Advice columns in newspapers are the oldest and most established format for media advice giving. They have existed in newspapers worldwide for the past 300 years and remain a consistently popular part of mainstream print media.
Advice columns work on the basis of a person with a problem writing (emailing or texting) their problem to an agony aunt or uncle (also known as an advice columnist). Audiences who write in or read problem pages may be seeking reassurance, information, signposting or referrals to other services, a second opinion or ideas for making themselves feel better.
Different newspapers have different approaches to how they publish and answer reader problems. Formats, published daily or weekly, include:
– multiple short letters published with equally brief replies (problems and responses of about 100-200 words each)
– two or three longer letters per page with answers of varying length
– one question that may or may not be a lengthy letter but will receive a detailed reply (of between 500-800 words)
– links to self help books, websites, telephone advice lines may feature alongside replies
– photo stories where a problem is shown using models or actors, which may or may not have concluding advice from an agony aunt/uncle. For daily papers a photo story may run across several days.
Tabloid papers tend to favour the former approaches of multiple letters published on a daily basis, while broadsheet papers opt for fewer problems and more detailed replies, published weekly or monthly.
There are arguments for both the multiple but brief problem approach and the more in-depth one. By having lots of brief problems the readership is kept entertained by hearing about many issues that may be just like, or nothing like, their own lived experiences. A more in-depth reply allows for a problem to be unpacked in ways that help others in similar situations. It is not unusual for problem pages that have brief responses to also have telephone help lines or web links available, or to send readers fact sheets that give more information about their specific problems than appears in print. While those offering longer replies may note books, websites or support organisations a reader might use.
Alongside this, the delivery of advice may vary and can include:
− answers given by resident agony aunt or uncle
− answers given by one of a team of staff working on problem page (overseen by the resident agony aunt or uncle)
− problem page/advice column fronted by a celebrity but answers ghost written by staffers at the publication
− guest experts answering particular problems (may or may not be celebrities)
− one or more experts on a panel providing answers to problems
− readers providing their thoughts on submitted problems (peer-to-peer advice giving)
Publications also differ in how they respond to reader problems. Some focus on the more lighthearted, fun or topical problems within the publication itself, answering more serious reader problems privately (if at all). While others pick the more unusual, dramatic or salacious problems in order to capture and keep reader interest.
Further reading on newspaper advice columns and archives for analyzing them can be found here.