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Am I Famous Yet? - Making It Big (or Not) as a Syndicated Columnist

WEBSITE | NOV. 28, 2005

Syndication, in plain language, means making work available through a variety of venues. Written columns are a product, and distribution follows a similar pattern to that of any product: the writer is the manufacturer, the syndication network is the wholesaler, and the newspapers and magazines are the retailers. Up until the advent of the internet, syndication was a mark of success, an indication that there was an audience for your material.

Online, what passes for syndication is typically syndication of links rather than direct content. RSS (really simple syndication) feeds such as HumorFeed allow people to quickly insert links to today's headlines on their own sites. It can be an effective way to boost readership (assuming the RSS feed in question can stand out from the thousands available) but the ease of access to syndicated links comes with a price: you aren't paid for it. The real money, so to speak, remains in the paper and ink world, actual newspapers that people pay money for (and, admittedly, the online versions of these). And for many webmasters, bridging the gap from the web page to the printed page is a tantalizing goal.

Who hasn't dreamed of parlaying their Web site into a nationally syndicated column, becoming a modern day Art Buchwald or Erma Bombeck?

Who hasn't dreamed of parlaying their Web site into a nationally syndicated column, becoming a modern day Art Buchwald or Erma Bombeck? You already write content on a regular basis; all you need is for someone to pay you for doing it. But while the print world still remains a more viable venue for paying column jobs, the economics of the syndicated newspaper column have changed so that the typical mid-size newspaper might pay as little as $5 each time they publish a syndicated column. That means the author gets somewhere around $2 to $2.50 per column. If you're in 500 newspapers (that's a lot for the typical columnist) you're taking in more than $1,200 a week. Martha Stewart (pre-Imclone stock) was grossing somewhere in the $200,000 per year range for her weekly column. But there are plenty of syndicated columnists who are in as few as 10 papers, which might translate into income of $25 a week.

Recently, I sought out an acquaintance who has spent years as an executive at a media conglomerate working in syndication sales. What are my chances, I asked, of turning Satirium into a syndicated newspaper column? Her answer: Nil to none. She provided some tutoring in the changing economics of the newspaper business.

Over the last decade, newspaper editors have seen their news holes shrink substantially, often by a third or more. Their staffs have shrunk, and so have their budgets. As a result, they are buying fewer national columns, while seeking out more local columnists who can speak to readers' local interests. At the same time, national syndicates have engaged in a price war, driving the fee for some columns down to $5 per issue in many newspapers.

The syndication executive spoke of a writer whose op-ed talents she spotted in the mid-1990s. She signed this writer up for a column and took as a personal project promoting the writer and turning him into a brand name syndicated pundit. After years of pushing, the writer now appears in only a dozen newspapers.

"The only new syndicated columnists you see now with any kind of circulation are celebrities, sports figures, movie stars, and television personalities," she said. "A good interesting writer with something to say doesn't have much of a chance."

It can be done, it has been done... but making the jump from webmaster to traditional syndicated columnist just isn't a viable option for most if you plan on earning a living.