Political columnists write opinion pieces about politics and government for publication in newspapers and magazines. Some columnists work for syndicates, which are organizations that sell articles to many media at once.
Political writers express, edit, promote, and interpret ideas and facts about politics and government in written form for newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites, and radio and television broadcasts.
Political Columnist and Political Writer Careers History
Writers have been reporting and commenting on politics and government ever since newspapers and magazines were first published. The first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, appeared in Boston in 1690, but lasted only one issue due to censorship by the British government. The first continuously published paper in America was the Boston News-Letter, first published in 1704. In 1728, Benjamin Franklin began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette. Known today as The New York Times, it has been influential in setting a high standard for American journalists. Franklin also published the first magazine in the colonies, The American Magazine, in 1741. The first daily newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, began publication in 1783.
Because the earliest American newspapers were political vehicles, much of their news stories brimmed with commentary and opinion. This practice continued up until the Civil War. Horace Greeley, a popular editor who had regularly espoused partisanship in his New York Tribune, was the first to give editorial opinion its own page separate from the news. As newspapers grew into instruments of mass communication, their editors sought balance and fairness on the editorial pages and began publishing a number of columns with varying viewpoints. Today, many political columnists and writers are well known and reach a national and even international audience. For example, George Will and Fareed Zakaria are known for their keen analysis and opinions about government and world events.
The invention of radio and television in the 20th century and the growth of news and commentary on the Internet have only added to the power of political columnists and writers as their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are read and heard by millions or even billions throughout the world.
Political Columnist and Political Writer Job Description
Political columnists often take news stories about politics or government and enhance the facts with personal opinions and panache. Political columnists may also write from their personal experiences. Either way, a column usually has a punchy start, a pithy middle, and a strong, sometimes poignant, ending.
Political columnists are responsible for writing columns on a regular basis on accord with a schedule, depending on the frequency of publication. They may write a column daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Like other journalists, they face pressure to meet a deadline.
Most political columnists are free to select their own story ideas. The need to constantly come up with new and interesting ideas may be one of the hardest parts of the job, but also one of the most rewarding. Columnists search through newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, watch television, and listen to the radio. The various types of media suggest ideas and keep the writer aware of current events and social issues.
Next, they do research, delving into a topic—such as government corruption, attempts by a state legislature to pass an annual budget, or a senator’s stance on a controversial issue—much like an investigative reporter would, so that they can back up their arguments with facts.
Finally, they write, usually on a computer. After a column is written, at least one editor goes over it to check for clarity and correct mistakes. Then the cycle begins again.
Staff writers who specialize in political writing are employed by magazines and newspapers to write news stories, feature articles, and columns about politics; government; local, regional, or national news; and any other topic (education, health, consumer affairs, etc.) that may occasionally fall under the political spectrum. First they come up with an idea for an article from their own interests or are assigned a topic by an editor. The topic is of relevance to the particular publication; for example, a writer for a magazine that specializes in national politics may be assigned an article on the presidential election. Another writer may be assigned an article about a political scandal, the rise of a political family (like the Kennedys or the Bushes) and their role in government today, or a senatorial race that is being contested on the basis of alleged election fraud. Then writers begin gathering as much information as possible about the subject through library research, interviews, the Internet, observation, and other methods. They keep extensive notes from which they will draw material for their project. Once the material has been organized and arranged in logical sequence, writers prepare a written outline. The process of developing a piece of writing is exciting, although it can also involve detailed and solitary work. After researching an idea, a writer might discover that a different perspective or related topic would be more effective, entertaining, or marketable.
Political editorial writers write about political or government-related topics for newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. Their comments, consistent with the viewpoints and policies of their employers, are intended to stimulate or mold public opinion.
Newswriters who specialize in political writing work for radio and TV news departments and news-oriented Web sites. They write politically focused news stories, news “teases,” special features, and investigative reports by researching and fact checking information obtained from reporters, news wires, press releases, research, and telephone and email interviews. Newswriters must be able to write clear, concise stories that fit in an allotted time period. Newswriters employed in television broadcasting must be able to match the words they write with the images that are broadcast to help illustrate the story. Since most radio and television stations broadcast 24 hours a day, newswriters are needed to work daytime, evening, and overnight shifts.
When working on assignment, all political writers submit their outlines to an editor or other company representative for approval. Then they write a first draft, trying to put the material into words that will have the desired effect on their audience. They often rewrite or polish sections of the material as they proceed, always searching for just the right way of imparting information or expressing an idea or opinion. A manuscript may be reviewed, corrected, and revised numerous times before a final copy is submitted. Even after that, an editor may request additional changes.
Political writers can be employed either as in-house staff or as freelancers. Pay varies according to experience and the position, but freelancers must provide their own office space and equipment such as computers and fax machines. Freelancers also are responsible for keeping tax records, sending out invoices, negotiating contracts, and providing their own health insurance.
Political Columnist and Political Writer Career Requirements
Most newspapers and magazines expect their political columnists and writers to have a college education, so you will need to graduate from high school to be accepted into colleges and universities. As a high school student, you should take as many writing and English classes as you can. Not only that, you should also take classes in current events, political science, history, and government. Also, learn as much about computers as you can. Finally, taking a typing or keyboarding class is a good idea.
As is the case for other journalists, at least a bachelor’s degree in journalism is usually required to become a political columnist or writer, although some journalists graduate with degrees in political science or English. You can gain experience by writing for your college or university newspaper and through a summer internship at a newspaper or other publication. It also may be helpful to submit freelance opinion columns to local or national publications that feature content that is of a political nature. The more published articles (called clips) you can show to prospective employers, the better.
Political columnists and writers need to be curious, have a genuine interest in people, the ability to write clearly and succinctly, and the strength to thrive under deadline pressure. Political columnists also require a certain wit and wisdom, the compunction to express strong opinions, and the ability to take apart an issue and debate it.
Exploring Political Columnist and Political Writer Careers
A good way to explore this career is to work for your school newspaper and perhaps write your own column or feature stories. Participation in debate clubs will help you form opinions and express them clearly. Read your city’s newspaper regularly, and take a look at national papers as well as magazines. Which political columnists or writers, on the local and national level, interest you? Why do you feel their columns or articles are well done? Try to incorporate these good qualities into your own writing. Contact your local newspaper and ask for a tour of the facilities. This will give you a sense of what the office atmosphere is like and what technologies are used there. Ask to speak with one of the paper’s regular political columnists or writers about his or her job. He or she may be able to provide you with valuable insights. Visit the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund Web site (https://www.newsfund.org/) for information on careers, summer programs, internships, and more. Try getting a part-time or summer job at the newspaper, even if it is just answering phones and doing data entry. In this way you will be able to test out how well you like working in such an atmosphere.
Newspapers of all kinds run political columns and articles, as do certain magazines and even public radio stations, where a tape is played over the airways of the author reading the column or article. Newswriters are employed by radio and television stations throughout the country, although more opportunities are available in larger media markets. Some political columnists and writers are self-employed, preferring to market their work to syndicates instead of working for a single newspaper or magazine.
Political columnists and writers break into the field by working in entry-level journalism jobs such as fact checker, research assistant, or editorial assistant. With experience, they can eventually find positions as political writers or reporters. Political writers and reporters who demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of politics and government, and who demonstrate a knack for lively, opinionated writing, may be offered the position of political columnist.
Another way to become a political columnist or writer is to start out by freelancing, sending columns or articles out to a multitude of newspapers and magazines in the hopes that someone will pick them up. Also, columnists and writers can market their work to syndicates. A list of these, and magazines that may also be interested in political writing, is provided in the Writer’s Market (http://www.writersmarket.com/).
Political columnists and writers can advance in national exposure by having their work syndicated. They also may try to get a collection of their columns or articles published in book form. Moving from a small newspaper or magazine to a large national publication is another way to advance for columnists and writers. Newswriters who are employed by radio and television stations can advance by moving to the same positions at stations in larger—and more prestigious—markets. Others may choose to become print or broadcast reporters.
Political columnists and writers also may choose to work in other editorial positions, such as managing editor, editor, page editor, or foreign correspondent.
Like reporters’ salaries, the incomes of political columnists and writers vary greatly according to experience; newspaper, magazine, radio station, or television station size and location; and whether the columnist or writer is under a union contract.
The U.S. Department of Labor classifies columnists with news analysts, reporters, and correspondents, and reports that the median annual income for these professionals was $32,270 in 2005. Ten percent of those in this group earned less than $18,300, and 10 percent made more than $71,220 annually.
In 2005, median earnings for all salaried writers were $46,420 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,320, while the highest 10 percent earned $89,940 or more. Writers employed by newspaper and book publishers had annual mean earnings of $47,950, while those employed in radio and television broadcasting earned $47,620.
Freelancers may be paid by the column or article. Syndicates pay columnists and other writers 40 percent to 60 percent of the sales income generated by their columns or articles, or a flat fee if only one column or article is being sold.
Freelancers must provide their own benefits. Political columnists and writers working on staff at newspapers and magazines receive typical benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation days, sick days, and retirement plans.
Most political columnists and writers work in newsrooms or offices. The atmosphere in a newsroom is generally fast paced and loud, so political columnists and writers must be able to concentrate and meet deadlines in this type of environment. Some political writers, especially those who are syndicated but not affiliated with a particular newspaper or magazine, work out of their homes or private offices.
Political columnists and writers occasionally travel to conduct interviews or do research on location. They may travel to government offices, state capitals, courthouses, political demonstrations, political conventions, press conferences, foreign countries, and other settings to gather information for columns and articles. Some political columnists and writers work 48 hours or more a week.
Political Columnist and Political Writer Careers Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment growth for news analysts, reporters, and correspondents (including political columnists) will be slower than the average through 2014. The employment of writers (including political writers) is expected to increase about as fast as the average rate of all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Growth will be hindered by such factors as mergers and closures of newspapers, decreasing circulation, and lower profits from advertising revenue. However, online publications may be a source for new jobs. Competition for newspaper and magazine positions is very competitive, and competition for the positions of political columnist and political writer is even stiffer because these are prestigious jobs that are limited in number. It may be easier to find employment at smaller daily and weekly newspapers than at major metropolitan newspapers, and movement up the ladder will also likely be quicker. Pay, however, is lower at smaller newspapers. Journalism and mass communication graduates will have the best opportunities, and writers will be needed to replace those who leave the field for other work or retire.
Employment for all positions in the radio and television broadcasting industry is expected to increase about 9 percent, more slowly than the average for all other occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
For More Information:
- American Society of Journalists and Authors
- Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
- National Writers Union
- Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)