By: Dave Astor
The writing may not be on the wall, but some syndicates are having a tough time selling columns these days. Reasons include fewer newspapers, fewer two-paper markets, smaller news holes, the narrower 50-inch web, and competition for space from local and news-service columns. An ad rebound will increase pages when the recession ends, but other factors may be more lasting.
“If someone like Erma Bombeck came along today, she wouldn’t make it into as many newspapers,” said Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) Editorial Director and General Manager Alan Shearer, whose roster is about 80% columns.
Even Heloise’s list dipped below 500 last year. “I lost more papers than I ever have in a year, and I’m not the only one,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, editors say it’s economic, not the column.” King Features Syndicate did also find Heloise a number of new clients in 2001 and early 2002.
New writers are hurt, too. “Generally, when we launch a column, we don’t get the number of clients we used to,” said George Haeberlein, King vice president for worldwide syndication sales.
Universal Press Syndicate Executive Vice President and Editor Lee Salem added, “Five years ago, we might have come out with six new columns. Now, it’s more like three a year.” But he said Universal’s established columnists are still doing well because of their “name recognition.”
Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe said sales of his huge 60-column list remain “strong.” He said one reason is that various writers (such as Bill O’Reilly) are high-profile authors or TV hosts, so newspapers want them, too.
Shearer said WPWG’s Op-Ed column clienteles are holding up. “A few are growing, and a few are being nibbled,” he said — and a desire for diversity helps new female and minority Op-Ed columnists. But some syndicates struggle with Op-Ed sales as they compete for space with local and news-service columns. And selling other features isn’t easy, either.
Shearer said business sections are running fewer syndicated columns because of space cutbacks and the use of more news-service columns, and that food sections shrank as ads migrated to preprints. And Heloise said many papers reduced advice pages to one from two in recent years.
One thing helping syndicate sales is shorter columns. Newcombe said the average dipped from 750-800 words two decades ago to 650-700 words today.
WPWG Sales Manager/North America Karisue Wyson said papers used to buy more columns that ran occasionally, but now tend to buy only ones they use often.
Comparing Column Categories
Shearer said syndicated columnists have an edge over news-service scribes because they’re better known. But news-service writers can also be very good, and, as part of a package, they’re cheaper.
Shearer added that syndicated columnists can be better than local ones because they often have more expertise and resources. For instance, WPWG foreign-affairs writer Jim Hoagland’s client list rose to 55 from 42 since Sept. 11 (though many other columns suffered as syndicates temporarily eased sales efforts and papers focused on news coverage). And syndicated columns are cheaper than a local columnist’s salary. “For what you pay, they’re very cost-effective,” said Heloise.
But National Society of Newspapers Columnists President Pete Rowe said local columns have benefits, too. “If our readers want to read a column on an event in San Diego County,” said The San Diego Union-Tribune writer, “then local columnists would have better resources and a better take on that. They put local and regional news in a context that makes sense to the local reader.”
And there are successful preformatted features, such as Universal’s business-oriented “Motley Fool” half page, that offer ad possibilities and save papers layout work. “If syndicates continue to be creative, there’s room for text,” said Salem.
Even writers who manage to get syndicated these days rarely make a living exclusively from their columns unless they’re newspaper staffers. This means that part of their energy is diverted to earning money elsewhere. Some writers, seeing the small earning opportunities, don’t even try to become columnists.
But “there’s still a market” for syndicated columns, said Haeberlein. “They provide useful information that a newspaper can’t always provide on a local basis.”
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