Thursday, November 4, 2010

What bloggers can learn from the great newspaper columnists

I get an e-mail each week from a blogger over at the Harvard Business Review whose posts usually offer some good ideas and information. I generally click over to see what he has to say;  today I found myself thinking he had gone on just a bit too long. I think that a lot lately when I'm reading blogs, that the writers really needed an editor to help them hone the piece, cut out the clutter, find the focus.

It turned out the word count on this post was 869 words. "Aha!" I thought. He went beyond 750 words!
I realized I was channelling the wonderful William Safire column called "In 750 Words." He's writing about a newspaper column, but it's just as pertinent in a blog post.

I used to give this out in my classes. If you want a PDF of this column, you can download it here.

Here's the column, reprinted from the New York Times, January 16, 1986.

In 750 Words 
 By William Safire 
DATELINE: WASHINGTON 
On undertaking this column 13 years ago, I mentioned to Joseph Kraft, a former Kennedy speechwriter who had turned columnist 10 years before, that I felt comfortable with economics and foreign affairs, but wondered about pontificating on those matters about which I did not know beans. 
''Anybody with a good mind,'' he assured me, head cocked, ''should be able to write 750 words about anything.'' 
Soon afterward, I learned what he meant: From a standing start and on a few hours' notice, a political columnist is expected to put together his morgue, his mindset and his range of reachable experts to make a pithy assault on any given 
issue. If this gains high ground or original insight, the writer's previous ignorance produces a fresh perspective or at least a provocative argument. 
The other day, what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called ''the panjandrums of the opinion mafia'' gathered in the Navy Chapel in Washington at a memorial service to Joe Kraft, who died last week at 61. Among the eloquent eulogists from journalism, politics and the Kraft family was Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, closer to Joe than most. He reminded us how this unpretentiously serious and wide-ranging man, more persevering than optimistic, ''supplied the 'voice of the intellect' against the mechanisms of unreason.'' 
As the mindbenders and thumbsuckers filed out, many surely pondered the future of the corner of the profession that Joe graced. The question: In today's multi-media universe of groupie journalism and passionate panels, with televised chewing-over limited to 40-second bites of fast food for thought, is there a place of usefulness, even of influence, for a 750-word uni-media opinionator? (That's a phrase to modernize and hype the outdated job title ''newspaper columnist.'') 
You bet there is. Readers are smarter than viewers; readers can go back over the thought process of pundits, while viewers and listeners are stuck with having to ask, ''What'd he say?'' 
The best political column-readers read newspaper columns the way columnists read each other. They ask: 1. Does this satisfy the hunger of current interest? A pundit, to be helpful, must address Topic A before it becomes Topic Done to Death. An occasional change of pace is nice, but keeping ahead of the pace is what transforms ''night reading'' to first-thing-in-the-morning reading.

2. Does this divide the house? A column should take the fuzziness out of debate and show where a principle is at stake or a policy is wrongheaded or an outrage is being perpetuated or a promise broken. 
Let politicians temporize and voters agonize; the columnist should crystallize or polarize.
3. Does this put something new on the news agenda? Reporters are usually better reporters than thumbsuckers like to admit, but too often they are dispatched in packs. The column reader looks for the diamond in the trash can, the overlooked story, as well as the story to be alert for in weeks ahead - which pushes reporters to uncover it first, lest the Op-Ed page beat the front page, an embarrassment to all. 
4. Where did he get this stuff? Most columnists have been around forever; the good ones use their time-tested sources, the bad ones let their sources use them. By reading a column over time, the shrewd reader spots who gets sent off and who gets sent up, and how often the pundit is mouthpiece or originator.
5. Does this guy have a point of view I can identify with, or at least reject with consistency? If a reader finds a pundit or two whose logic marches, whose premises do not waver, and who is unafraid to make judgments that cost him friends, then the reader can make use of the column in striking a judgment while the issue is hot. 
6. Will I ever be surprised? Sometimes consistency is for hobgoblins; the same knee never jerks in exactly the same way. No political column should collapse into dreary expectability, because moods and mindsets change, and the reader is entitled to a little suspense in discovering where the pundit comes out.
7. Is this the product of a committee or a robot - or a flesh-and-blood individual with idiosyncracies and crotchets? In punditry, personality counts. The reader has to trust somebody in the opinion mafia, and an individual with a byline and a style is easier to love or hate than an institution. 
Using those criteria, I read the Kraft column with profit and will miss it. This is by way of a farewell to a man I did not know well, but I have sources in the field and anybody ought to be able to write 750 words on anything. 

Copyright 1986 The New York Times Company 

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