By: Steve Outing
Randy Cassingham is an example of why you don’t need a syndicate to have a successful career as a national columnist. He used the Internet to promote himself instead, even turning down an offer from a U.S. national syndicator to run his quirky weekly news column called “This Is True.”
Cassingham’s story is about how an individual, who says he’s a “terrible salesman” and has never issued a press release, can make a pretty decent living selling his column. None of this would have happened without the Internet.
Here’s his story. Cassingham, a journalist by training, used to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. One of his hobbies was clipping funny and strange news items, adding some of his own pointed comments, and posting them on the employee bulletin board. It was a hit at work, and co-workers suggested that he should do a newspaper humor column with this concept.
Around 1993 or 1994, Cassingham started to notice how the Internet was shaping up as an emerging medium, and the idea clicked to use the Internet as a way to gain visibility for a new, unknown column, and get enough of a following and notoriety to get published in print newspapers as well as online. It worked, and two years into doing the column he quit his JPL job and moved to Boulder, Colorado, to assume the life of an independent columnist and Internet entrepreneur.
The key? E-mail
The first step? Start an Internet mailing list, where people can sign up to receive a weekly e-mail message with Cassingham’s column, which consists of several recent oddball news stories rewritten and condensed by the columnist. At the end of each item, which typically are pretty funny themselves without embellishment, he adds a single-sentence comment. (For an item about Hillary Clinton’s reaction to charges of husband Bill’s womanizing, Cassingham wrote, “Still, Hillary plans to write a new book, ‘It Takes a Village to Satisfy My Husband.'”)
The mailing list started to take off quickly, and within four months Cassingham’s weekly column was going out to 10,000 people via e-mail. It has steadily grown in the last four years and now is up to 156,000 people in 141 countries — all from word of mouth, since the columnist has never purchased an ad nor issued a press release. He has gotten a fair amount of press coverage over the years from reporters who stumbled upon his service.
The free list is supported by one text ad (seven lines of copy) per week, which costs an advertiser $750. Because he has a broad consumer audience, Cassingham says his advertisers — who generally seek him out — have been wide ranging, from a gourmet food company that sells online, to a newsletter for Microsoft Word users, to a Web site geared to mature adults. (The latter is not a pornography site.) When he lacks enough advertisers to fill the slot every week, he “advertises for an advertiser” in the e-mail column.
Cassingham started out using Majordomo, a freeware mailing list manager, but now uses new software called Lyris from the Shelby Group, a state of the art list management program. The biggest advantage of using the newest list software, he says, is that it automatically handles all the bad e-mail addresses that pop up in large mailing lists, and allows subscribers to handle their own accounts without him getting involved — an important consideration because Cassingham’s is a one-person enterprise.
Part two of the business plan is a paid version of the mailing list. The free weekly mailings contain four news items and commentary and a “Headline of the Week.” If you want double that, you can pay $15 a year to be put on the premium service list. Paid subscribers get 7-9 news items, and don’t see the ads.
Cassingham won’t say how many paid subscribers he has, but boasts that “quite a few people are willing to pay for it. … This represents a significant portion of my income.” His biggest clientele for the paid list are preachers looking for stories to enliven their sermons, and lawyers.
Books, not Web archives
The third component of Cassingham’s business plan is book publishing. Once a year he self-publishes a compilation of about 500 This Is True items, then sells them through his Web site and promotions in his regular mailings. The books sell for $11 a piece, and the author will say only that he sells “thousands” of them. His third This Is True book just hit the market late this month. He does sell to bookstores and gives standard bookstore discounts for bulk purchases. But he doesn’t go out of his way to reach them, rather letting bookstore buyers visit and order from his Web site like anyone else. There’s no need to spend money on marketing; his mailing list and word of mouth is enough to keep business brisk.
The key to generating interest in the books is that they are the only way to get back copies of Cassingham’s columns. The This Is True Web site does not contain an archive of columns; the only way you can get them is to subscribe to one of the mailing lists and get them fresh weekly, or buy the annual book.
Finally, the last piece of this small-business puzzle is syndication of This Is True to print newspapers and magazines. Cassingham won’t give numbers of publishers that purchase his column, but says he’s mostly in smaller daily and weekly newspapers; to date, he hasn’t gotten in any large papers. (This Is True’s principal competitor is a syndicated feature called “News of the Weird,” by Chuck Shepherd, which appears in a number of larger papers.) This Is True is published in print “in 3-1/2 countries,” Cassingham says — the U.S., Canada, Sweden and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The foreign publishers came to him; he did not seek them out.
(He does not allow online sites to syndicate the column, because he doesn’t want anyone competing with his own online offerings.)
Cassingham does belong to a consortium of self-syndicated columnists, which markets the independents’ work by doing things like firing off monthly faxes to editors. He says it’s difficult for independents like him to break into the large papers, because many publishers don’t want to be bothered by multiple small invoices by individual content creators. They’d rather pay a single bill to a syndicate for multiple features.
But if larger papers want fresh new content, they need to look a little wider, Cassingham suggests, and the Internet is rife with talent waiting to be picked. Savvy editors should monitor the online space looking for new talent, seeing who is consistently good and can meet deadlines, he says.
Cassingham doesn’t envy the syndicated columnists. He turned down a deal from Creators Syndicate for This Is True, believing that he might make more money in the short run if he accepted, but in the long run there’s greater monetary potential by staying independent. He says his income from the various components of his This Is True venture has been doubling each year.
For the future, pay-per-click purchase of This Is True items looks like another promising revenue stream. Cassingham has been databasing and cataloging his column items, with the idea in mind that when a decent micro-payments system becomes available to him, a search feature will allow Web users to find humorous items on a particular topic. The pastor looking to spice up a sermon or the businessman looking for a particular humorous anecdote for a speech may be willing to plunk down a small amount of cash.
This columnist’s business model is one that even syndicated writers might envy.
Contact: Randy Cassingham, firstname.lastname@example.org
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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at email@example.com
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