Saturday, May 24, 2008

How to Make a Newspaper Column Successful

by Rocky Macy

(Note: This was published by me in thirteen Ozark newspapers in August of 1989. It was the commemoration of the 100th issue of my genealogy column, Rootbound in the Hills. This particular issue offers a road map, or sorts, on how to promote and grow a newspaper column. --- RM)

This week's column is special - a milestone of sorts - because it is Rootbound's one hundredth issue. That's right! For almost two years Rootbound in the Hills has been helping folks track their ancestors across these old Ozarks...and what a trip it has been!

Getting started wasn't easy. Those early columns, the ones before people started writing to Rootbound, were often conglomerations of hints on how to climb family trees, lists of surnames taken from old public records, and queries about my own ancestors. It took some time for Rootbound to develop more substance and a loyal cadre of readers. The idea of a query-based genealogy column was, after all, fairly new to the Ozarks.

Yet despite the shortcomings of the first few columns, interest did begin to build. A list of surnames of Civil War pensioners from this area in issue number two caught the attention of a tourist who was just passing through. He spotted a familiar name on that list, contacted Rootbound, and discovered that the veteran in question was actually his great-grandfather! A small piece of family history that had been brought to light and preserved. It was a start, but if Rootbound was to succeed, more people had to become involved.

Assistance came from several quarters. Local librarians and courthouse clerks began telling researchers about Rootbound, and the column was plugged in some important publications including The Genealogical Helper and the genealogy columns of The Daily Oklahoman and The Dallas Morning News. Genealogy groups in the area were also cooperative. The Delaware and Ottawa County genealogical societies of Oklahoma each hosted a program about Rootbound in the Hills, as did the Genealogy Friends of the Library in Neosho and the Northwest Arkansas Genealogical Society. The column was becoming known.

The trickle of mail soon hit flood stage. The first one hundred columns have carried queries and other information from two hundred and eight correspondents in thirty-three states. The surnames gleaned from those queries have been sorted into a card file box that now has over thirteen hundred entries. That file, The Ozark Root Box, allows for quick cross-referencing to connect researchers who are working the same surnames.

As Rootbound has matured in style and substance, so too has it grown in circulation and readership. Originally with only one newspaper, the column has gradually found its way into thirteen newspapers in three states. And the mail keeps coming, a good sign that Rootbound is doing more than just taking up space on the printed page.

Writing anything on a regular basis can be a chore, but this particular endeavor is laced with rewards. Highlights of the past ninety-nine issues include winning an award from the Council of Genealogy Columnists (my peers), having the opportunity to pen special remembrances of two of my grandparents on what would have been their one-hundredth birthdays, helping an enthusiastic researcher in Tennessee find the grave of a grand-aunt and contact a cousin that she never knew, and assisting in reuniting a near-centenarian in Joplin with a memory book from her youth. Great moments, all! And there were many little victories as well!

But the highest reward has been meeting so many wonderful people through the mail. Each reader who has taken the time to submit or answer a query, offer assistance, or send a note of thanks, has helped to make this experience worthwhile and so very special!

Thank you, Good Readers, for nurturing Rootbound in the Hills through its formative phase. It couldn't have happened without you. Now let's all put our shoulders to the wheel and get started on the next one hundred columns.

Happy trails!

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