We, Columnists, Are Here To Stay

By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Secretary, NSNC Education Foundation 
www.yankeecowboy.com

 

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

 I looked all over for my Wall Street Journal. But it wasn’t there the other day. No, the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News and my own Fort Worth Star-Telegram were lying there on the driveway. But no Journal.

This bothered me. I wanted to read Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite columnists. Oh, well. I’ll read her online, I thought. 

Two days later, my son, Austin, found the paper. It was hanging from a tree branch. The plastic wrapping had ensnarled on the branch during the pre-dawn toss. It swung there for two days.

When we walk outside in the morning in our bathrobes to fetch our beloved paper, by habit, we look down for our news. But skyward is where the news comes from now. Our bosses cannot figure out how to keep up with light-year like changes in the business. OK, not changes in the business, but changes in our readers’ marketplace. They are changing. We are not.

Printing a paper and tossing it out of a moving car, once the natural order of things, seems so archaic now. So, too, is walking outside every day to pick up our news from the sidewalk.

In all the reading you have done about the state of the newspaper business, it’s hard to find an original thought. Heck, if there was an original thought, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

But here’s one for you. Call it “Dave’s Law for 21st Century Columnists.”

Of all the things going down, down, down in newspapers because of high-tech immediacy – including coverage of yesterday’s ball game, the horoscopes, TV listings and stock prices – the one piece that will survive, indeed even thrive, is – wait for it – you, the columnist.

My thesis is that there will always be a place for strong writers (emphasis on “strong”) to take a look at the news, analyze it, retell it through a personal point of view and explain to the community why it matters. That basic human craving for an individualized look at a complicated situation, the need to trust someone and depend on them to give it to you straight will never go away.

A writer who can draw laughter and tears from reader/viewers will always move to the front of the line.

In the end, all that will be left for a newspaper is, I believe, the marketing of its brand name personalities.

In York, Pa., future billboards should say, “We’ve got Mike Argento and nobody else does.” In Massachusetts, when you click on a paper’s Web site (or whatever the eventual preferred medium is) a video image of self-syndicated columnist Terry Marotta should pop up and say, “Today, I’m going to tell you a story about how one of your neighbors. . .”

The personality is what will give the dying product life. Personality sells. Personality is the print equivalent to “must-see TV.” Personality delivers the unexpected.

How ironic that if my theory holds true, we could end up where we were 50 years ago – in a place where we thought we would never find ourselves again: columnists are the biggest names in town.

Of course, your editors, publishers and corporate CEO’s don’t see it quite that way. Not yet.

But if they are smart, eventually they will come around.

Let’s pray they do before it’s too late.

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What can you do to prepare – and survive – so you get to that point where you are #1 again?

You must ramp up your uniqueness, your individuality and your distinct voice.

You must sharpen your skills so that on bad days when your column doesn’t cut it, you can still pull a rabbit out of your hat and make readers’ hearts feel a rush of amazement.

You’ve got to do everything you can to be the biggest media personality in your town. This means stepping away from the PC and becoming a multi-dimensional community entrepreneur, part journalist, part entertainer, part conscience, part provocateur, number-one storyteller and, yes, a community leader.

Want to survive until that glorious day comes when editors realize that “Dave’s Law of 21st Century Columnists” can save the franchise?

Every morning, ask yourself: How can I use this day to make a giant difference in the lives of my readers?

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Found this quote recently in SPJ’s Quill magazine from one of my favorite newspapermen, William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette. In a 1931 personal letter, he wrote:

“Of course as long as man lives someone will have to fill the herald’s place. Someone will have to do the bellringer’s work. Someone will have to tell the story of the day’s news and the year’s happenings. A reporter is perennial under many names and will persist with humanity. But whether the reporter’s story will be printed in types upon a press, I don’t know. I seriously doubt it. I think most of the machinery now employed in printing the day’s, the week’s, or the month’s doings will be junked by the end of this century and will be as archaic as the bellringer’s bell, or the herald’s trumpet. New methods of communication I think will supercede the old.”

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Quick congrats to our 2004 NSNC Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement winner Steve Lopez on his latest book The Soloist and its spin-off movie, due out Nov. 21. Both are based on a series of columns Steve wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2005 about a music prodigy he discovered on the streets.

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Congrats, too, to my favorite journalists in the world – the junior high and high school newspaper staffers on The Black Cow at Westlake Academy, where I volunteer as adviser. Our school paper won 47 awards in the Texas state scholastic journalism competition in April, more than any other student newspaper in the state.

Here’s what I love most: five of my columnists won state awards.

The next generation is here,

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Dave Lieber, a former NSNC board member, writes you, the columnist for the society’s e-newsletter and also for www.columnists.com. His Web site is www.yankeecowboy.com.

6/1/08


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