Political Columnists and Writers


Exploring this Job

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 News Fund Web site (https://dowjonesnewsfund.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.

The Job

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, depending on the frequency of publication. They may write a column daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Others may write a blog or microblog on Twitter in addition to writing a standard column. 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. Political columnists also attend political rallies, legislative sessions, press conferences, and other events to gather information and find column ideas.

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 an editor assigns them a topic that 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, the emergence of a new political movement such as the Tea Party, 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.

Writers can also work as political reporters, who gather and analyze information about political-related topics and write stories for publication or for broadcasting.

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 e-mail 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 must keep tax records, send out invoices, search for new work, negotiate contracts, and provide their own health insurance.