From AJR,   October 1993

One from Column A, One from Column B   

Newspapers are creating columns aimed at specific segments of their audiences.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     

It is a tradition in print journalism that most reporters want to be become columnists, an ambition often thwarted in earlier times because few newspapers had more than two or three in addition to syndicated pundits.

Now newspapers have entered a touchy-feely era in which they seek ever more ways to connect to readers. Creating new columns to appeal to every segment and interest in society is one of their strategies. Newspapers have become awash in columny. (See Books, page 67.)

Today we have columns not only about local color, politics and sports – the traditional subjects – but also aimed at African Americans, female African Americans, feminists, homosexuals, Asians, Hispanics, commuters, shopping mall hangabouts, macho males (not many of these), television addicts, celebrity freaks, lawyers, businessmen of all varieties – think of a subject and somewhere a columnist is writing about it.

Local columnists, especially, have become the print equivalent of the blow-dried news personalities of local television. The goal, of course, is to attract and keep readers, which is good for business if not always for journalism.

This trend is worrisome for several reasons. First, usually the best writers and reporters get elevated to column writing. That may make sense, but it removes the best talent from the task that is most important for a newspaper – presenting vigorous and well-written reporting of local events and issues.

Some columnists – local and syndicated – do the same legwork as a good reporter and then analyze the gathered facts. When this works well it can add a dimension – because the columnist has a freer hand – beyond what is available in the typical news analysis piece written by a beat reporter.

Too often, though, the second thing that can go wrong with a column intervenes – the need to produce a piece two or three times a week. The time pressure limits efforts to come up with something original, with the frequent result being that columnists must reach – and often overreach – for something, anything , to write about. A stark example of this was the avalanche of irrelevant columns about broccoli after President Bush opined publicly that he didn't like the stuff.

More damaging to the public weal is what can happen to a public person who says something infelicitous in the pressure of the moment or who publicly reveals a human tendency shared by all but somehow deemed inappropriate for serious aspirants to high office. Examples of this demonstrate that trying to find something worth writing about two or three times a week has long been the bane of columnists.

George Romney, one of the more attractive and able Republicans to seek his party's presidential nomination in recent decades, will go down in history as the man who said, courageously, after a visit to Vietnam that he had been "brainwashed" about how well the war there was going. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine saw his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination derailed after he wept at a press conference while expressing his outrage at what he considered to be a personal attack on his wife in a newspaper editorial. And Alexander Haig will always be known as the man who said "I'm in charge here" at the White House in those frantic minutes after President Reagan had been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.

¡olumnists jumped on all of these essentially irrelevant episodes with overblown commentary that effectively ended the presidential ambitions of these able men.

A more common failing, especially with local columnists, is an over-reliance on personal opinion. There are columnists who by dint of their reporting experience and vast knowledge of their subject – the Washington Post's David Broder writing on politics springs to mind – have opinions that are worth reading. There are few columnists of this stature, though.

Despite all this carping about what goes wrong with columns, the overall strategy of creating them to appeal to special interests is a good one. Columns are particularly useful in connecting with minorities, who may believe that the only time newspapers are interested in them is when they are prominent in crime stories. Most newspapers (sadly, not all) now recognize there are valid reasons for minority animosity toward them, that there has been a long history of neglect. Minority-oriented columns put attempts at redress up front.

Columns that focus on special interests likewise are an easy, highly visible way to reach readers. A local gardening column, for example, which reports on local growing conditions, tastes and plant sellers, can offer information and advice not available elsewhere.

These adventures outweigh the weaknesses inherent in column writing and even, I suppose, are worth the significant loss of news space in some newspapers. And I'm sure the growth of column opportunities help keep star reporters happy. l