Becoming a regular columnist at a prestigious newspaper is one of the cushiest and most coveted jobs in journalism. Strangely, almost every newspaper columnist sucks. Maybe the problem is the entire concept.
Next to “staff writer at The New Yorker” and “whatever Jay Rosen’s job is supposed to be,” no position makes wretched journalists salivate more than Columnist At One of the Three Big Newspapers Or Even at Bloomberg Or One of the Weekly Magazines That Still Blow a Lot of Money. Columnists have the perfect blend of lifestyle and compensation: write two things a week (reporting optional!), get paid a healthy six-figure salary, and be able to pimp yourself out on the speaking circuit. It combines a bare minimum of actual work with a great amount of unearned prestige. It is a loud megaphone, a glorious throne, and a cushy retirement home all in one.
You would think, rationally, that the extreme desirability of these jobs would allow publishers to hire the very best people for them, thereby ensuring that the actual columns produced were of a very high quality. As we all know, that is not the case. Look at the columnists at the most prestigious newspapers. I don’t think I am being biased by making the observation that the vast majority of them suck. Tom Friedman sucks. Maureen Dowd sucks. David Brooks sucks. Ross Douthat sucks. Richard Cohen sucks, Charles Krauthammer sucks, Kathleen Parker sucks, George Will sucks, Dana Milbank sucks, and almost everyone at the Wall Street Journal sucks and should be in prison for crimes against the people. I am not trying to make a partisan distinction here. The “liberal” columnists suck, and the “conservative” columnists suck, and the “centrist” columnists—they suck as well. This grand panorama of suck does not exist just because all of these columnists lack the right ideology. It exists because they lack something much more fundamental, and harder to find: interesting ideas.
Perhaps... and I hate to say this... it is not all their fault.
My friends, I’ve been doing this a long time. (“This”=waking up every day and desperately scrambling to fill a blank page with words with absolutely no regard to topic or quality.) Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two—not about how to write things that are good, which can only be accomplished with long bouts of prayer, but about the deeper nature of writing itself, and why it sucks.
Let’s focus here on the more creative side of journalism: Essays, columns, brilliant feature stories and whatnot. Not the workaday news stories, which are a craft in themselves but which demand precision and concision and organization, not creative thinking. Most working journalists in America—say, two-thirds—are not equipped to ever write “good” pieces that fall in the creative category. That’s just not what they do. That’s not how they think. They’re reporters, they write news stories, blah blah. If you see a great feature or essay or column from someone like this, it is because their editor made it good. Editors! They do things sometimes. The most basic problem with some columnists, then, is that they are members of the class of journalists that is not capable of writing interesting columns. They were bad hires. The fault is on the people who hired them. They’re doing their best. And their best is “rehashed versions of Meet The Press conversations.”
Of the portion of working journalists who are capable of producing good pieces that require the production of actual interesting ideas translated into column form, we run into another very basic problem. How many fresh, interesting ideas can one person come up with? Put more plainly, how fast can even a good writer who does have fresh interesting ideas come up with them?
Fortunately, I know the answer to this: Twice a month. In a bad month you may have zero; under no circumstances will you ever have more than three fresh, interesting ideas per month. I base this answer on many years of watching myself and all my colleagues being forced to write stuff for public consumption every single day. (“But you and your colleagues are hacks and morons,” you say. Yeah, same as everyone else in this business. There are no heroes here.) Look back on all the stuff you write in a month, and—if you’re good—you’ll have maybe two interesting, worthwhile, fully developed column-length pieces. The rest is just filler. The rest is just “Hey, uh, this thing happened, did you see this? How about this? Well, I guess this is pretty bad.” The average newspaper column, in other words. Have you detected the problem here? That’s right, most columnists are expected to write two columns a week. Automatically, three quarters of the output of even the best columnists will be mundane filler. On top of that, every column has to be the same length. If you have an idea that might be good for 500 words, it will produce a column that is 40% padding. If you have a really good idea that might be good for 5,000 words, it will produce a thinly sketched column lacking in nuance. There is no guarantee that your two good pieces a month will both be perfect at exactly the length of a column, which only further hobbles the chances of columnists to not suck on a regular basis.
The obvious takeaway from this is to fire all the full time columnists and run op-ed sections on a freelance basis. Use their bloated salaries to hire reporters! The best full time newspaper columnist in America would be much better as a regular contributing columnist writing half as much. Or less. Some soft-hearted types may add that another takeaway from this is that columnists have an impossible job so we should stop making fun of them so much.
No. We’re not going to do that. Nor will we stop hoping to one day be hired as a prestigious columnist. Because we want THE MONEY!!!