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If you want to become a newspaper columnist, you should first develop one or two specialty writing areas. Even a great deal of writing experience isn't likely to help you get hired as a newspaper columnist unless you've written extensively in one or two areas. A degree in journalism, communications or English is likely to be needed if you want to become a newspaper columnist of any type, unless you are strictly going to head your own publication.
You won't need a degree if you start your own Internet newspaper. However, while starting your own newspaper is a good idea if you have the skills and time to create a quality publication, if you hope to eventually be hired as a full-time columnist by someone else, you are still likely to need a degree. If you want to become a newspaper columnist and don't already have a journalism, communications or English degree, earning one on the Internet while starting your own online newspaper may work out well. If you choose an online educational program, make sure it's properly accredited and accepted by newspaper employers. Most employers in all industries can appreciate a good online education and it can be a convenient way for people to hold down a job or other pursuit while earning their degree.
Whether or not you decide to start your own online newspaper, research the Internet for other quality publications and approach them about writing a piece or two as a guest writer. Make sure you have your name, or byline, on the piece so that you'll be able to link to it to have a quality clip for potential employers. Typically, online guest writing spots don't pay much if anything, so you should only do this if the publication will impress potential employers favorably and give you a place to showcase your skills. Whether your specialty area is politics or gardening, if you hope to become a newspaper columnist, you'll need reputable published clips, or writing samples.
Study the newspapers you hope to write for now or in the future. This includes reading the ads and editorials to get a good sense of who the target audience is for each particular paper. While your writing must effectively interest the target audience and fit in with the newspaper's overall style, the column you propose to add to the publication should reflect your personality. In other words, you want to bring something different to the newspaper than is already there, while at the same time be able to hold the attention and satisfaction of current readers. Finding the right balance isn't easy if you want to become a newspaper columnist, but it's essential and can be accomplished through the careful study of publications that interest you.
When you're ready to apply for a newspaper columnist job, be ready to pitch ideas for your columns. Have several name ideas prepared for your column as well as questions for the editor who interviews you. Newspaper columnists aren't only expected to be educated and experienced in their subject, but also to be idea people who meet editorial guidelines. If you have a daily or weekly newspaper column, you'll need constant fresh takes on your topic; the hiring editor will need to see evidence of that quality in you during the interview process. You'll have to ultimately convince the editor why you're the best person for the job if you hope to become a newspaper columnist.
@Vincenzo @Soulfox -- either strategy can work, but the one Vincenzo suggests might be the best one if you want to establish yourself as a columnist and make a substantial income at it.
Why? If you are a good enough column, you can syndicate it and market yourself as an independent column free of influence from any organization.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind, however. If you do have a hit column on your hands and you can syndicate it, consider letting the paper that allowed you to run it for free to keep running it. That shows a bit of goodwill on your part and allows you to legitimately claim that publication as your "home" newspaper. Also, it all comes down to quality -- making it as a columnist is tough, but good writers can develop a unique niche and make some money catering to it if the quality writing is there.
@Vincenzo -- another great tactic is to offer a trade group or other organization the chance to sponsor your column. Say, for example, you are hired to write a weekly column for a statewide banking association. You offer to write it for $100 per week and promise to get it in at least 10 newspapers or you will voluntarily let them pull out of the deal.
In other words, they get a column in 10 newspapers a week and that column will promote the banking association and contain contact information for the group. That comes to $10 per newspaper and that's not a bad investment.
Once that agreement is reached, then you can offer newspapers the chance to run
the column for free. If it is a quality column, the chances are good you will find papers to run it in a hurry. The newspaper still gets a free column, but you get a sponsor who will pay you to write it.
If you want to break in as a newspaper columnist, keep this in mind -- newspapers love free content. They won't run garbage, of course, but you might be able to work out a deal with a local paper to take free columns if you have the expertise in the areas on which you focus, know Associated Press (AP) style and have some experience in journalism. If you write a quality column, you will be able to find a place to run it.
Of course, you may be wondering why on earth you'd want to give away a column for free. That may be necessary in the beginning as you establish yourself as a columnist. After you have published several
columns, that is the time to negotiate for payment from the newspaper.
Or, if you want to expand, market it to other newspapers and point out that you have been published in the paper which has accepted it for free. If you can show a body of work, newspapers are much more likely to take you seriously as a columnist. If you write quality stuff, you won't be selling your column for nothing for long.
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