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Do Syndicated Columnists Have a Future? 49

Posted by Cliff
from the there's-always-weblogs dept.
DrMrLordX writes "With declining circulation numbers looming over the heads of major newspaper publishers, what fate awaits syndicated columnists? I am not syndicated, but I do write for a local independent paper with the ultimate goal of becoming successful (financially and otherwise) as a columnist. Every time I contemplate the possibility of seeking syndication, bleak future newspaper circulation forecasts make me question my own motives. Is it even possible to break into the editorial world with a shrinking reader base? Would it be better to get into socio-political blogging and rely on ad/referral revenues?"
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Do Syndicated Columnists Have a Future?

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  • Credibility (Score:1, Interesting)

    by NineNine (235196)
    The problem with blogging, is that among those of us with brains, most bloggers have no credibility, whatsoever. Blogging is amateur. Sure, you can make money from it (PerezHilton), but you'll never have any credibility as a real journalist.
    • by udderly (890305) * on Saturday January 06, 2007 @07:00PM (#17492070)
      What? No cr3d|b|Lity? H0w kin u say that? U cant be sayin that sum an0nym0us pers0n on teh intarweb isnt a real jurnalist. GTG, m0m sez my macncheez is re4dy.
    • Re:Credibility (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Ksempac (934247) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @07:07PM (#17492124)
      I dont agree, i remember a French blog during the vote for the European Constitution. The webmaster was absolutely unknown before this. However, he found and posted a lot of documentations about the Constitution, some personnal thoughts about them, and managed to attract others people who wanted to discuss about this. Soon, the blog became really popular, and got some attention by news websites and newspapers.
      Many people felt that the vote for the Constitution was fishy, because they knew nothing about the Constitution they were supposed to vote for. The blog was an answer to that problem, so people liked it.
      This proves that if you can bring something new and interesting to your readers, they will follow you, no matter who you are. You dont get credibility by working in a well-known newspaper, you get credibility by writing interesting/insightful articles.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by KevinIsOwn (618900)
        While I would absolutely say there are more good examples of credible bloggers like this one, there are undoubtedly many who aren't credible. But there is also the problem of continuing credibility. Once this person is in the limelight and people are listening, what happens if something is posted that isn't credible? (but people don't know until later, or at all). There is no oversight, no editor and fact checkers confirming the posts.

        Lastly, your point that "You dont get credibility by working in a well-
    • The problem with blogging, is that among those of us with brains, most bloggers have no credibility, whatsoever. Blogging is amateur. Sure, you can make money from it (PerezHilton), but you'll never have any credibility as a real journalist.

      Then I guess you read Richard Cohen. [washingtonpost.com] He gets paid to write that stuff.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by UbuntuDupe (970646) *
      I'd have to strongly disagree. First of all, in my experience, the intellectual quality of bloggers really puts syndicated columnists to shame. (I'm talking about the upper end of them -- no doubt you can find lots of bad quality.) They can write much more and link to the basis for their claims. If anything is in error, they'll typically have comment and trackback capability so others can instantly expose them. Rarely will columnists deign to defend their assertions. After reading blogs for a few year
      • by drsquare (530038)

        (I'm talking about the upper end of them -- no doubt you can find lots of bad quality.)

        That's the problem: for every good blog there are ten thousand abysmal ones. The value in traditional media is seperating the wheat from the chaff.

        Also many blogs are one-trick ponies, writing about the same thing every day. In a newspaper there is a variety of columns on different topics. Newspapers may be on the ropes but they aren't dead yet.

        Although for the record I haven't bought a newspaper in years, they're of very

    • by SQL Error (16383)
      The problem with newspapers, is that among those of us with brains, most newspapers have no credibility, whatsoever. Newspapers are corporations. Sure, you can make money from it, but... Well, actually, most newspapers are bleeding cash and subscribers and have been for the past decade.
    • NineNine - You are giving way too much importance to the amateur vs professional debate and thinking about bloggers in terms of education level and ability to find "real" news. I could go off in a very long article about the power and profit a successful blog can bring the owner and the influence it can wield, but an example would be better. Take a look at TechCrunch sometime http://www.techcrunch.com/about-techcrunch/ [techcrunch.com], although I'm sure you already know about it. It's were the MSM (Main Stream Media) ta
  • by zappepcs (820751) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @06:48PM (#17491952) Journal
    Yes, they have a future, just not a very bright one....
  • by MarkusQ (450076) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @06:48PM (#17491960) Journal
    Every time I contemplate the possibility of seeking syndication, bleak future newspaper circulation forecasts make me question my own motives.

    Why does it make you question your motives? Are you suspecting yourself of harboring self-destructive tendencies?

    --MarkusQ

    • by DrMrLordX (559371)
      In a way, yes. Pursuing a career as a writer could be hazardous to the health of my financial future, particularly if I do so while neglecting other possible career paths.
      • Fine, if that was your intention. However, if you meant that it made you question your goals you may want to be more careful how you word things. After all, the whole point of being a writer is to communicate your ideas with words.

        --MarkusQ

  • In a word, no (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Jerf (17166) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @06:54PM (#17492008) Journal
    Econ 101. Supply and demand. Supply of pundits is rising dramatically. Despite all the kids who think they are cool posting on Slashdot about how bad blogs are, enough of them are good that the supply of good pundits is also rising dramatically.

    I honestly don't see how the economic value of punditry is going to end up at anywhere other than $0 in the very near future; supply is skyrocketing, demand is constrained by the amount of time people have to consume things (punditry is ultimately competing for entertainment time). Paid columnists are the only exception, and I daresay the demand for that is sinking much faster than the supply is also sinking.

    Even if there are a few superstars who get paid something (maybe not even a lot), in the future the way those superstars will be discovered is after they spend time working for nothing to prove they have the goods. Imagine something like the way sports works; you do a lot of unpaid work before you get one of the precious few multi-million dollar slots. It'll be like that, except without the multi-million dollar contracts.

    If you love writing... write! But don't expect to make any money as a columnist, and expect to lose your job sooner rather than later. Maybe you should just write as a hobby and find another way to make money; being a good writer can get your foot in a lot of doors and make you stand out in a world of people who write like idiots.

    If you go forward with this, I think you need to go in with an awareness that you are basically playing the lottery; even if you're very, very good, it's still going to take a healthy dollop of luck to "make it".
    • by JoshJ (1009085)
      The supply of "good" pundits is rising at a far lower rate than the supply of pundits in total. Probably at a rate of O(n*log(n)) as opposed to O(n^4), or similar. This is a huge problem, as the noise is going to overwhelm the signal.

      As far as blogs in general replacing syndication- it'll never happen. As long as there is still a print media, there will be syndication. It'll take upwards of 40 years for the newspaper to fade into obscurity, and by then something else will have replaced the blog on th
      • Re:In a word, no (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Jerf (17166) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @07:34PM (#17492366) Journal
        You are assuming that there exists no way to filter the signal out of the noise. The evidence is not on your side. You're posting on one of the "ways to filter the signal from the noise", and it's not even one of the better filters right now. (Slashdot survives now as community, not as filter.)

        Plus the system tends to self organize. How many crappy blog posts have you read in the past week? There may be millions of crap blogs, but you already never see them. By and large you only see what rises to the top. The current behavior of the system is not that of a system with no filtering. It's just the filtering doesn't look like what you are used to.

        I see every reason to believe that we may pay for skilled people to pull even higher-quality signals out of the noise. I also see every reason to believe that is not going to take the form of an anointed (by journalism degree) priesthood that fully controls massive print infrastructures and dictates what stories are and are not valid, and what slants on the stories are and are not valid. Centralizing the filtering functions is as stupid as trying to centralize the economy.

        The fact that journalism-as-we-know is a really, really, unspeakably, incredibly bad filter is only going to accelerate this process. Journalism talks a pretty talk about verifying sources and getting multiple angles and being "fair" but I see absolutely no reason beyond the pretty rhetoric to believe it is doing any of those things. Rather, it is a money-making enterprise that specializes in producing advertising space. If you can explain to me where the journalistic principles actually fit into that, with actual evidence, I'm all ears. Or explain to me how it isn't primarily a money-making enterprise.

        (Note I don't really have a problem with it being a money-making enterprise. I have a problem when it presents itself as anything else.)

        But even if we pay for filtering, we're only going to be paying for the filtering; the actual "signal" will be a commodity, because there will still be so damn much of it. Getting back to the original question: Is there a future in providing signal? Almost (but not quite) certainly not.

        The endgame is that "blogging" and "the current media" will eventually merge until you can't tell the two apart anymore. We're already starting to see that, really. It's only a matter of time before CNN simply runs a "blog post" with light editing; already there have been stories that amount to little more than covering a blog post or set of blog posts, with the only difference being that CNN is about a week late to the party, they tend to "forget" to link to the primary sources, and they get all angsty about the bloggers.
        • by El Torico (732160) *
          I agree that the vast majority of media outlets are useless, but there is one notable exception - The Economist. Apparently I'm not the only person who is willing to pay for it - http://printmediakit.economist.com/Circulation.10. 0.html [economist.com].
          • by Jerf (17166)
            I would like to acknowledge both your and EMeta's point. There is still some good stuff out there and in some sense I do have an obligation to say that after that post :)

            That is part of why I don't believe the "blogs sweep away the old media" scenario, but rather in a melding. The best will survive and get better. Other media outlets will almost certainly further evolve into outlets that give people what they want, without regard for truth, for advertising purposes. We can already see the beginnings of that
          • by Jon Kay (582672)

            Yeah, I just resubscribed to the Economist. For one thing, their articles already are at the quality of the best blog posts around.

            For another, they're one of the few formerly solely print magazines that actually figured out how to make a profit. I don't understand why more newspapers haven't tried some variation of their biz model. So many continue indefinite downward spirals rather than address the problem.

        • by EMeta (860558)
          There do still exist some non-advertising based media--NPR, BBC and CBC to name a few. For more in depth coverage, places like http://votesmart.org/index.htm [votesmart.org] do quite a good job of being above the fray.

          I do agree with most of what you're saying (you're right on with the current filtering effectiveness bit), but I think there are some sources of media that manage not to want to be profitable still.

        • Journalism talks a pretty talk about verifying sources and getting multiple angles and being "fair" but I see absolutely no reason beyond the pretty rhetoric to believe it is doing any of those things.

          This is simply a ridiculous assertion, especially when comparing traditional media to blogs. In all forms of traditional media there is an editor. The vast majority of blogs have no editor, and even if they do, they don't have the same incentive to verify facts and tell the truth as traditional print does
        • by SQL Error (16383)
          I agree with everything you said except for the last part. Blogging and "mainstream" media won't merge, exactly.

          Blogging itself doesn't matter. What matters is the internet. Every form of information distribution will be absorbed by the iInternet, and soon. Newspapers, TV, radio, books, magazines, telephones, everything.

          That's what the internet does. As soon as you plug something into the internet, it becomes part of the internet. And you can't remain unconnected and compete.

          Blogging has made a lot of
      • This is so wrong in so many ways.

        The supply of "good" pundits is rising at a far lower rate than the supply of pundits in total.

        I'll give you that.

        Probably at a rate of O(n*log(n)) as opposed to O(n^4), or similar.

        But not this one, besides abusing Big O notation, you also managed to pull functions out of your ass. What does n represent? Time? The number of current pundits? Blogs that exist? Some other useless input?

        This is a huge problem, as the noise is going to overwhelm the signal.

        How could the noise overwhelm the signal? The Internet is mostly crap (notice I didn't say 99%). However, there will always be places like Google to rank valuable content, or /. to aggregate valuable content. Gems will be found. Why would you suppose t

    • by forthurst (986834)
      Many papers now offer their editorial to cyberspace. What do they get back? Advertising revenue and feedback on their daily beauty contest: which stories, which writers bring in the punters? When will papers start to react to the latter? What is the future for columnists with zero knowledge, originality, wit, or credibility, who currently pack out the column inches, but score ducks with the readers?
    • Re:In a word, no (Score:4, Interesting)

      by aethera (248722) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @10:51PM (#17493920)
      You could always limit that supply by setting yourself up in a niche market, so to speak. The national syndicated columnists may end up going the way of the dodo, but local columnists will probably be around for as long as local papers are. I'm thinking of the people who evolved out of the old local gossip columnist, the ones who can write about boring local stuff like high school graduations, ribbon cuttings, road construction projects and petty bickering in a city council and somehow make it all seem important, maybe even interesting. With a dash of local muckraking too, I suppose. As long as people like to hear about themselves, this sort of thing is likely to be around, and possibly even a way to make a living.
  • Whilst I know certain factions here on slash oppose Roland's methods, he consistently uncovers decent relevant articles.
    If you filter out the crapflood of comments that follows one of his submissions here, you can tell the subject matter provokes us.
    I personally wouldn't be surprised if he (above others) did become a real journalist, he does have a knack for it.

    (there are worse crimes than link whoring to make some pennies)
  • Revenue streams (Score:4, Insightful)

    by meta-monkey (321000) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @07:34PM (#17492360) Journal
    Columnists make money in more ways than just getting paid by newspapers for their columns. They also write books and give speeches. You might want to try writing a column, publishing it freely online and distributing it to as many pundit sites (like Townhall.com, etc) as possible, and using that to drive traffic to your website. You can sell advertising on your website, but more importantly, you can get famous. Once everybody knows who you are, write books based on the topics you cover in your columns, and sell those. Also develop speeches about your topics, and advertise those to universities, corporations, and politicians.

    Also, hats and t-shirts!

    Just a thought.
  • Why not both? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by RancidPickle (160946) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @07:37PM (#17492398) Homepage
    Why do you think that only one path is available?

    Use both. The more you write, the better you'll be. You can always use a pen name for the blog if you're really concerned about getting labeled as an amateur by the big rags. Keep up with the local media, work up to a major market. Hell, why not take three paths and toss in a YouTube presence. Since a large part of your field is luck, having three tickets to the big game gives you an advantage, especially when the dead tree rags start to 'get' the electronic age. You'll be ahead of the pack.

    By the by, don't get in the field for the money -- it's like being a teacher. No money, but the job satisfaction goes a long way. Good luck/break a leg and all that.
    • by amaupin (721551)

      The more you write, the better you'll be.

      I submit, as a rebuttal to your argument, one Roland Piquepaille.

  • I don't see why there won't be syndicated columnists when folks like me still spend a portion of every day visiting sites with paid columnists. Predicting the death of the syndicated columnist is like predicting the death of the newspaper. Yeah, it will likely happen someday. But it's a while off and will happen slowly enough that no one will care. The trend will just change.
  • You're questioning you own motives? Did you mean 'business plan' perhaps?
    • by DrMrLordX (559371)
      Yes, perhaps 'business plan' might have been a better choice. However, difficulties facing op-ed writers, bloggers, pundits, columnists, and other forms of talking-heads sometimes also make me question why I would even want to be such a creature in the first place.
  • Newspapers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rinisari (521266) on Saturday January 06, 2007 @08:56PM (#17493058) Homepage Journal
    As long as print newspapers exist, so too will syndicated columnists. When the columnists' syndicate decides to stop selling to print newspapers, the columnists will continue to write. It's not up to them where they are published—that responsibility lays with the syndicate.

    Should a syndicate feel that a columnist's views are no longer needed by the syndicate, the columnist will do what every one else can do: start a blog, and perhaps use his or her last column as an advertisement for the blog.

    Short plug for an awesome political columnist: Charley Reese [wikipedia.org]. Don't mind his political affiliations—his views aren't unique to any single party.
  • My local newspaper - http://www.kingcountyjournal.com/ [kingcountyjournal.com] - is going out of business in a couple of weeks. I think that all newspapers are headed in this direction and it's just the smaller ones that are going belly up first. You should go into some other line of business, like car repair or computer programming.
  • Newspapers are dying out, but quality journalism will still be in high demand. An alternative to traditional print and blogs are publications like Crikey [crikey.com.au] which mix the old with the new. They offer traditional newspaper articles in a daily email and website format. Crikey's only real problems are getting respect and recognition from the traditional industry, probably because of their numerous criticisms of it. Expect to see all major newspapers follow this lead, especially after Rupert Murdoch's endorsement
    • by masdog (794316)
      I've contemplated starting an online newspaper once in a while. The first was when I was in college, but I ended up joining the deadtree paper even though I could have put out a higher quality product. Now I'm thinking about putting out my own local paper.

      In both cases, the papers weren't daily. My local paper is a weekly publication, and my college paper was bi-monthly. There doesn't have to be a daily edition, but the ability to get a story up within a day or two, while it's still current, beats ou
      • by Nazlfrag (1035012)
        Crikeys success probably rests on their charging for a full edition, and using the funds to employ professional journalists. Their main benefit is to often cover stories weeks before traditional press, or the ones that they won't touch, and do so in an authoritave manner. To do this, a local subscriber base is needed to pay for professionalism, much like traditional press. A good paper needs a good editorial staff above all else, and you could get away with amateur journalists (students, bloggers etc.). If
        • by masdog (794316)
          The original idea was to compete with the campus paper. Using OSS and some private funds, I could have run that "paper" for a year on about $100. My writers probably wouldn't be paid unless I could get advertisers, and the campus paper didn't pay anyone on the staff at all despite being school funded and having advertisers. At the time, my whole reason for wanting to do it was the complete lack of coverage for campus sports.

          Now that I've graduated, the idea has faded a bit, and I know it wouldn't be f
  • It's obvious, but blogging really is the only way to go now if you want to write, and have lots of people read it. Making lots of money for having people read your work... that's not an area I've excelled at unfortunately.
  • Syndicated columnists have editors, deadlines, real jobs. Socio-political bloggers, on average, are snarky, self-righteous and pretentious. I sincerely hope you will stick it with it. I subscribe to two print papers and read a number of online ones. The professional offerings of syndicated columnists, again on average, are of superior quality to any blog offerings. Perhaps I haven't read the right political blogs. Perhaps I don't care anymore - they all seem to suffer this insidious, ridiculous in you
    • by SQL Error (16383)
      Many syndicated columnists are also snarky, self-righteous and pretentious. What we have learned over the last five years is that having editors, deadlines and a real job generally doesn't make the slightest difference.

      What matters is whether you are any good. You also have to be prepared to work for years before you have any real success - whether you are on paper or online.

      Newspapers as they are now are in a death spiral; the online model just works better for news, but newspapers have no particular adv
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by deltacephei (842219)
        Many syndicated columnists are also snarky, self-righteous and pretentious. What we have learned over the last five years is that having editors, deadlines and a real job generally doesn't make the slightest difference.

        Well, good and depressing point. I disagree in part though. The structure of the organization and an editor tend to add value. Otherwise there is precious little in the way of thoughts and the send button. The culture of posting comments in response to blogs is also different than that

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