REWARDS OF WRITING A LOCAL NEWSPAPER COLUMN
Guest Blog by Shelba Nivens
An editor of inspirational material once told me, “You won’t get rich writing this type thing, but you’ll make a little money and you’ll be getting the Word out.”
The same holds true with writing a weekly community column for a local newspaper. The “word” the editor was talking about was Christian faith, and there are times when I can do this in the newspaper. As a matter of fact, this week’s column is a faith-based story. Stories that show a person’s faith at work are my favorites.
But Community Columnists can “get the word out” about a lot of other things, as well. I’ve written stories about upcoming community, church, school and organization events and the people involved. Columns have been about a Health Fair sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, a fourth-grader leading a book drive for other children, new businesses in the community, military mothers collecting and mailing thousands of socks to our fighting men and women overseas, Boy Scout projects, reunions. . .
The subject matter is endless. This is one of the rewards of writing a community column. The writer never runs out of things to write about.
Another reward is all the wonderful, interesting people I meet. I love doing stories about individuals, their lives, histories, activities, love stories.
A recent column featured a couple celebrating their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. They met during WWII, when she came to his community to teach school and he came home on furlough. His Mama kept school teachers in their home, he told me, and as a boy he had to carry in firewood for all their rooms. He declared then that he would never marry a school teacher. But right off, when he met the little, new, red-haired school teacher, he knew she was the one for him.
I was also able to get some family and community history into this story, since his father owned and operated an early general store, and the building still stands on a prominent corner in our town.
History is another of my favorite subjects. A recent column about the expansion of the city’s library into the oldest house in the town, gave me opportunity to write about the people who first lived there in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a family with thirteen children.
A couple of stories about World War II veterans gave a little history about the war through the eyes of young soldiers. “With bombs falling, shells going off, I shouldn’t have come out of Germany alive,” an 88-year-old told me. “I don’t know why the Lord let me live through it, but he had a reason.” He spent two years in France and Germany, then almost got his foot “blown off in Germany,” he said.
More up-to-date, cutting edge stories have been about a genealogist who traces his family tree through DNA and doctors with innovative treatments. An optometrist demonstrated for me the way a new machine helps detect various diseases in the body. A chiropractor uses acupuncture, along with chiropractic treatments, to treat pain.
Faith-based stories have included the testimonies of a woman whose faith brought her through a life-threatening kidney disease, and a young man who turned to God and turned his life around after a serious automobile accident. He now owns and operates, with his wife, the Christian coffee house, Ekklesia, meaning “called out.” Bible studies, music jam sessions, meetings and other community activities are held here, and additional space was recently added for the growing business.
I’ve found that writing for a newspaper has an advantage that writing a book or magazine article does not have. This is almost instant--and frequent--publication, which should be encouraging to any writer. It also helps people become familiar with a writer’s name so they recognize it when seeing it associated with a book or magazine article.
Newspapers usually have a website where articles are posted, giving a writer double coverage. The Shelby County (AL) Reporter, for which I write, publishes all community columns on the website and in a hardcopy of the newspaper.
Some things oftentimes viewed by writers as enemies, have become friends to me since I began writing a weekly column. Word limit is one of these. My word limit for the column is 300 to 400 words. I sometimes have to struggle to get a story short enough to fit into my allotted space, but editing and cutting has helped me tighten my writing.
A weekly deadline can be a negative or a positive. Forced to get out and find a story by a certain time every week can become old and interfere with longer writing projects. But it can also help keep the creative juices flowing.
Then, of course, there’s the money. It’s not much, but in this day of such a poor economy, every little bit counts. However, if it were only for the money that I write the column, I would not be doing it.
The Reporter has Community Columnists for several cities around the county. Although we all receive the same pay for a column and/or photo, some writers may earn more per hour than I do because they don’t spend as much time on a column. (I make more on some stories than others because of time spent.)
I like meeting the people I write about to get a feel for their personality, but occasionally, I never meet them in person. I’ll use the telephone and internet--check websites, send emails--to gather information. Still, all of this takes times, then by the time I check email several times to see if I’ve received a reply to my questions, rounded up a picture or gone out and snapped one, put all the information together and made a story out of it, emailed the story, along with photos and cutlines into the paper, the day may be gone. And I’ve earned little pay for a day’s work.
Still, considering the positives versus the negatives, the positives win for me. I find it rewarding to write about people and events in my community.
People often ask me, “How did you go about getting a job writing for the newspaper?” Some of the older ones, remember that I once worked on staff for this particular paper, and think that’s how I got in.
But the people running the paper probably were not even born when I worked there, so they didn’t know me when I sent them a possible feature story for the paper.
I thought an interim pastor at our church had an interesting story, so I wrote it up and sent it to the paper. I was not paid for the story, but it was printed and a week or so later an editor from the paper called to see if I wanted to write a column for our community. She already one columnist writing about her community and wanted to get columnist for other towns.
“Let me think about it,” I told her. “I already have a lot going.”
I talked to my husband Ken about it, thought about it, prayed about it, considered the pros and cons, then called her and said I would do it.
If you have considered the positives and negatives and decided you can benefit from writing a local newspaper column, you might offer an article for consideration. This is also how I began working for the paper several years ago as a steady free-lance contributor, then a staff writer. And how I came to be offered a job as stringer for a daily, which I turned down.
If your local paper has no community columnists, perhaps you can sell them on the idea when you offer your sample story.
Who knows, this might lead to a regular job where you can earn a living. If not, you’re sure to find other rewards.
To read the Chelsea Community Column, go to http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/, click Lifestyles, click Shelba Nivens under Columnists. See Shelba Nivens on facebook and her blog at http://shelbanivens.blogspot.com/.