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How to write a newspaper column: Learn the legal stuff

January 1, 2005

in All Articles,Books and documents,Culture

I often get requests from readers about the process of creating a column and questions about the newspaper business. There are many technical details that change based on your tools and content, but one common concern is with the legal side of things and how to deal with newspapers in terms of copyright. It’s not as intimidating as you think, as all you need is an understanding of basic terms and a kick start from some simple advice. Because I’ve had so many requests for this information, please allow me to digress from the technology theme for just this page. We’ll get back to the fun stuff immediately afterwards!

The following is a summary of the section of my brain dealing with writing columns, articles and print syndication, with a focus on newspaper columns. Magazines, books and newsletters have their own often-different rules, and I’m not a copyright lawyer, so use this at your own risk.

The legalities for print syndication

I can tell you how they’ll probably work. Each newspaper has different ways they manage your text in terms of copyright and payment. It’s up to you to determine what you’re most comfortable with. Pick the one(s) you’re happiest with those that make the most sense for your situation. Also remember that nothing’s perfect, and when you’re first starting out, it’s okay to make sacrifices here and there (in terms of pay) to get your name out there and build a body of work. (The moral: Keep your day job!)

Keep in mind that the larger the paper, the more difficult it will be to get published. Smaller papers may be more open to local writers and those with little or no previous experience. Bigger ones may already have a writing staff that covers what you want to write, or they already purchase (comparatively cheap) similar material from a syndicate.

When I say a “smaller” paper, I’m talking about those with up to 15,000 readers in circulation. A medium-sized paper would be those with up to 50,000 in circulation. A large paper would run over 50,000 in circulation.

Say you submit stories to a paper, and they decide that yes, they’ll employ you as a freelancer to write that specific column for X dollars per column. You’ll have to sign a freelance contract that should specify at least three things:

1) The price you’ll get for your work (this could also specify a pay range, if you’ll be writing material of different lengths)

This varies widely and is determined by the size of the paper to which you’re submitting, the competition in your field, your publishing history and experience, and the standards of the newspaper. As a very (very) rough guide, a smaller paper may pay you $10 or less for a column in the 500 to 1000 word range. A large paper would start you around $50 to $150. Remember that if these prices seem low, most newspapers have access to syndicates which sell mass quantities of columns to all papers for very low cost (less than $10 per column for something like an Ann Landers is normal). This is a reason to sell your work to more than one paper, if possible. Five newspapers at $10 per column is much better than selling to one newspaper for $50. In the long term, this means more money and a better chance of your column continuing if a newspaper drops you.

The above estimated payments assume you’re retaining copyright and reprint rights (see below). You’ll be able to charge much more per column if you’re writing one-shot material (like a local feature story or a specialized assignment), or if you’re permanently transferring copyright ownership of your column to the paper.

2) How long the material’s copyright belongs to the paper, and when it transfers back to you

There are different methods of retaining or transferring copyright on your work. Here are some of the more popular terms. As newspapers have many different ways of approaching freelance work, it’s common to ask them for their “standard freelance contract” when negotiating, and use that as a base. These terms will be combined with a term of duration – a declaration of how long the rights are in effect, and what happens when they expire.

“First run rights” or “Exclusive first rights”
This means the publisher owns the copyright on your text for a specified period of time, and during that time will be the only one printing it. These rights can have other stipulations attached like “first run rights for North America” or “first run rights within the newspaper’s distribution range”. This last is common for newspapers. If they give you money for a column, they understandably don’t want you reselling that same column to a competitor, at least not until they’ve had a chance to print it first. You’d want “first run rights” if you have a column that you’re primarily selling to one newspaper to print first, with any number of “secondary” newspapers reprinting your articles afterwards. In this case, the newspaper with first run rights will pay more for your work than the other newspapers, as that paper is paying for the privilege of getting your work before anyone else.

“Full rights” or “All rights”
The publisher owns the copyright on the text, permanently. Once you give the newspaper your text, it becomes theirs, and you are no longer allowed to sell or print it without their permission. See below for why you should be careful of this.

“Reprint rights”
Your article may have already been printed somewhere else. “Reprint rights” or “one-time reprint rights” stipulate that you give permission for the article to be printed again, possibly in another form. A new publisher would need this permission from you before they can reprint a previously-printed column.

3) Other restrictions or usages of your work

This could be a requirement that you won’t sell this article to a competing newspaper within the same geographic range. It could be a stipulation that the paper reserves the right to archive your column, either in their personal archives or in a publicly-available electronic archive.

This is pretty important stuff and determines what will happen to everything you give the newspaper. Make sure you understand every word in this contract.


Retain your copyright!
Sure, it’s fine if the paper wants copyright and reprint rights for your article for a week/month/whatever, just as long as you eventually get the copyright back (that means it’s 100% yours again). From reselling to marketing to sentimentality, there are many reasons to maintain rights to what you write.

Make sure you’re not tied in to a specific publisher for too long.
Say you have a falling out with a publisher. Or say your column takes off and you start to get requests for other papers or syndicates asking for your work. Like most things in life, leave yourself room to maneuver. The contract should say something like “publisher and freelancer reserve the right to terminate this agreement at any time” or “with one month notice”, or a similar time frame. Stay away from any contract longer than a year, unless you have a good reason for doing so.

Get comfortable with writing often.
Get to the point where the process of writing is automatic. The communication medium itself shouldn’t be a hindrance. Save your energy for creativity and research.

Write on a schedule.
Have you tried to write 750 words about a topic before? Monthly? Weekly? Or even daily? Make sure you’ve done this for a few months to make sure your schedule, subject variety and motivation can handle the workload. (Speaking of word count, most newspapers will measure your column in “inches”, but can probably provide you with a rough estimate if you’d rather work with word count instead.) You should get to the point where you’ll start to intuitively know when you’re approaching your length limit. Pick a limit and see how it feels. This is extremely important for newspapers, as space for any text is very limited. Your challenge is to be the opposite of this page: Be entertaining and concise at the same time!

Be patient, be professional, and plan for the long term.
You’ll want to jump right in to everything, but the process takes time. You can’t write a zillion columns this week and become the next Dave Barry by next week. Apart from actually writing your material, there’s the self-marketing, slow word-of-mouth and other advertising, the endless submission-rejection-resubmission phases to get your column distributed, and other possible side issues like maintaining a website and doing tax accounting for this extra income and expenditures. Realize this is a long-term commitment. Treat your work professionally from the start, and it’ll pay off when you’re more established.

Write, write, write. And write.
I’m guessing you see the pattern here. The point is to create material and keep creating it. This allows you to A) get better and more efficient at what you do, B) create a volume of work big enough to pick out lots of impressive examples to send out to publishers, and C) prove to publishers and yourself that you not only have a history, you’ve got a future.

Here are some additional reader questions:

Can I write for more than one paper at a time without being syndicated?

Absolutely. This is called “self syndication”. Just think of a syndicate as doing similar work you’d do for billing, distribution, advertising and copyright management, only on a gigantic scale. For all that extra work, they get a big chunk of your profits, but increase your readership in ways almost impossible to do on your own. If you want to keep 100% of your profits, you can self syndicate, but it’s a lot of work.

I want more information about syndication or writing.

Here’s an unusually good resource.

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