Newspaper columns are funny things. I think sometimes that journalists only came up with the idea of objectivity because most of us are wimps -- we like to avoid confrontation. The easiest way to do that is to withhold an opinion. When you only ask questions and don't answer them, nothing can ever be your fault.
But in today's journalistic world, objectivity is disappearing. News organizations now require the fly-on-the-wall reporter to produce opinions. This results in a lot of opinion columns by people who should not be opinion columnists. (If you think I'm one of them write firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him to boot me off this page). Either they foam at the mouth like rabid dogs or they say nothing. I don't like the former but I think the latter is worse. I can disagree with vitriol, but the nothingness is a total waste of my time as a reader.
So, in my own self-interest, here is a list of 10 tips for columnists and would be columnists:
1. It's about the reader, not you. When I see too many "I"s in a story I go I-I-I! In art, the creative work is a reflection of the artist's imagined reality. In journalism the work is a reflection of the reader's reality. Mention your own problem only as evidence for the point you try to make.
2. Have a point. I discouraged staff columns on the Lumberjack newspaper after one student wrote about the D.A. recall election and blathered about how much he loved the name Worth Dikeman, and another student wrote about his favorite bathrooms on campus.
3. Write about something important. Newsprint is expensive. The reader's time is valuable. Don't waste it. Use your own problem only if it represents the real problems of a whole mess of your readers. But even so, is it really a big problem? Using this rule, I've avoided writing a column about columns. There are bigger journalistic problems out here, but readers now bug me to say something. If you want a great example of what not to do, check out Andy Rooney's Jan. 17 video commentary on CBSnews.com on why he likes changes in the weather.
4. Write about something you know. I write about media. I leave gardening to Amy Stewart and baseball gloves to Dave Silverbrand. Student columnists like to write about foreign affairs, which they think are interesting and important but about which they know little. Instead they should write about problems that affect students.
5. When writing about what you know, don't write about your spouse, your kid or your dog. Pretend you are on a date with your reader. Will the story you tell get you a second date or will it have your date looking repeatedly at her watch and thinking she'd rather be home watching Dancing with the Stars? When you pull out the family in your column you pull out verbal wallet photos. You think they are fascinating. No one else does.
6. Get your reader to disagree. What's the point of preaching to the choir? Great columns spark thought. You get people to think about a subject when they read something they disagree with. That's when your reader puts down the cup and says, "Hey Marge, get a load of this crap!" That sparks a conversation with Marge, and Marge says, "But Harold, she has a point there ..." The general rule of great dramatic writing is thesis, antithesis, synthesis. In dialog, one person says something, the other disagrees and out of the back and forth that ensues a great new idea emerges that is the synthesis of the collision of ideas. In a column you are the only one speaking. It is a great column if it sparks a virtual dialogue with your reader and out of the back and forth between you and your reader, a new idea forms.
7. Try to win the debate. You waste your time if your reader never ends up agreeing with you. So once you say something he will likely disagree with, back up your argument with evidence.
8. Unless you write about genocide, don't write about the same thing over and over. I call this my Nick Kristof rule. In a great documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, he talked about the tendency of journalists to hit and run -- they cover a story and then move on, taking the reader's attention with them. He says that if a story is really important it is the journalist's moral duty to stay on it and keep the reader there until the problem is solved or lessened. But really, is your story that important?
9. Speak with compassion. You may see a problem as an irritation or a philosophical or political issue. To someone else it may be a life or death issue. One submission to a student contest of newspaper columns focused the column on food stamps solely from the perspective of a taxpayer. The student failed to even acknowledge the working poor who try to feed their children on minimum wage.
10. Give voice to those who don't have one. You are your reader. Or at least you should try to be. Examine a problem from multiple perspectives. Would you think differently if you were black, Latino, Asian, Native American, old, young, rich, suburban, urban? Imagine your reader across from you saying, "That's easy for you to say!" Then imagine what they would say if they had the column. Then fold that into your column.
I'm not saying that you can't or shouldn't write about your own problems and tell readers about your dog, your pet charity, the great things happening in your home, or your family. There is a great place for that. It is called a blog.
*Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Humboldt State University. She often disagrees with herself. If you want to comment on this story or let her know of some media coverage or issue you'd like her to look into, e-mail her: email@example.com *