Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Windmill Journalism

Posted at 1:08 pm, March 17th, 2011
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Frank Rich’s column in the March 12 New York Times explaining why it is his last Sunday piece for the paper confirms my conviction that regular columnists have among the toughest assignments in journalism. Rich cited William Safire who compared column writing to standing under a windmill: “No sooner did you feel relief that you’d ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down.” Rich is giving up his once a week column in the Times for a once-a-month gig in New York Magazine.

A columnist who writes one or more columns a week not only has to fill a set amount of space regularly, it must be done with fresh and original material. Even the most skilled columnist runs dry now and then. That’s why many editorial page editors buy more syndicated material than they can use. I tossed away many uninspired columns written in desperation simply because the writer had to produce something for his or her customers.

When I ran an opinion-page section in Des Moines, I pestered newspaper syndicates to allow me to buy columns on a per-use basis. I was happy to pay for material I used and resented wasting money for a columnist’s off-days. Never could I get a syndicate to agree to the deal. They much preferred the steady, regular income to the unknown even if it meant foisting the occasional shoddy column on editors.

Rich revealed in his final Times piece what the “relentless production of a newspaper column” does to the journalist–it “can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about. Or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion.”

Those are potent reasons for ending the tyranny of the windmill and freeing columnists to write only when they genuinely have something worthwhile to say. Editors should insist that syndicates give them the option to buy material on a per-use basis. And they should battle in behalf of columnists and readers to give journalists the time for reflection and research so they can produce their best work.

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