The Keller family is getting slammed across the Web today, and I think rightly so. Both columns come across as insensitive at best and they expose the authors’ complete failure to grasp social media. Like a curmudgeonly weekly newspaper editor in 2002, they lament the “TMI” nature of social networking while completely overlooking the good it can do, both its potential for personal catharsis and its ability to bring people with common experiences together across vast distances. I think to misread what Lisa Adams is doing as “voyeurism” is to phenomenally misunderstand the way people can relate, and often powerfully so, to someone they’ve never met. (And insert joke here about repealing the law that forced Emma Keller to read the tweets.)
But I don’t mean to pile on what’s already been said. What I found interesting about the pieces and the subsequent reaction is what they tell us about a bigger problem with the newspaper columnist in general.
Part of me has always thought that the newspaper columnist is vastly overvalued in the newsroom. (I also enjoy a good snarky takedown of a pretentious columnist.) I cringe at the idea that some columnist is making six figures to write 650 words twice a week while someone doing the real work of journalism, churning out multiple stories a day, covering breaking news, or doing investigative work, is paid peanuts. It seems to me a hold over from a different era of journalism, when news moved more slowly and newsprint carried with it an air of authority, an aura that’s mostly gone now.
Newspapers are an industry more in need of innovation and fresh perspective than any other profession on earth. Yet there’s a sense that young people can’t be powerful voices in the newsroom unless they “pay their dues,” and a newspaper column often seems like a reward handed out to veteran journalists that want to step down from the day-to-day but need an outlet. I can’t think of any regular print newspaper columnist at a major print daily under 30 (and if you know different, please let me know.) I don’t have any insight into the workings of the New York Times newsroom, but it seem like Bill Keller stepped down from his editorship and was handed a column simply because he’s Bill Keller and he wanted one. That doesn’t seem right to me.
I think the editorial and op/ed pages of most newspapers lack a diversity of perspective. I get the sense that a lot of columnists, or individual writers who are a brand unto themselves, come from similar backgrounds — often privately educated, from wealth. This is a trait that seems to cross political lines, so we get a false sense of “both sides of the story,” when what would really add value is a diversity of ages, geographical locations, family backgrounds, work experience, etc.
Also, there’s nothing worse than reading a bullet point, thrown-together filler column that’s clearly only been filed because it dang it, it’s Thursday and the column’s due — or a spectacularly lazy piece that clearly wasn’t researched seems like an extended Facebook troll.
However, having said all that, I think a good newspaper column can have tremendous value. A well-written column in a major paper can spark a national discussion. And there are columnists I like very much — Yvonne Abraham in the Boston Globe springs to mind, and I enjoy Paul McMorrow’s work in the Globe and Commonwealth Magazine. I was also struck by Evan William’s challenge, as he launched his new social network Medium, to “read less news, more ideas.” That seems like a noble goal in our age of a 24-hour, constant fire hose of information, the nonstop news stream. It certainly made this news junkie stop and think.
Where columns go bad, I think, is when they are too generalized, when the writer believes that simply being a columnist gives him or her an air of authority. There’s a sense of “drive by punditry,” a lack of deep familiarity with the subject matter, in the Kellers’ pieces that I’ve seen in other bad columns. When a column works is when it’s specific, like McMorrow’s pieces on urban planning, a subject in which he is well versed. It can also work when it’s local, and the writer has deep connections and an obvious bond with the community he or she is writing about, as Abraham does.
When a columnist is stretching for an idea, it shows. When a writer is out of touch, it shows. So why do mediocre columns get printed? Why does is seem so hard for newspaper columnists to lose their jobs?
Let’s give some columns to younger people. Let’s give some columns to school teachers, bus drivers, social workers and small business owners. Let’s fire the newspaper columnists and invite more local experts to write guests columns, sharing their unique perspectives and experiences. Let’s find a better way to spark important, needed conversations than sitting at the bottom of a hill and listening to Bill Keller tell us “TMI”.