If you’ve ever dreamed of having a weekly byline in the pages of the local or regional newspaper, you can make that dream into a reality. Many newspapers, both large and small, seek freelance columnists to provide copy for their paper. Over the past twenty years I’ve authored several columns in many newspapers.
First, network. Learn the names of the editors for any paper you seek as a home for your byline. Know the name of the editor of the department you want to write for and become familiar with that department. Meet the editor. If you have a chance to meet socially – at a local service organization, club, or event – do so. If not, gather up your clips, dress neat, and head for the newspaper office to introduce yourself to the editor.
Find your niche and what the paper needs. I’ve written ongoing book review columns, op-ed (opinion) columns, family columns, and local columns. Each was tailored to a need that a newspaper had and I filled it. If you’re uncertain where you might fit in ask the editor about current needs. I netted my book review column because I asked the editor what he needed. He considered it and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to have someone local write book reviews. If you think you could write book reviews, I’ll take a look.” He wanted reviews of new books and so I wrote a column on a bestseller. He ran it, paid, and we enjoyed several years of a good working relationship.
Polish your skills. Newspaper readers are skimmers. They scan the page and move on if nothing gains their interest. Make your column interesting and dynamic. Without readers, you won’t become a columnist.
Draw on common experiences. Whether you’re writing about genealogy, current events, or local history, draw the reader into your story with a common denominator. Find something that almost everyone can relate to and incorporate it into your story.
Be flexible. A weekly column may not be possible in the beginning but a twice-monthly column can get your foot in the door. Although some smaller papers don’t want to pay for columns, ask for compensation. Consider the average rates in the area and be reasonable. If nothing else, ask to barter your work for a free subscription or other perks.
If you are able to gain a regular column, congratulations! Prepare for feedback. You’ll receive both glowing praise and occasional criticism. That’s part of the overall picture. An ongoing newspaper column can gain additional clips, provide exposure, and earn experience. You might even become syndicated!