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Newspaper Columns

To supplement their editorial pages, newspapers print columns by regular columnists. Columnists write opinions - not necessarily the newspapers's opinions, but the columnist's own personal opinions. These are not fair, balanced articles. That is a reporter's job. The columnist's job is to comment on issues in a specific way, sometimes satirically, or whimsically. Columnists may write monthly, weekly, or several times a week. They may be local, regional, or nationally published. Many columnists operate completely independent of any single newspaper or chain, but are represented by a syndicate such as Creater's Syndicate. The same piece by a nationally syndicated columnist may appear in several papers, at or around the same time, across the country.

Learn the Interests and Style of Local Columnists

Most columnists develop a style of writing that becomes familiar to readers over time. They also often write repeatedly about a set of issues or themes, and their opinions on these issues are frequently predictable.

Read as many pieces by local columnists as you can, including those that appear in alternative papers. Identify the columnists who - based on their work - might have an interest in your cause. Then offer them ideas for columns suited to their interests and writing style.

Tips for working with Columnists:

Make sure you know if the columnist you want to contact is local or national. Most columns in local newspapers are written by nationally syndicated writers whose work appears in many papers. Look at the end of the column for a tag identifying the columnist, or in a reference guide such as the Yellow Book for more information.

A lot of syndicated columnists cannot be reached by phone. Call the newspaper you read her/his column in and ask if there is an assistant there or elsewhere who screens calls and mail for the columnist.

When calling a columnist, tell him/her about your idea as concisely as possible. As always, let the columnist know who you are, what your idea is, why the issue is important, and why it would make a good column. Also have written information ready to fax or mail if the columnist is interested.

Be brief on the phone. Practice your pitch in advance. You should know within a couple of minutes whether the columnist is interested.

Don't forget that columnists want exclusives. There's no point in writing the same column that someone else is already writing.

Save your time and theirs by contacting only columnists who might write about an issue like yours.

You can also send the columnist your idea in a one-page letter. Follow-up with a phone call in a week or so. Columnists are flooded with mail, so don't be surprised if he/she can't immediately recall seeing your letter.

If the columnist is interested in your idea, ask what other information you can provide to help them. If they aren't interested, thank them for their time and hang-up. Most columnists will not conduct an in-depth investigation on your behalf - primarily because they have too many columns to write, little time, and no staff for investigation. Be prepared with all the information you want them to have.

Columnists will seldom give your group's event free publicity. However, be on the lookout for "society" columnists who do plug community events.

If a columnist comments on your issue, or on a related event, be sure to follow-up with an offer to help them with on future, related items. But don't pester them. Some writers feel that if they've written about something once, there's no need to do so again.

You can also take the opportunity to ask them what kind of information they would like to receive from you in the future. If they want a specific type of story idea or information from you, get it to them as soon as possible (via courier or overnight if possible).

If a column contains inaccurate information, call or write the columnist and present documented, correct information. Always remember that columnists are not required to present both sides of a debate. Be reasonable.

Columnists do not track breaking news like a reporter does - so avoid sending them press advisories or releases. However, it is appropriate to let them know about visiting speakers they may wish to interview.

Don't send more than a couple of pages of information to a columnist unless they ask for it - they are busy and will not have time to read it all.

Some columnists like to receive newsletters, particularly if they are directly related to an issue about which they frequently write. Keep in mind that columnists toss most newsletters immediately. You may want to call them and ask if they would like to receive your newsletter on a trial basis. Be sure to remove them from your mailing list immediately if they no longer wish to receive it.

If a columnists tells a story and pieces of it are left out, let him or her know what's missing. The writer may come back to your topic later.

Developing a relationship with a columnist is similar to developing a relationship with a reporter. Once they know and trust you, it may be easier for you to influence what they write. However, a personal relationship is not essential to convincing a columnist to write about your cause.

The majority of this information can be found in Jonathan Salzman's, "Making the News: A Guide for Nonprofits & Activists," 1998. Published by Westview Press, Boulder.

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