By Kevin Williams
So it all began 26 years ago. The newspaper business was still thriving and opportunities were ripe. Sure, there were warning signs that newspapers were unstable. Two-newspaper towns were disappearing and readership was declining slightly. But no one seemed too terribly concerned. It was in 1990 that I created The Amish Cook,but there were two other columnists I quickly recruited as part of my stable of writers. One was a woman who wrote a column called “All About Herbs” by an herbalist in Oxford, Ohio and a gardening columnist. I called my fledgling business “Oasis Newsfeatures.” My writers were to be an oasis of information and calm in a crazy world. Lofty goal for an 18-year-old.
The Amish Cook column was and is unique. It has a narrow focus (Amish life and cooking) but broad appeal. Those are the two ingredients necessary for a successful feature. Someone may write a great column about mushrooms (narrow focus) but I doubt there are enough people who would want to read about mushrooms week in and week out to sustain it. There are, however, enough people interested in the Amish. By structuring the column as a serialized account of the author’s life, the Amish Cook also found a formula for continued publication year in and year out. Writing a column weekly is tough. It sounds easy, but it is hardly. Ask Gloria. We joke that the way to make time pass fast is to write a weekly column. There are other columns I’ve tried to syndicate over the years, but none of them found the same success as The Amish Cook. Some other attempts of mine:
PASSING NOTES: Back in the early and mid-90s, newspapers were making huge efforts to try to reach out to young readers. They created “high school pages”, deputized young reporters, and handed out newspapers in schools. Sensing an opportunity, I created a syndicated column called “Passing Notes.” It was a topical column aimed at young readers. I wasn’t even 20 at the time, so it seemed logical. The column ended up running for a time in the Jacksonville, Illinois and Warren, Ohio newspapers before fizzling after about a year.
THE HANDWRITING DOCTOR: This was probably my greatest success outside the Amish Cook and one of my greatest regrets, although, in the end seeing how newspapers went down the tank, I'm not sure I could have made this column last. I connected with Michelle Dresbold a renowned handwriting expert to create a column called The Handwriting Doctor. It was an advice/news type column. People would send in handwritten questions and Michelle would dispense advice tailored to the person based on clues hidden in the handwriting. (i.e. the loops in your ‘e’s’ show that you are angry person, so you need to tone it. At one point I was able to get this column in about a dozen papers from the Pacific Daily News in Guam to the Times of Northwest Indiana in suburban Chicago. The economics of the business were faltering at this time (early 2000s) and I eventually turned the column over to Michelle to run herself. She went on to write a book, appear on the Today Show, but the newspaper column itself doesn’t exist. I loved the concept, but I just grew skeptical that there were enough looped o’s and crossed t’s to sustain a column for decades. I did laugh, though, when one reader sent in a question for Michelle that was typed. You can visit Michelle's website here.
THE KITCHEN SCIENTIST: This was a column written by a woman in Mississippi named Tara Hayes who held some fancy food degrees and used them to unlock the science of cooking. A promo sheet at the time features Tara describing the column: "It's a reader-friendly column," said Hayes, noting she doesn't "go heavy" on scientific details some people might find too dry. "I try to write as if I'm talking with someone." She uses her conversational style to discuss why vegetables taste better roasted, the difference between white and dark chicken meat, what makes marshmallows puffy, why hot peppers are hot, and other points of interest. As a young, black female, she was appealing to newspaper editors seeking diversity of voice. But, in the end, the economics simply didn't work.
FAMILY DAZE: Debbie Farmer was/is a humorist who managed to build a faithful following in a handful of California newspapers at one time. We joined forces for awhile, but I quickly realized that humor columns are extremely subjective. She was a lovely lady, I just didn't find a lot of her writing funny and if I can't get 100 percent behind a writer, it's just not there for me.....so I shunted her off to my brother, a skilled writer in his own right - to take over syndicating the column. But I think the plug was pulled on that 8 or 9 years ago....
THREE INGREDIENT GOURMET: This is probably my greatest regret over the years of the “one that got away.” This one keeps me up at night wondering what might have been. The column was written by a talented young writer in Ohio named Tracy Mort Hopkins. All of her recipes had three ingredients. That’s it. But they were creative, clever recipes and Tracy delivered a dry wit with each column that made the feature compelling and humorous. I managed to place it in a handful of newspapers (Bedford, Indiana carried it), but, again, economics Most newspapers pay $3 - $5 a week for a syndicated feature. It's tough for me to get enthused at syndicating something when you get paid $3 - $5 a week.
I've had other misfires over the years, but also some successes. It hasn't all been blah. Perhaps next "throwback Thursday" I can talk about some things that did turn out.
Interesting stories about those newspaper columns! I would have enjoyed the one about handwriting analysis. Liked your comment about the "Passing Notes" column, as it reminded me of the newspaper column a friend of mine and I had while we were high school juniors. The paper was a "country weekly" at the time, so it wasn't hard to get a column in it. But still, no one else had had a teen-oriented column in that paper before then.
Aimee, interesting, yes I'd be surprised if most high school juniors today even get a newspaper at home...my 3-year-old knows what a newspaper is, but she'll not get much exposure to them, unfortunately