!–and I don’t think I’ve ever read a post about becoming a syndicated columnist.
    I too busted out laughing when you wrote that you accidentally buried two people.
    Excellent information … and motivating. Now if I can only clear off my schedule …
    Question: Are you familiar with Examiner.com? Any thoughts on that?

    • I am familiar with Examiner. The pay is ridiculously low but the experience might be worthwhile – at least for a couple of passes. Still, if you’re looking for consistency and to build a relationship with an audience, head for your small town newspaper. Doesn’t matter if it’s a weekly. Some of those are our strongest papers these days and most post everything online too.

    • Beth,
      I wrote for Examiner when it was brand new. It was a great way to get my articles into the blogosphere — they have such powerful search engines. The pay was very low. 1 cent per hit. More than anything I wrote to get exposure. One day I posted grief tips when Micheal Jackson died and had thousands of hits. I think I made $35. Examiner also pays $50 if you refer someone.

      I haven’t been writing for them lately because I would put lots of time and effort into an article and then if it didn’t fit their exact requirements of making it connect to your city, they would nix it. Over time I just go so frustrated because I tried hard to make my counseling articles associate with events in Denver, and still they would be blocked for no apparent reason. I finally gave up.

      You might have better luck depending on your topic. For instance, some people do restaurant reviews so it’s much easier to make their article connect to their city events.

      • I wrote for them too, so I know all about the low pay. I don’t know if that is still the case, because they are constantly reworking the system, and I would hope that would include the pay. It is one option for trying to build your platform, especially if your platform consists of nothing but a receipt from Home Depot and a pile of lumber.

  10. Hi Martha!
    I don’t think I could do what you do. Incredible. But what I really want to know is how you have the courage to jump out of a plane? Also, my daughter is going to be doing urban missions in Chicago beginning September 10th. She just got back from Sri Lanka where she road an elephant. Kind of sounds like something you would do. πŸ™‚ Thanks for this post. I read USA Today.

    • Love USA Today and they occasionally pick up my column, which is even better. Your daughter will love Chicago – let me know if I can give you any points of interest or other info. A jump out of a plane is the best way I know of to surrender and gain clarity and express a lot of gratitude all in one little lean.

      • I know one little lean would improve my prayer life really fast! πŸ™‚ I’ll Facebook you about Chicago. She’ll be there for 4-5 months and a month in Spain too. I think it may be a prereq to jump out of a plane if you’re a thriller writer.

  11. Martha, you’re such an inspiration. Wow! I’m sooo impressed that you’ve grown your readership to over four million. Talk about building a platform. Yours is HUGE!

    You’re an inspiration outside of your writing endeavors, too. I love hearing about your victory over cancer and how you’re now running, skydiving, and more. You make me want to conquer some of my biggest fears (heights, relinquishing control, excessive speed, to name a few) and jump out of a plane just to prove I can do it. Well, almost. Maybe one day. . .

    • You know, Keli, you don’t have to jump out of plane as much as lean forward… πŸ™‚

  12. I have never considered ‘going national’ since I’m not sure what I have to say that someone else isn’t already saying.

    I have written a regular monthly column for the local newspaper when I was working as gallery director in the same town. When that job ended, so did the column.

  13. Thank you for investing in aspiring writers. Your blog here is exactly the sort of dining room table many of us need. Because writing can be a lonely meal, we all need opportunities to sit and share in the vision of a larger journey. And to hear encouragement, too! I especially look forward to stories and tips about the art of blogging. Your social devotion to writing — including this blog — is exciting because it reminds me of the one common spirit which unites us all: the desire to share truth as well as a meal which is both needed and satisfying. Thanks again for carving out time to share your ideas and experiences. I think there are a lot of hungry people out here!

  14. That’s impressive, to have a frequent article in about a thousand small and large newspapers. Kudos!

  15. Great information. I have considered writing a column. I do work better under deadline pressures, so that’s one reason it appeals to me. But I am concerned about the time issue right now. Since I now direct a new writers conference it seems to eat up my precious writing time! I think I might feel overwhelmed at this point, but it will always be on my bucket list! You have certainly done it right! Thanks for sharing this.
    Jan Cline
    http://www.inlandnwchristianwriters.com

    • You could start right now by writing a guest column every time there’s a topic you really care about so that you can strengthen that muscle and start to build a relationship with an editor.

  16. For personal reasons, I stopped reading newspapers long before blogging was born, but it was interesting to get an insiders view of writing for them. In particular, I love what you said about accountability. I think it’s a point bloggers can learn from: to be transparent to their readers when they are expressing opinion or personal experience vs verified fact. For their part, it never hurts readers to remember to use caution when taking to heart what they read on the Internet. As for in newspapers? I’ll leave that opinion to the experts, but I’m happy to hear good writers can still get a lot of exposure that way. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Martha, I am so glad you wrote about this — I have been wondering how to jump-start a nationally syndicated column. I currently write a monthly column for my city newspaper, but was unsure of how to take the next step. You offer some very useful tips here. Thank you!

    • Another tip as a middle step between writing for your hometown paper and going to the big syndicates like King or Tribune can be looking for the small chains of newspapers. Most small newspapers these days are owned in a string of three or five and so it’s like a tiny syndicate and another level of exposure.

  18. Love this post, Martha! I’m a weekly op-ed columnist too, in my town CNHI paper. I absolutely love it and consider it a huge privilege. I was on the newspaper staff in college and feel like having this column I’ve come full-circle in this aspect of my writing dreams. Love your comment, “Just one letter off and I accidentally buried two people.” I don’t really have anyone besides me to proofread, which has resulted in a few embarrassing errors, mostly repeated words (I’ll never be a copy or line editor!!!). But I write about social justice type issues from a suburban perspective, and pray as I write each one that I can “strengthen, encourage and comfort,” my community in some way. In college a couple decades ago (!), my journalism professor said newspapers were dying, and in some ways they still are. But I cherish the printed word, and think perhaps the tangibility of newspapers and books may regain some ground as folks tire of e-everything.

    And you’re right about the discipline of it. Folks might think it’s easy to spit out a measly 500 words every week, but sometimes coming up with a unique slant or idea, and then making sure the information is accurate, can be more difficult than keeping my three boys and three dogs organized.

    Still, I’ll always have a bit of a love affair with newspapers. Another way to touch people’s hearts and make a difference with words.

    How cool and wonderful is that?!?

    • Oh, and P.S. I think it’s hilarious and awesome you have a huge following in India! Isn’t amazing how far our words can travel across geographic, language and cultural boundaries?!?

      • Amy – love your post and would love to see your column. Where can I find it? The newspaper on paper may wane but the need to report the news accurately by trained professionals will never go away. The printed word can go a lot of places that film can’t and sometimes it takes a longer explanation. It is amazing how far our words can spread and I think it’s how we really spread the idea of democracy.

      • Martha–here’s a link to all my columns: http://amysorrells.wordpress.com/column/ Also, after reading so many of the WordServe bios, I think it’s so interesting how many either have a history in or are still involved in newspapers.

        And yes, spreading the idea of democracy. Democracy and hope. What a gift to be able to do! πŸ™‚ Writing mercies and blessings to you!

  19. Martha, I’m just a little late reading this…looks like the last comment was over a year ago! Good advice never gets old. Thanks for posting. I really benefitted from your experience and wisdom. I have written a weekly gardening column/blog for two years – seasonally – and wish I could make it a bit more profitable. It has been published in our local paper, but I’ve been thinking if I could get published in more newspapers, then it might make it worthwhile financially. I have a question: can I reprint old columns for new papers?

  20. Greetings. I’m late to this conversation as well. If you are still checking this one, I do have a question. There are millions of excellent writers all putting up a constant steam of stellar work every day. Some go completely unnoticed except by close friends and family. Some become wildly popular and have thousands of followers, I’m thinking of Tracy Beckerman or Allie Brosh. Both of these women were “picked up for syndication” according to their bios. How does that happen? Is there some entity out ther measuring the number of followers a blog garners and thn offering syndication to them based upon already proven popularity? And if so, how does an excellent writer who is less connected to the social networking tools get noticed?

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