The Year of Living Courageously: What lies ahead for columnists in 2017?

By Lisa Smith Molinari

President

National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Roughly three decades ago, technology took journalism and publishing for a wild ride into the Digital Age, and ever since, columnists have been hanging on, wondering where the runaway train will turn next. Should we fear what lies ahead? Or should we throw caution and our arms to the wind, shouting bravely, “Look Ma! No hands!”

As much as many of us would love to go back to the era when columnists were paid handsomely to submit hard copy to their editors each week, and readers walked outside in their bathrobes to get papers off stoops, savoring inky pages over steaming cuppas – the fact is that the Internet has forever changed the way audiences seek information. Millennials, Generation Xers, and Boomers alike are now accustomed to clicking, pointing, and swiping their way through blurbs of instant information on the go, as it happens, 24/7.

Once, reporting and commentary was something reserved for experienced professionals with journalism degrees, but now anyone with a smartphone or a blog can broadcast or publish news, opinions, humor, propaganda, advertising or total baloney to the entire world in the blink of an eye.

Some have argued that “citizen journalists” are not legitimate, but it is the user who decides what is news and what is nonsense in the Digital Age. Some consumers seek the well-established credibility of traditional news outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or NBC News. While other tech-savvy consumers prefer new alternatives to traditional media: independent information sites with user-generated content, blogs, discussion forums, and social media’s instant information stream.

In order for publications to turn a profit nowadays, editors and publishers must concern themselves with user-data-based marketing concepts such as propensity modeling, trending, measurability, sales funnels, and social media engagement. If content is still king, marketing has become the king’s omnipresent queen, demanding attention and threatening to overtake the throne. The press has had to adapt to this new paradigm and acknowledge users’ power in deciding what is news today.

Ironically, user-generated content has made the mainstream media more accountable. Citizen bloggers, freelancers and other contributors now act as fact-checkers and watchdogs for media bias. Modern technology in the hands of citizens has both supplied and supplemented the news, as users offer personal accounts, videos, photographs and audio recordings of major news events such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, political protests, violent crimes, and human interest stories. Participatory journalism has not diminished the credibility of the mainstream media; it has made the news more current, more accessible and more “real” than ever before.

What does all this mean for columnists in 2017?

Despite the drastic changes in journalism in the last 30 years, columnists are more relevant than ever before. The desire for opinions, perspectives, commentary and storytelling has not diminished; in fact, it has exploded. Today, everyone wants to know what everyone else has to say about everything. Millions turn to the Internet and social media today to find out what’s trending, what everyone is mad about, what everyone is crying about, what everyone is laughing about, and what’s gone viral.

If columnists are willing to adapt to the modern multimedia landscape, there are more opportunities to publish columns than ever before. There are now thousands of online publications, not to mention new ways to promote writing through online video broadcasting, podcasting, social media and self-publishing. Today’s consumers may not read the papers in their bathrobes each morning over coffee, but they are checking their computers and mobile devices for news, gossip, humor and commentary many times throughout the day, further increasing the need for a constant supply of fresh perspectives.

If we stop avoiding the inevitable changes in journalism and start thinking outside of the traditional publishing box, there are endless possibilities for columnists in this brave new world. Let 2017 be the year that columnists open their eyes wide to the exciting road ahead, and pursue our craft courageously.  

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