By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Secretary, National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation
Listen up! If you write a newspaper column that appears three times a week, once a week or once a month, and that’s all you do related to that work, then you, my friend, are dead in the water.
You can quit now or wait to get fired sometime soon.
It takes more to be a columnist these days than being a columnist.
Do you know a columnist who lost his or her job recently? We all do. As they say in the first year of law school, look at the person on your left and then turn to the person on the right. One of you won’t be here next year.
There were about 16,000 U.S. newspaper jobs lost last year. More than a few of the unlucky ones were columnists. Nobody is indispensable. Not any more.
But I am doing my damn best to keep my job.
If somebody tells my newspaper publisher what they like best about my newspaper, I fantasize that they will say they favor, in order: the sports, the TV listings, the comics, the ads, local news and Dave Lieber, that Watchdog columnist who helps people, exposes scams and fights for readers.
If they don’t say that, I’m a paycheck away from the homeless shelter.
But don’t fret. The answer to becoming as close to indispensable as possible is found in a brilliant piece published on USCAnnenbergSchool for Communications’ Online Journalism Review. Robert Niles wrote “Keeping Your Job in Journalism.” Please, please read it at http://tinyurl.com/25lgpa .
It’s smart, timely and, pretty much, a requirement for you, the columnist.
One idea he throws out, in particular, is one worth examining here: Make yourself the brand.
I know many columnists, even some leaders of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, recoil at the notion of self-promotion, of doing anything to enhance their reputation in the community other than merely writing a great column. But that is, like, so 1995.
Niles writes, “You want to ensure that the value you’ve created with your content and your promotion of it is associated with you. Yeah, it’s selfish, but you’re trying to save a job here. Blogging gives you a stronger brand on a website than tiny bylines do. (A blog gives you your own URL, much larger font-size byline and usually a head shot.) A strong Facebook or MySpace following amplifies your brand. Sending personal e-mail alerts to fans sustains your relationship with them. In-bound links to your name (or, if you are a solo publisher, your site’s name) creates enduring value by boosting your brand’s search engine value.
“And when your name is more valuable, that makes you more valuable to employers, investors and advertisers. Reward yourself for your hard work in creating value for your readers by doing everything you can to make sure that everyone knows just who did that work.”
Now, of course, I agree with everything Niles writes. But let me add that I don’t really do any of that. I don’t blog. (I have a hard enough time writing two investigative columns a week to give more away for free.) But I do have an “Ask the Watchdog” online forum, in which readers ask me questions and I answer them, as quick as possible. I don’t always know the answer, but I try. I view it like a game show!
I also don’t have an e-mail list that I use to promote my work. I find them annoying.
I also don’t have a spot on Facebook or MySpace because, frankly, I don’t want or need any more communications than I already have. I get 100 ideas a week via e-mail, letters and calls from readers. The hard drive atop my head can only hold so much information.
But his ideas are good. I just do it in other ways.
I work my brands. My Yankee Cowboy comedy brand is entering its second decade. It’s a book publishing company, a speaking business, training and coaching others about communication skills and self-publishing. My yankeecowboy.com Web site leads people to my writing, my speaking and my “store.” And thanks to the use of Google Adwords, certain key phrases typed into Google bring my name to the top of any search engine list. By the time people contact me, they already have a strong sense of who I am.
My other brand, my Watchdog column, has in three years, become one of the strongest brands at my paper. How do I know? I can tell by the mail and also by this: I can’t walk into any public place without people stopping me to thank me for what I do. Do I like that? Of course, it’s a little embarrassing, but hey, it’s better than the alternative.
In these three years of watchdogging, there have only been one or two negative letters to the editor printed about me. (Compared to hundreds that appeared in the paper during the previous dozen years when I was an overbearing metro columnist.) I’m not saying that positive mail means I have value and negative mail means I don’t. Frankly, I believe just the opposite. I’d rather people hate me because then I’d know I was really making a difference. But that, too, is such a 1995 way of thinking. Readers want a friend, someone they can trust and turn to, someone who cares about them. Someone that makes the newspaper worth the buy. I just didn’t know until recently how much they wanted that special someone. And I didn’t realize that regular metro column writing wasn’t doing the trick enough anymore because there is now so much opinion out there that it is the real “work” and not the brain thoughts that make you stand out more than ever.
My favorite rebranding of a fellow columnist will be on full display before the entire world in April when Wall Street Journal columnist and loyal NSNC member Jeffrey Zaslow’s new book comes out. Before I tell you about it, let’s look at how far Jeff came and how far he fell before he rebranded and then rebranded again. Yes, there is an afterlife for columnists.
I met Jeff at my first NSNC conference in Portland in 1993. At the baby age of 28, he had left his job at the Wall Street Journal to take over Ann Landers’ job as the top advice columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He had remarkable success there. He ran singles parties that led to the marriages of dozens of readers. (Talk about having an impact on a reader’s life!) His column was a hoot, too. But that wasn’t enough. He started and worked with charities. And he won the first Will Rogers Humanitarian Award from the NSNC.
But then it all crumbled. In a cost-cutting move, owner Conrad Black (and what prison does he reside in today?) cut Zazz’s “All that Zazz” column. I couldn’t believe it! If Zazz could lose his job, as successful as he was, who among us is immune?
But Zazz bounced back with a remarkable column on the Personal Journal page of the Wall Street Journal. “Moving On” covers the transitions we are often forced to make in life, something Zazz knew all too well.
Last year, he heard about a CarnegieMellonUniversity professor who is ill with cancer. The professor was going to give the “last lecture.” At first, Zazz didn’t want to make the trip for a column, but that little writer’s muse inside his head that we ignore at our own peril told him to go from Detroit, where Zazz lives, to Pittsburgh, home of CMU.
His September 20, 2007 column in the Wall Street Journal was headlined “A Beloved Professor Delivers the Lecture of a Lifetime.” Read it at http://tinyurl.com/2kn6sf .
The column drew hundreds of thousands of Internet hits and became a Web sensation. The youtube video was viewed almost a million times and Pausch’s appearance on Oprah attracted another 1.3 million hits, as of this writing.
And the best part, Zazz, who rebranded himself first as an advice columnist, then as an unemployed columnist, then as a life transitions columnist and now as a book author, signed a publishing deal.
Of course, you want to know how much.
A reported $6.7 million.
Yes, that much. (Note that the advance was shared with the professor.)
Zazz worked for three months, 12 to 15 hour days, 7 days a week, to meet the tight deadline. He only had a few months to, as he calls it, “pound out the book.”
The book arrives the second week in April.
Excerpts will appear in PARADE magazine (slated to run on the cover), and there’s a Diane Sawyer ABC special scheduled to run the night before the book is released. Expectations are that this is the next “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Do you think, when Zazz returns from his WSJ sabbatical (he is writing another book), Rupert Murdoch, new owner of the Wall Street Journal, would ever consider pulling a Conrad Black on him?
Zazz is his own brand. Many times over.
If he can do it, so can you.
Dave Lieber, a former NSNC board member, writes you, the columnist for the society’s e-newsletter and also for www.columnists.com. His Web site is www.yankeecowboy.com.