Chess Journalists of America

The following article was published in The Chess Journalist, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Consecutive No. 108, June 2003. One-time only publication rights have been obtained from the contributor. All other rights are hereby assigned to the author. Articles do not necessarily represent the opinions of the CJA, its offices or members. Copyright 2003 by the Chess Journalists of America.

Writing a Newspaper Chess Column
by Stephen Dann

Experts on journalism say that it takes a special kind of person to write a column on any subject. They say everyone has a few ideas for a few good columns then many jour-nalists become "mired in mediocrity."

Some of the above is true, but -before we totally discourage you, let me say that with a few pointers ANYONE who desires to write a chess column CAN do so, and do an acceptable job of it.

If you are a regular columnist who "runs out of ideas" and sometimes has "nothing to write," listen. We can help you too.

My method will be to break down a chess column to a number of compon-ent parts and then tell you how to write each part. Which parts you choose, how you put them together and your style of writing will make your column your own, unique piece of chess literature.

The following items can be part of a local, weekly chess column:

  • chess logo/line cut
  • news headline -- subject kicker
  • byline of author(s)
  • action news picture
  • chess diagram(s)
  • explanatory lead in
  • problem, task (with answer!)
  • local news roundup (club, league, tournament, etc.)
  • State & regional news roundup
  • National & international news
  • games and/or analysis
  • basic instruction
  • Rules & terms explained
  • local ratings, standings
  • description of local clubs
  • description upcoming events
  • specialized chess programs in your area (scholastic, commer-cial, senior citizens, etc.)
  • historical chess sidelights
  • human interest portraits
  • promotion of USCF & state chess association services & bulletins

The above listing may not even be a complete one, but after reading it you may wonder how so many items can be condensed into a small space. The answer is simple: most journalists do not include many basic items in their columns, but instead write an in on one subject, many times writing above the average news-paper reader, and thereupon losing a vast audience.

This writer once learned a lesson from the late Al Horowitz, long time editor of the chess column in the New York Times. Horowitz once answered a query with the following: " the New York Times is a newspaper, not a chesspaper." Many organizers criticized the Times for not printing local news. But, the decision had been made due the "national" scope of the Times and limited space. Though the game analysis of the column appealed to the higher education of Times readers, I still believe that more news could have been condensed into the column. At least more variety.

This brings up a key factor, the editorial control of the newspaper. The New York Times still has the ultimate control over what appears Robert Byrne's column. Control of small, local newspapers varies with the individual paper.

Set priorities for column

With this in mind, your first task in organizing a column (after you have paper that has agreed to column!) is to set priorities and then review these with your editor so as to avoid disagreement and disappoint-ment for yourself and your readers.

Newspapers have limited space. A type of publication called a "shopper" may have more space if it carries a large amount of ads and is just getting into n-ews. Take advantage of every inch you can get. Don't over-write if you know your limitation -- they will always cut what you deem most important!

Use the listing of items above as a start. Your editor may not understand all of them, so examples of each should be given.

My own experience is valuable. No cuts have been made in my column in the Worcester Sunday Telegram for as long as I can remember. The priority is simple. Local news is the backbone. They give me a newsy headline, a byline, and we always run a chess diagram to attract interest and attention. I prepare a camera ready diagram which saves them time, money and anxiety. Newspaper copy editors do worry! By request, my column has little national and international news and few games. Why? My newspaper interprets the column as a news source and a feature the local hobbies page. They want local names.

My column covers most of the other points on the checklist, giving a bit of state and regional news, describing all local chess clubs several times a year, running a top 10 listing of local players with each USCF rating list, promoting each local tournament, giving historical chess sidelights and human interest portraits. At the beginning of each column is a task with diagram and at the end of the column is the answer and the basic instructional lesson to be gained. At every opportunity the USCF and state associations are given exposure with an address to write for further information. Very important is that I always explain some new chess term or explain what a tournament is actually like. Nothing appears in the column (without explanation) that an average newspaper reader would not understand.

Explanation of components

A short explanation of the items in the checklist is now appropriate.

Chess logos and the line cuts are familiar to everyone. A small chess piece immediately identifies what the column is about.

News headlines always spur interest among potential readers. Just the title "chess" will not draw marginal readers., but "New Junior Chess Group To Begin Tomorrow Night" may interest a few readers who may believe chess is just an adult game.

The word "chess" can be put above the headline as a kicker.

Byline of author? Even a player who is not a master or expert deserves recognition, and because a column is as much news as opinion, a byline is almost necessary.

The newspaper's photographers will take photos every now and then if you alert them of good photo opportunities. However, many times the news value is greater than the hobby value, and the editor will run these right away rather than waiting for the regular time your column appears.

For many years it was difficult to prepare good camera ready diagrams. Today this is not so. But, double check every diagram for accuracy!

An explanatory lead in helps in a chess column. Start off the column with an easy paragraph of background. Then you can head into the heavy stuff with a foundation to build on.

Problems provide "something to do" and invite participation. Also, you can use game positions as a quiz and a convenient lesson. I alternate composed problems and game position tasks or combinations. These do appeal to different audiences. My column also runs "simple" positions, but the answer is not always obvious..

A good columnist will research his news, not rely just on what is sent to him or her! There is no excuse for ignoring any local event, and if organizers were noi cooperative in giving you results, your readers to have a right to know this too, but it must be stated in a tactful way. The most important factor is to get in as many names as possible. Accuracy is your goal, and rechecking every detail is your method of achieving this!

Games appeal to a rather small audience in most areas. What the average reader wants is simple, basic instruction no small task for you to satisfy!

Giving local USCF ratings and club standings performs a useful service and gets local names in the column.

Explaining chess rules (do you know them well yourself? If not, it's time to study the Rulebook!) provides education. Moreover, all chess terms should be explained frequently.

You would not believe how few residents of your town even know that there is a chess club meeting regularly. Why not make the address, night, and time of club meetings a part of almost every column? Tell readers that chess clubs are open, not closed. By the same token, don't tell readers that they will get a very warm welcome, since we all know most clubs are somewhat cold. If your local club is different, tell readers why! Give honest praise to the top local organizers (never give yourself, the writer, praise, though) and tell why they deserve it. This may be the only praie these hard workers ever get. You can mention why a person is controversial as long as you give an objective picture of the issues involved. This is journalism at its best -- a picture in words!

Historical and human interest stories are features that you should consider writing from time to time. Both require research and work. The human interest story is the interview. Here you are the reporter asking the five W's and especially "how." Historical material can be found usually at the newspaper itself. Most have a library of clips, but back issues should be checked. Look back at significant dates in local or national chess history. You may be very surprised at what you find. This will also please your older readers.

Deadlines and preparation

Most newspapers give you a deadline of from two days to two weeks before publication to submit your column. If you miss the deadline your column may be cut in size or may not appear at all.

My column has a 10 day advance deadline, and keeping fresh copy in is not easy.

When your editor (and you should always know the name of the person who edits your column!) gives you the news that the managing editor will let you run a chess column, and you have been given your deadline and copy length, you are ready to prepare the column itself.

First, al1 copy should be typed and double (or triple) spaced. Use a short column length (across) of six inches or so. Leave space at the top and bottom of each page. Number each page at the top and include the date and your name. Always put "more" at the bottom if you are continuing on to another page.

How to measure length? Each three lines add up to an inch of type if the newspaper uses an eight column format. Keep your paragraphs short, about an inch, so your thoughts are clear. Be concise, and never make the mistake of rambling on and on.

Always make a copy of each column for reference! It may save you if the newspaper makes an error. They won't return your original copy or save any material that is cut.

A word about libel. Newspapers are terrified of it and will cut any reference that seems in poor taste or connotes any malice toward an individual. If you make a mistake a correction should be made. Remember that an angry reader could mean an end to the column and the fun you have in writing it!

Procuring a column

So your local newspaper does not have a column and you are now very interested in writing one. It is best to do the following:

  • Meet with the executive editor, and bring a prominent member of the community with you.

  • Show the editor examples of local chess activity (best from his own newspaper) and examples of other local columns. He may go for a syndicated column, but your goal is for a LOCAL column.

  • It is best for other individuals -- as many READERS as possible -- to recommend that the newspaper have you write a column. They are hiring you, so it is best that references the editor knows do the talking for you.

  • State how you will fit in with the existing features (hobby page if there is one -- recommend one if there isn't one!) either in the news, sports, feature or hobby areas.

  • Get the column going by agreeing go by established procedures. Special arrangements may be made later. You shouldn't demand a hefty fee. Most columnists get or $10 or $20 or nothing at all. Newspapers look at costs!

Eminent journalist Joseph Pulitzer summed journalism up in three words: Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy! It is up to all journalists to keep up a proud tradition. "Get the dictionary habit," as one of my teachers would always say. Compare (your copy of) the column you submitted with what appears in the paper. You will surely learn a great deal, if only the newspaper's style and the tastes of your editor. Remember also, printed words last forever. Don't say anything that you may someday regret! When editors look for chess columnists they look for one word responsibility! Those who have it will do well.

[[An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Spring 1978 issue of The Chess Journalist.]]

For the follow-up article see:
Writing a Newspaper Chess Column in 2003, a revision of an earlier guide.

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