The Mark Of A Good Columnist

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - January 09, 2008
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Ray Pendleton
Ray Pendleton

One of our town’s best columnists usually is tucked away Sundays on page B-10, 11 or 12 of the Star-Bulletin sports section. That’s the veteran Water Ways writer Ray Pendleton.

He’s been hitting us over the head for years about how we’re a water state but put so little public money into boating facilities. He points out that we have fewer boats than the inland state of Wyoming. He reminds us that the Legislature killed the bill to make all moored-boat owners insure against the cost of salvage should they run aground or sink. He says it has cost the state boating fund $500,000 in three years to salvage crashed boats of uninsured owners.

Good stuff, Ray!

That got me to thinking: Why do newspapers have columnists, what makes them good or bad, and why are some heavily promoted while others are not?

The first columnist in America was John Peter Zenger, who wrote in the Weekly Journal in 1735, mainly to embarrass New York’s provincial governor of the time. Ben Franklin briefly wrote a column for the Philadelphia Gazette and by the mid-19th century newspaper column writing was well established.

Today we have folks such as Charles Memminger of the Star-Bulletin trying, with varying degrees of success, to put humor into our lives. MidWeek’s Ron Nagasawa writes - with occasional exaggeration, I imagine - about the foibles of family life.

There are folks such as TV’s Stephen Colbert, who wrote one column in the New York Times that read like Michelle Malkin on too much chocolate.

Then there are those of us who inflict wounds on politicians or stab at the hearts of your beliefs to make points about human behavior.

I’ve always looked at a “serious” columnist’s job this way:

Both Plato and Socrates believed we are born with a sense of what is beauty. I don’t know about that, but I think we aren’t born with but quickly acquire a sense of what is fair play. As we age, we put up walls against fairness because of prejudice or self-interest. A good columnist jars a few bricks loose in those walls.

Making the walls come down is long, slow work. It’s tough to change people’s ideas about race and gender equity, and about sexual orientation. Hardest and most painful of all for a columnist is to talk about religion. Many elect to avoid that. I do not.

I confess some satisfaction that Just Thoughts is run in Oahu’s most-read publication. That’s helped get my thoughts out there for nearly 20 years.

Newspapers tend to give column space to a breed of writers across the political and social spectrum who have some common qualities. Editors prefer someone the readers know by way of previous exposure in politics, academia or journalism. But not always. I don’t think Tima Arango, Nikki Finke, Baz Bamigboye or Mona Charen ring bells with most of you, but they do have national newspaper columns.

Editors want somebody with interesting ideas and the ability to state them clearly. There are a lot of people with ideas, but not all of them are writers. The writers must be able to connect viscerally with the readers.

Freelance columnist Kathy Carlton Willis says: “If your topic is boring or uninteresting, your editor will stop carrying you as a columnist. Editors look for columnists who give readers a reason to read their papers because a higher circulation helps sell advertising.”

I’d add that when readers stop writing letters to the editor saying they either like or dislike what you write, you know you have not made it as a columnist.


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