By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
During the summer, I celebrated an epiphany in regards to my column-writing life.
I say celebrated because an epiphany – a sudden insight that changes the way you view the world – is something every columnist needs at least once a decade. If we are the same columnist today that we were when we began, we have not grown. And our readers undoubtedly have noticed our lack of growth.
What was my epiphany?
When I decided in 1971, as a 14-year-old lad, that I wanted to be a newspaper columnist when I grew up, it was because I believed I would eventually have valuable insights to offers readers.
Twenty two years later, I finally scored a three-times-a-week metro column. When I debuted, mine was a one-sided conversation with readers. I told them what was on my mind. If they were interested, they read it. If not, they turned the page.
To gain their interest, my job was two-fold: 1) pick enticing topics, and 2) write them in such a way that people read all the way to the bottom.
At first, I was a flop of a columnist. After decades as a newspaper reporter, I had no voice of my own. As a newcomer to Texas, I had no idea what made Texans laugh or cry. And I was insecure about taking risks for fear of alienating my audience.
Eventually, though, my voice became strong. I began to understand Texans. I challenged – and entertained. And I got over my fear of risk-taking. Every column became a high dive off the platform.
But that was so 20th century. I wrote. They read. I was the only game in town. What choice did they have?
Then a few years ago, readers started creating their own Web sites. Several decided to keep an eye on me – and challenge what I did and how I did it. When, not if, I made a mistake, it was easy to expose me. I left a trail of bread crumbs whenever I did my research. Open records requests I made were available to others who filed their own open-record requests to see my requests. E-mails I sent out were released to these Webmasters and posted on the Internet. At least once, a tape recording of a complaint call about me to my editor was posted on the Internet.
Suddenly, the emperor wore no clothes. I was as much as a target as the subjects I targeted.
There’s nothing new in that. But here’s where it got interesting: my editors, first, and then me began to realize that the readers wanted something more than the 20th century emperor columnist.
It was one thing to tell the readers about matters I found interesting.
But what about matters that the readers found interesting? And heck, what did they find interesting?
Previously, we didn’t care as much as we should. Now we can no longer afford not to care.
In the past, so many e-mails, letters and phone calls arrived from readers with wonderful ideas. But it was my column, not theirs. If they didn’t fit my pre-programmed idea of what I, the emperor of column writing, found interesting, why should I write about their ideas?
Yet these ideas – seeking help to solve problems, exposing small businesses that had hurt them and gotten away with it, finding answers to questions that they didn’t know how to answer – were quite wonderful.
Because mine was such a public face at the paper, readers’ story ideas found their way to me. When I, their last and best hope, ignored their idea, who was left?
Truth be told, I wasn’t willing to take most of these column suggestions on. They required lots of work: research, interviews and reading voluminous government documents and articles from other periodicals that previously covered these subjects.
It’s so much easier, on a slow day, to rattle off a humor column about your cat.
But the newspaper’s focus groups were telling the editors something quite different. And the same message was coming across in letters, calls and e-mails to the paper.
The message from readers was: We want more investigation, more helpful information, more use of your resources to solve problems that we can’t solve ourselves.
We want you, dear newspaper, to work for us, be on our side, and help us fight the fights that we can’t win on our own.
So that’s how it happened one day, 18 months ago. The newspaper’s top editors launched a new column for me. I was no longer a metro columnist who could write about anything I wanted. Now I was to be known as “The Watchdog.”
As the house ads announced, “Finally, somebody on your side.”
The goal was to write investigative columns, twice a week that exposed wrongdoings or improprieties by businesses and governments. These investigative columns would not be old-school consumer columns. Rather, they were supposed to use narrative storytelling techniques that highlighted victims and villains. These columns needed to have characters involved in conflicts, enmeshed within stories that contained a beginning, middle and end, and a plot carried along with dramatic tension toward a climax and resolution.
As best we could tell, nobody else in the United States does this on a regular basis. Television news reporters, yes. But columnists writing regularly? Not that we can find.
And what was the reader reaction?
From the moment The Watchdog was introduced to readers, ideas poured in.
Not just a few, but a flood. It’s so much, I can’t even read all my mail. I need help, but I do make sure that everyone gets at least a courtesy reply by e-mail or a postcard reply via U.S. mail.
In the previous 25 years of daily newspaper work, I had never seen such a load of mail arrive. I feel like Kris Kringle in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.
And from the 50 to 100 ideas that come in each week, we pick two.
I won’t shade this: The work is laborious. The research is arduous. And with just 36 hours to do the heavy lifting that these columns require, it’s a tough job. First you act as an investigator like Woodstein; then you become a storyteller like Tom Wolfe.
But the house ads don’t lie: Finally, at my newspaper, readers feel as if somebody really is on their side. And the idea is so successful that the Star-Telegram has just appointed a second columnist to serve as The Watchdog along with me.
Every week, problems are being solved and corporations that you know through their multi-million advertising campaigns are hanging their heads in shame over some ridiculous situation that they have contributed to due to neglect, an uncaring attitude or just plain poor customer services. And government exposes run weekly, much to the delight of readers, too.
And yes, I do miss my old column. I miss sharing my world view. I miss the freedom to pick my subjects. And gosh, I do miss the ability to write about the cat on a slow day.
But all of that is counterbalanced by the service performed to readers at a time in the life of our business when publishers, advertisers, editors, reporters and readers wonder if we even have a future.
I KNOW we have a future.
I see the future every morning in my bathroom mirror. (Insert your joke here!)
Readers now drive what I do.
I write what they care about.
And as long as I do, I – or actually the new job title that I hold – have become as close to being indispensable as you can get in our business. It’s a wonderful feeling.
So that gets back to my summertime epiphany.
Here’s what it is:
Previously, when someone asked me what I did for a living, I always replied: “I’m a newspaper columnist.”
Now when I’m asked, my answer has changed.
I reply: I’m a newspaper columnist who helps people.