Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Celebrity Columnists: Fame Came First, Syndication Later : As United Media Launches a Dick Morris Column, Debate Flares Anew about Writers Who Didn't Rise through the Newspaper Ranks

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Celebrity Columnists: Fame Came First, Syndication Later : As United Media Launches a Dick Morris Column, Debate Flares Anew about Writers Who Didn't Rise through the Newspaper Ranks

Article excerpt

When controversial political strategist Dick Morris brought his column to United Media this month, he became the latest in a long line of celebrities entering syndication with little or no newspaper background.

Supporters of this practice say people who become famous outside of newspapers can offer perspectives and expertise not always possessed by columnists with journalism backgrounds.

"Dr. T. Berry Brazelton is known worldwide as a great pediatrician. I can't imagine a layperson bringing the same knowledge to a column," says New York Times Syndication Sales Corp. president and editor in chief Gloria Brown Anderson, referring to a New York Times Syndicate (NYTS) columnist.

Supporters also note that columns written by notables can help increase business for syndicates in an age when many readers are enamored with celebrities and shrinking newspaper space makes feature sales more difficult.

"It's hard to sell a column by an unknown writer," says Anderson.

"Celebrity columns are easier to sell initially, although, in the end, the strength of a feature determines its longevity," adds Creators Syndicate chairman and chief executive officer Rick Newcombe.

NYTS, Creators, and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate (LATS) probably offer the most celebrity writers, while also distributing many newspaper-trained columnists. Among the prominent prosers are Mikhail Gorbachev and Martha Stewart (NYTS); Hillary Rodham Clinton and Oliver North (Creators); and Jesse Jackson, Henry Kissinger, and Shimon Peres (LATS).

"Readers are attracted to celebrity bylines," says Betsy Cantler, assistant managing editor for features at The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., where the columnist mix includes local writers, syndicated newspaper scribes (such as Dave Barry of Tribune Media Services), and famous non-newspaper people (such as radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger of Universal Press Syndicate).

Cantler, who's president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, but says she's speaking as an individual, does add that the average journalist would rather see reporters work their way up through the newspaper ranks before becoming columnists.

Many newspaper-trained columnists obviously feel the same way. Fame "is no guarantee of talent as a newspaper columnist," says The San Diego Union- Tribune's Pete Rowe, who's also vice president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He adds that columnists should be "hired first and foremost for their writing talents."

Mark Lane, a columnist for the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal and Cox News Service, says, "Most celebrity columns are deadly boring, grossly self-serving, and enjoy short runs because their novelty dissolves fast. I am surprised editors still buy them and syndicates work so hard to chase them to the exclusion of real writers."

Lane adds, "If someone is a celebrity for something other than writing, why would anyone expect them to turn into a writer on a regular basis? And if the column is ghosted, doesn't it hurt a paper's credibility to pretend to readers that the celebrity is really producing the column?"

Some interviewees do agree that there's a potential credibility problem, but others say the public doesn't mind ghosted columns if they're worth reading.

Celebrities with schedules too busy or writing skills too poor to compose their own columns get help from their own staffers or syndicate editors. …

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