Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers. So why aren't more doing it well?

Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers – the best write in a lively voice and forge a strong connection with their readers. Their work build an ongoing conversation with the communities they cover. Frankly, they’ve been blogging (in print) since long before anyone other than academics and soldiers went online.

So why aren’t more making a successful transition to online publishing? Why are so many columnists living under the same fear and uncertainty that’s consuming their newsroom coworkers? Those are a couple of the questions that I sought to address last weekend when I spoke to the annual gathering of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

This year’s conference theme was “Survive and Thrive.” (Well, we’ve drilled down to the basics now, haven’t we?) My talk was “Tips on Branding Yourself,” and I was joined by Erika Stalder of ABC Family.

I told the group that your brand in the Internet era is the public’s perception of its relationship with you, a sentiment that Erika concurred with, citing a similar quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.”

Anyone writing online needs to come to this understanding: That what matters most in determining your online success is how your work is understood and acted upon by its audience – more than what your intention with the work was or the process that you used to create it. You can do work you believe to be great, but if no one reads it or no one who does cares, what was the point?

We talked during the session about Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums and website comments. Several columnists expressed their frustration with the number of tools that they’re now being asked to wield – and the the time that’s taking away from reporting and writing.

“Why should I spend half my time updating a Twitter feed if all that’s reaching is, like, 27 readers?” one columnist asked. “I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of readers in print. Has my audience shrunk to this?”

If you have fewer than 100 Twitter followers, you have a problem. But it’s not with having too many social media tools to manage. You’ve not developed your audience into an online community, one that can sustain your “brand” online even if your print gig fails.

You’ve got to start where you are at. And the same principles that apply for print columnists apply to all online and offline writers, as well. Start by explicitly inviting your readers into an ongoing conversation – then give them multiple avenues through which to contact you. These can include a Facebook page, e-mail account, blog comments and Twitter account. Your columns should include the URLs of your blog (if your column appears elsewhere, such as in print), Facebook page and Twitter feed. (Alternate them to keep the shirttail fresh, and short.) If you haven’t registered and made it the home of your blog, do it now.

But simply asking readers to a conversation won’t be enough to engage them. You must initiate the conversation with engaging questions. Smart columnists have been doing this for years, so it shouldn’t take much effort to get these flowing. Ask your readers questions about their own lives – what are they doing and seeing that affects the community around them?

I warned the audience against asking readers what they think. The Web has more then enough places for folks to vent their opinions. What you want to elicit are experiences – first-person accounts that other readers might relate with, drawing them into the conversation as well.

Another columnist asked about time management – a very valid concern for anyone writing online. Heck, I almost never watch TV anymore, and can’t imagine having to give up an hour or two each day to the commute I made when I didn’t work at home. I held up my iPhone and told the audience how I use it to check e-mail, read Tweets and monitor comments in every down moment I get, whether I be waiting to pick up the kids from school or in line at the grocery. True downtime is a scheduled luxury in the online publishing business.

So, I said, you’ve got to be writing about a passion. Find issues within all those in your community about which you are most passionate, and write about them. Solicit first-person accounts from your readers, and reward the best of them with a personal public response and follow-up questions. Soon, your audience, which craves your attention, will learn to deliver the quality and insight that you want. Only writing about a passion will elicit the energy and stamina that you will need to remain relevant in a hyper-competitive online information marketplace. And only your passion will animate your voice to level required to help your work stand ahead of others’.

Finally, don’t be reticent about joining other, established online communities in order to expand your audience beyond what you’ve attracted via your existing newspaper or website. One audience member commented about the trouble of getting health insurance as an independent writer (one that I share). Given the current politics around that issue, I responded that a great place to write about that would be in a political community such as DailyKos. A following developed in those communities eventually can be lead to follow you on other sites and in other forums, as well.

Social media tools are just that… tools. Don’t become so obsessed with learning the latest and most fashionable that you forget the job you’re trying to do with those tools – to build your audience into an online community.

Once you’ve engaged a few readers in a meaningful conversation on a topic about which you are passionate, you’ll find continuing that conversation across multiple media a engaging pleasure, not a time-sucking chore. Readers will see that, and want to jump in themselves, if only just to watch. Your success will elicit more success and your online community will grow.

That’s how to brand yourself online. Share your passion, and ask your readers to share theirs with you.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    “Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers”

    I personally am not happy with this development. Now, columnists are forced to spend half of their precious time to fumble with twitter and “incite conversation”, instead of working harder to make their columns more entertaining or enlightening or whatever.

    T think a column should be a masterpiece of clear thinking and excellent writing, while blogging should be more informal and conversational.

    p.s.: I am not a columnist, I just expressed my concern as a reader.

  2. Certainly in the UK (which I’m more familiar with than the US) senior columnists on national newspapers haven’t all been keen bloggers. There’s definitely a feeling of “second best” about blogging, as far as they’re concerned. Nothing’s as good as appearing on the op-ed pages of the Times.

    Having just started with blogging and Twitter, partly for my PhD research, partly for my own personal interest, I would say developing an online audience is quite time-consuming. Harder work than being a staff journalist on a paper/website with a ready-made brand.

  3. says:

    If a columnist is not able to publish good content (meaningful, interesting, provocative, amusing, enlightening content) or doesn’t even bother to have a blog or a Twitter account, he or she cannot be trusted to be a good columnist in the first place (even if it appeared so before the blogging & twitting era).

    Needless to say, I am a columnist.

  4. Columnists have enjoyed a one-way conversation for all these years. They wrote, readers read. No feedback except for the odd phone call and the occasional letter strained through the cheesecloth of the editorial page editor.

    Now its all different. They must defend what they write in real time and with sound logic. Otherwise, they’re laughed out of the blogosphere.

    Plus, they now have to compete with all manner of informed and competent writers who didn’t have a printing press before but now do – the internet coupled to a computer.

  5. says:

    It’s interesting and a good topic. I write a technology column that has done fine in print. Still does. But I tried blogging and I was an enormous failure. My guess? I didn’t want – and still don’t want – to spend the time it would take to be truly interactive, having a conversation with readers that started early in the day and lasted into the evening.

    I’ve seen columnists who do just that (one that I admire is David O’Brien at the Atlanta Constitution with his Braves blog … a terrific effort that stays busy around the clock). But I just don’t have the desire to do that, the energy, and maybe the knack.

    The irony is that – for a long time, many years – I’ve had ongoing conversations with readers by e-mail. But when it comes to Tweets and the like I just don’t want to do it. Nor do I want to check comments in a blog every 30 minutes or so and add something – even at times when I really have nothing to add.

    Maybe it’s my age – I’m old. So I suspect that – if someone wanted to assign fault – it would be my fault. But I’m glad you’re writing about this. I assumed when I made the try with the blog that it would be terrific. I was hyped to do it and figured – since I truly have been talking to readers one-on-one for many years – that it would be an enormous success.

    Truth? I sucked at it.

    Maybe if I had worked hard at being available and chatty on the blog that it might have turned out differently. (My guess? I would have still failed, the column voice did not translate into a blog voice.)

    The interesting, and hopeful, thing about all this is that we are now seeing new voices, new styles, that do fit into this new world. I sort of enjoy all this as a reader.

  6. I think it would be particularly interesting to do a comparison on the ages of those journalists that have embraced social media. Aside from the obvious reasons, younger journalists seem to have a better grasp on branding themselves in the latest technological craze.

  7. Nolan Lemon says:

    I think it largely stems from the conventional newspaper culture. Newspapers should be killing the Web 2.0 model, yet most are declining–if not suffering total demise–because the industry at large has attempted to import an antiquated model into a landscape that no one quite understands, yet.

    That said, newspapers largely dropped the ball during Web 1.0, with many choosing to charge for “premium” content, instead of shoring up their base readers while expanding their reach beyond some of the obvious limitations of the traditional print distribution model–geographic, economic, the copy’s limited shelf life, and the one-way communication model, among others. While broadcast journalism was playing Internet catchup, print didn’t capitalize on its inherent advantages (abundance of skilled content producers, established following) by developing and engaging online communities. By failing to become early adopters and leaders in this paradigm shift to collaborative communities, print remained somewhat stagnate during this transitional period and lost the advantage it inherited from 1.0.

    Fast forward to Web 2.0 and columnists. Columnists, like franchise players on sports teams (think Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer), are the most visible, individual brands at newspapers. And similar to sports stars don’t establish the rules but enjoy certain privileges not extended to role players (think cub or beat reporters), many columnists didn’t immediately dive into this collaborative communications shift. Still today, some of the more prominent columns aren’t engaging their audiences. It’s like the veteran sports star who doesn’t see the need to show up to spring practice with rookies. However, unlike 20 years ago when the only place readers could find interesting and colorful copy was in columns with limited syndication, these days, people produce and syndicate copy all over the world.

    And then there’s the intangible element that mystifies us all: no one can predict what will adopted on a viral level. Just because a person produces great content and engages his/her online community doesn’t guarantee that the blog, microblog, community, RSS feed, etc., will catch on. It takes a lot more effort to stay on top of trends and content. There’s no longer a division between when the day starts and ends. “Engagement” can literally mean around the clock.

  8. says:

    As a former columnist, my media organization owned my print column brand. I could have continued that online in a blog format, but why? I received lots of feedback via email, letters and in person (especially at the grocery store) about my columns. That’s two-way communication folks.

    When I began to think of blogging, I thought about extending my “brand” by doing something different online that I would own…my own IP. I’ve written as part of a group weblog, but am a bit wary of the echo-chamber effects of a blog versus the 100,000+ readers I *may* have reached through any one column.

    And it does take time to CRAFT a column…not that some blog entries aren’t well crafted, but I think blogs are oftentimes a different genre. Blogs require a mindset about publishing — often — and responding — immediately — that is different than print publishing.

    Michelle Ferrier

  9. says:

    There’s no money in it. Columnists write for newspapers and magazines that pay them money. When the newspapers and magazines go away, so does the money, and so do the columnists. This is not so hard to understand. Why would they want to go off and become unpaid columnists with no — or limited

  10. If you think that people who write online are not making money from it… you really haven’t been paying attention, have you?

    Just because some people haven’t built an audience and are not making money does not mean that everyone online writer has failed to do do.