How I Used the Web to Syndicate a Print Column

By: Randy Cassingham

Editor’s note: Randy Cassingham, who used the Internet in an unorthodox manner to establish himself as a syndicated print columnist, was recently hailed by the Los Angeles Times as the “Wrong-Way Riegels of the information superhighway, the computer version of that misguided player from the 1929 Rose Bowl who ran the other way up field.” The Colorado journalist’s column, This is True, currently appears in U.S. and Canadian newspapers and magazines as well as foreign language print publications in countries such as Sweden and Slovenia. E&P Interactive asked the columnist to tell our writing readers how he did it.

Like half the J-school graduate population, I always wanted to write a column. But I didn’t want to follow the traditional slow path to regular syndication, a process that can (of course) take many, many years, even when you have a format or topic that stands out from the crowd. So I took my column idea, mixed it with my online experience (I’ve been “on the ‘net” since 1982), and instead of merely putting my e-mail address next to my byline, I put the column itself on the Internet in July, 1994. Anyone with e-mail can “subscribe” to it for free, and get it every week. Now, a little over two years later, it is read online by an estimated 150,000 people in an absolutely amazing number of countries: 117 so far — that I know of. It takes my server six to eight hours to load in all the addresses each week, and about 24 hours to deliver all the copies around the world.

What are these people reading? News commentary. Fun news commentary. In This is True, I briefly retell about eight bizarre-but-true news stories from the “legitimate” print news media (no Weekly Star or Enquirer), and punctuate each with a hopefully humorous, often ironic, and/or typically opinionated tagline.

My unusual marketing (giving it away free) and the subject matter (a column that most journalists love) have helped generate quite a bit of good press coverage, not only in the “online” publications (for instance, Internet World magazine proclaimed True “Best in Net Entertainment” in its 1994 year-end roundup), but also in the mainstream press I cover. Newsweek called it “all the news that’s not fit to print.” The Washington Post said it features “the kind of news items that keep comedians and commentators in business.” And the New York Times asked, “How did he get so popular so fast? Well, for one thing, he writes funny stuff.” Nice words to help build a following for Yet Another Feature.

So how did this translate into print sales? The more savvy editors are already online, trolling for new talent and fresh content. They are naturally attracted to a feature which says the kinds of things many journalists wish they were allowed to say in their straight news stories. I started to get e-mail from them, asking if they could license the text. You bet; it doesn’t usually occur to them that that’s the whole idea. And the international scope of the ‘net means my media outlets are not confined to the U.S. Indeed, This is True is doing better overseas than at home; in print, it’s already running in three languages and in four countries.

Being online — and asking my print outlets to include my e-mail address next to my byline — gives me something else that writers crave: feedback. Hundreds of messages a week from readers help me stay in touch with what they’re thinking. For instance, early feedback indicated that readers were bothered by some of the more bizarre death stories, so I toned down that aspect.

Currently, I’m self-syndicating, though I’m considering an offer from one of the larger syndicates. It’s a tough decision– give up a lot of control and a large chunk of the income for the imprimatur (and sales ability) of a well-known syndicator, or keep going as-is, using the infrastructure of the Internet to do what in the “old days” only syndicates and wire services could accomplish: quick and efficient distribution. This is new territory, and there are conflicting short- and long-term implications. I haven’t signed the contract yet, but I’m already doing well enough that I did “quit my day job” this summer to work full time on True.

Meanwhile, I keep going on the ‘net, both distributing the text to print outlets on a “private” feed and to the Huddled Masses reading the “public” distribution a week later. I use my author’s note space in the mass version to pitch copies of “True” book compilations; ‘net readers have purchased thousands of them. And I continue to say “yes” to just about any editor that comes toward me waving a checkbook — and just about any reporter looking to write an interesting feature about the guy going the wrong way in the news business.

The Web site Cassingham developed to promote his column can be found at http://www.freecom.com/truehome.

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