Alan Guebert: A million words later, we're still here
This week marks the 28th anniversary of this editorial effort. In round numbers, that’s more than 1,430 columns, a million words and who knows how many cold beverages.
Its start came about like many efforts in journalism: I got fired. It’s a long story, so you might want to get comfortable — and even grab a cold beverage.
In early 1993, I was nearing the end of my eighth year-long contract with Farm Journal magazine. My arrangement with FJ was simple: it sent me a check at the start of every month and, by the end of every month, I sent it three stories.
The freelance deal, claimed the FJ boss, was “the best in ag journalism.” That had to be a whopper because in eight years the monthly money never changed even though the stories had to.
Then, in February or March, the Big Boss telephoned to say he had a problem. What? I asked, genuinely puzzled.
“You,” he announced; “you can’t walk down the middle of the road.”
I had no idea what he meant so after an uncomfortable silence, I suggested, “No one with any sense walks down the middle of the road because cars can hit you going and coming.”
Four, maybe five, seconds later the axe fell.
Lucky for me I had a back-up plan: a weekly newspaper column on farm and food policy. Well, sort of a plan.
First, I had to discover if any newspaper wanted to buy such a column, then write four sample columns, send the columns to each and, finally, contact the newspapers again to sell them on it. Easy.
Still, I had modern tools — like newspaper directories at the public library, a touch-tone desk telephone and the local post office — to help.
I began with telephone calls to 130 daily newspaper editors from Minot, North Dakota to Zanesville, Ohio. To my happy surprise, 124 encouraged me to send sample columns. In mid-May, the lovely Catherine and I mailed each a personalized cover letter, my resume and four sample columns.
After fretting in silence for two weeks, I hesitantly telephoned one central Illinois editor to ask if he liked the columns.
“I loved them,” he said. “We published the first one last week and we’re publishing the second one tomorrow. What’s the price?”
Price? Like any good journalist, I thought about stories, not price. I don’t know, I stammered. “What do you pay ‘Dear Abby’?”
“‘Dear Abby’?” the editor nearly yelled, “what’s she got to do with farm policy?”
Like him, I had no idea so I quickly pulled a figure out of thin air. The editor scoffed, immediately cut it in half and, skilled negotiator that I was and remain, I immediately agreed.
I called a second editor and had a similar conversation that ended with me again naming a price, the editor again halving it, and me again agreeing.
Wow, two calls and two newspapers; candy from babies.
I called a third editor and, oh my, the same result — she loved the columns, cut my offered price in half, and I agreed.
Then I spent the next two weeks telephoning the other 121 editors on my list and not one purchased the column. Not. One.
Still, I had three newspapers in my syndicate — yes, three customers is a syndicate when it’s my syndicate — and I was in newspaper column business. By October, however, I had 11 paying subscribers.
Then, again, nothing for months.
Finally, while sharing New Year’s Eve dinner, inspiration struck: I begged Catherine to do the calling while I did the writing. She warily agreed (whew) and within 18 months, she had convinced several dozen newspapers from Maryland to Montana to buy the column. Lovely.
And now, 28 years and a million words later, here we both are.
You and me, that is, because the lovely Catherine got out of the ag journalism business decades ago at the very, very top.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly throughout the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.