Free-Lance Columns On The Rise?

By: Dave Astor

Free-lance columnists aren’t as visible as staff, syndicated, or news-service ones, but their ranks may be expanding.

“It seems to me that newspapers are using more of them,” said Cathy Gillentine, a free-lance columnist for the Texas City (Texas) Sun. “They don’t want to spend the money to staff a columnist position.”

Indeed, some papers use free-lance columnists to save on salaries and benefits — meaning, of course, that some full-time jobs are being eliminated. But other papers use free-lancers to supplement, not replace, staff columnists.

That’s the case with The Capital Times, Madison, Wis., which has used four free-lance opinion columnists for the last decade or so. “The big thing for us is getting more local voices in the paper,” said Managing Editor Phil Haslanger, who’s also president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (NCEW).

Haslanger said the four include a journalist, lawyer/former political candidate, and university person. They each write twice monthly and, like many free-lancers, are paid on a per-column basis.

Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner Editorial Page Editor Don Porter has used eight free-lance columnists for the past couple of years, with each writing once every four weeks. “It’s a lot more expensive to use locals, but I think a good mix between local and national voices serves the readers,” he commented.

Op-Ed/Sunday Editor Bob Davis said the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram in August began devoting the entire Monday Op-Ed page to free-lancers writing mostly on state and local issues. “The aim is to give readers better access to the pages,” said Davis, adding that he tries to “match expert with topic,” that turnaround can be quicker than with staff columnists who may have to do research before writing, and that the free-lancers (including a Latino social worker and an engineer/transportation activist) offer fresh perspectives. Some do require “a great deal” of editing, he said.

Why Free-lancers Free-lance

For free-lance columnists who are professional writers, it can be hard making a living without a salary and benefits. But some still welcome the opportunity, or are at a stage in their lives when they would not be working full-time anyway. For instance, Gillentine was glad to focus on her 24-year-old column after retiring last July. “When I was on the paper, I had a jillion other things to do in addition to the column,” said the former news editor.

John Taylor, editorial page editor of The News Journal, Wilmington, Del., uses two retired staff columnists on a free-lance basis because they provide local perspective. “The syndicates offer top-flight stuff at mostly reasonable rates, but it’s not local,” said the NCEW vice president.

Retirees aren’t the only free-lancers. Mary Curran-Downey, a former thrice-weekly staff columnist at The San Diego Union-Tribune, became a weekly U-T free-lance columnist in late 2000 because she wanted to do other writing (including a book) and spend more time with her 13- and 12-year-old sons. “They’re growing up quickly — already, they’re taller than me!” said Curran-Downey, whose column often discusses women’s and children’s issues. “I’m really grateful my paper is letting me do this. Many journalists I know, especially women, are looking for ways to make their family and professional life work together.”

The U-T didn’t hire a staff replacement for Curran-Downey, who, like Gillentine, e-mails columns from home.

U-T staff columnist Pete Rowe said it also can make sense for papers to use a free-lance rather than staff columnist to cover a topic such as, say, chess. “There are times when you need a columnist with a very specialized set of knowledge,” noted the National Society of Newspaper Columnists president.

But Rowe added that readers often think more of a full-timer than a free-lancer. “You lose some standing and credibility in the community when the columnist isn’t a staff member,” he said.

Book Editor and former columnist Dennis Lythgoe of The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, said: “In the long run, it’s not very helpful to use free-lance columnists because they don’t feel like part of the paper, they don’t really have relationships with the rest of the staff, and they don’t get around town as much.”

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