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What is a Columnist?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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A columnist is someone who regularly prepares brief essays and commentaries for publication. Columnists may work for broadcast media in radio and television, but they are more commonly associated with the print media, in the form of newspapers and magazines. A columnist is a type of journalist, but he or she is not required to adhere to expected journalistic ethics of neutrality, and a column does not necessarily contain news.

Columnists usually write on a regular schedule, producing material for publication on a weekly, monthly, or daily basis. They appear in the same section every time they are published, usually under the same heading, such as “News and Notes” for a columnist who provides information about community events. They may write under their own names or under a pseudonym, such as “Miss Manners” for the noted etiquette columnist otherwise known as Judith Martin. Some columnists write specifically for syndication, while others work for a particular news organization, and their columns may be reprinted by permission from the organizations they work for.

Originally, columnists focused primarily on humorous pieces, which might include political satire, jokes, or other forms of humor to lighten the news and keep readers occupied and engaged. Over time, columnists began to expand their offerings, and they can be found writing on food, fashion, gossip, and lighthearted community news. A columnist may work as a critic, writing a regular column on a topic of interest such as film or art.

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Some columnists use letters from readers as a core part of their column. Advice columnists, for example, take requests for advice and assistance from readers, responding to them in a regular column. A columnist can also use a column as an educational forum; for example, a gardening column might include answers to questions about plant identifications from readers. Reader submissions can also be used to distribute information or coordinate community exchanges.

Editorials are also commonly presented in a column format. In an editorial commentary, a columnist is generally quite opinionated, discussing an ongoing issue or news items. Editorial columnists can also write endorsements for elections, provide information for citizens who want to get involved in particular causes, or provide a forum for debate, as in the case of a publication which has two columnists of opposing views who duel over a topic in a jointly-produced column.

Working as a columnist requires good writing skills and a strong work ethic, because the day to day burden of producing a column can be quite significant. Some columnists start out as journalists, while others may be asked to consider becoming a columnist because of their expertise in a field. An economist, for example, might be invited to produce a weekly column on economic issues for the readers of a newspaper.

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