An Idea for the Times

By Laura Snyder
Nationally
Syndicated Columnist

 
Laura Snyder   As newspapers and columnists continue to evolve, we hold our breath to see what happens next. Every week, we hear of another newspaper closing its doors or another columnist losing his/her job.

   The reasons are varied, but they boil down to the fact that there is no money to pay the columnist. Due to the fact that I am self-syndicated, I’ve never had to deal with losing my sole source of income, because I’ve never had a sole source of income. However, even freelancers feel a pinch when a newspaper goes under.

   Rather than being a potential victim, we should be asking ourselves, “How can we help?” 

   We have clamored for more money because our work is worth it. We have put the blame squarely on editors and publishers even though some, if they could, would keep good columnists over any other consideration and even pay them double. However, though our columns are definitely worth it on an intellectual level, in reality, they are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them. Publishers have to deal with the reality of the numbers.

   Well, here’s a crazy idea: What if… what if the newspaper didn’t have to pay you? In fact, what if the newspaper could be paid to print your column? Up to now, we have relied on the assumption that if a paper had good columnists, it could sell more copies and that’s where the money to pay the columnist would come from. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

   While newspapers figure out how to make money in an internet-based paradigm, we need to find a way to get paid for what we do. You can’t get blood out of a rock. There needs to be a direct return on investment for the newspaper when they print your column.

   One way to provide this is by column sponsorship. Now don’t turn your nose up at this suggestion. We see this form of commerce every day: The racecar with a Cheerios logo, a golfer with a Nike hat, baseball diamonds with their advertisements. We should take advantage of this.

   I have spent the last few weeks corresponding with some of the different players in a typical sponsoring scenario. The scenario I put to each of them involved a columnist who had secured his/her own sponsor. This sponsor paid the newspaper for space and paid the columnist for the “talent fee.” In return the sponsor received the visibility of his company name and/or logo connected with a well-read popular column. This can be as simple as a “Sponsored by…” line at the top.

   Most of the people I corresponded with thought that it was a good idea, but with some caveats. One editor, Rae Wagoner of the Herald Ledger in Eddyville, KY, cautioned that one might find that “a sponsor will… ‘encourage’ or exert influence over the writer to write about things that are beneficial to the sponsor’s business.” This is something that should be clarified with your sponsor before you sign with them.

   Most editors I corresponded with said that they would not run a sponsored column on their Opinion page for obvious reasons. Opinion should not be flavored by a sponsor’s implied influence. However, even outside of the Opinion page, Julian Toney of the Belzoni Banner in Mississippi, says that he would “frown upon a columnist advertising products inside a column.” This sentiment, I believe, is universally shared by editors and columnists alike.

   However, simply knowing how editors feel about this gives the columnist some leverage when negotiating just how much influence his sponsor should or should not have.

   Ideally, what should happen is that a newspaper would bill the sponsor as if he were selling ad space. However, because the paper is also getting content in the form of a well-written column, he would only bill half of what he would bill for an advertisement of the same size. The columnist would bill the sponsor for the other half for his talent fee.

   Jim Davidson, a self-syndicated writer who writes a sponsored column for one of his client newspapers, says, “I learned from experience that it is far better to bill the sponsor than the newspaper.”

   My husband, who is a small businessman and, therefore, a potential sponsor, says that he wouldn’t mind sponsoring a column as long as the space he was buying, along with the talent fee, didn’t cost him more than a normal advertisement. In fact, most business owners I talked to said they thought their name and logo would be more visible if it were at the top of a well-read column rather than in the random depths of a newspaper.

   Davidson writes a Christian-oriented column and has a sponsored radio show as well. He says his sponsors are “mostly banks and funeral homes,” which are good fits for his column. Lately, Davidson has been working on his “Bookcase For Every Child” project to benefit low-income families. (The website, in case you are interested is www.bookcaseforeverychild.com .) For this reason, he has not attempted to grow his column in the last several years. However, he says, “If I were younger and wanted to grow my column, I would develop a plan to secure sponsors for my column based on the content and who would be interested in using it to enhance their products, services or businesses.”

   One other point of interest that was mentioned by some business owners is the genre of the column you write. Some said they wouldn’t touch a religious or political column with a ten-foot pole. Obviously, it can be done, as Jim Davidson has proved, but you might have to work a little harder at it.

   From what I’ve learned these past few weeks, sponsorship is a viable option in these hard times provided that:

   Your column does not push any political or religious hot buttons.
   Your column doesn’t belong on the Opinion page.
   Your sponsor is a good fit for your column.

   So, rather than being the victim, perhaps we all have one more weapon in our arsenal. Get yourself a sponsor.

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