Not Going Anywhere

The fol­low­ing is my president’s col­umn for the March 2011 edi­tion of the monthly newslet­ter of the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Columnists

An NSNC friend e-mailed links to farewell pieces that a cou­ple of just-downsized colum­nists were allowed to pub­lish. That oppor­tu­nity isn’t always granted. Atyp­i­cally, he didn’t add his opin­ion, which made my impres­sion of this pair a sur­prise — mainly to me:

So what, I thought? How dare they?

If these fel­lows were mad, they didn’t show it. They had noth­ing but grat­i­tude. Yawn. That and sum­maries of their column’s accom­plish­ments, which read like resumes with verbs.

No one’s advo­cat­ing a heated stick-it-to-‘em. You can see exam­ples of both by search­ing with the phrase “farewell col­umn” in as well as Google.

There’s wis­dom in not burn­ing your bridges, though when you’re laid off, it’s the com­pany pour­ing the kerosene and strik­ing the match, not you. Still, a standing-tall, soft-spoken grace has more class than break­ing some­thing, or yelling or blog­ging an “eff-you.” Vent­ing pub­licly is never ther­a­peu­tic, it just films well.

Now that I’m reflect­ing on those links here at the end of the month, what comes to mind are Oscar win­ner speeches. That’s a lit­tle odd, because dropped columns may not be seen again and their writ­ers often are try­ing to move into cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, while Acad­emy Award recip­i­ents often can work in their trade as many years as they wish.

Regard­less, their palmed lists of pro­duc­ers, agents and cos­tumers bore view­ers, as do bul­let points of favorite edi­tors and which columns over the years got the most mail.

Dig­nity can be such a drudge. Thank-yous have a self­ish side. These increasingly-routine farewell columns are me-oriented to a high degree:

Thank you, I got to write as I please. Thank you, I got to review movies and expand to celebrity inter­views. Thank you, I got to talk to jocks and coaches and say what I really thought. Thank you, Dad, for not mak­ing me major in account­ing. Thank you, fam­ily, for being my comic foils. Thank you, for trans­fer­ring me tem­porar­ily so I could work near Mom in her last months. Thank you, for hir­ing me when I was so young. Thank you, for being tough but sen­si­tive editors.

Ego is fuel, but it burns more effi­ciently when it’s hid­den, when you can’t see the flame. Anger involves ego, but this dig­nity line also is ego — read my good-bye col­umn, see I’m tough and yet a gen­tle­man, that I can take it.

The first prob­lem is that most read­ers aren’t that into us, to bor­row the title of the romance advice book. A few will read the whole farewell col­umn, but most, once they get its drift, will leave the page for game scores or movie schedules.

The sec­ond issue is whether these farewell columns are a big hint that months and years ear­lier some of us for­got to con­nect with readers.

If given the oppor­tu­nity to write a farewell col­umn, how would you engage read­ers, to make them regret los­ing you? If you fig­ure that out, then you have a tool to use for your every­day columns, maybe fore­stall that last one.

While I hold that the best colum­nists focus on what they’d want to read them­selves but no one else is writ­ing, from first to last we must write for readers.

On dead­line who can write a home-run of a final col­umn? The best ones I’ve seen side­step the issue. They’re the writer’s usual stuff but leav­ing room for a last sen­tence or two say­ing that they’re mov­ing on.

Par­en­thet­i­cally, with my last col­umn gig, I was not allowed a farewell. Told with sym­pa­thy and polite­ness to empty my desk and be out by lunch, my only thought was to gather and trans­mit home all my work e-mail addresses and Web book­marks before my Inter­net account was shut down. I barely made it. The time before that, when I kept my edit­ing job but lost the side col­umn, I wrote a reg­u­lar piece but asked a staff artist to draw me wav­ing bye with a tear in my eye. No part­ing para­graph. The pic­ture was sup­posed to say it all.

The bor­ing farewell columns point to where a lot of our writ­ing has gone off the tracks. Maybe if we wrote with read­ers in mind, even at the end, our columns or blogs might gain bet­ter trac­tion. Yes, by writ­ing first to sat­isfy your­self, you can attract read­ers to your unique approach.

Brad Dick­son seems to write to amuse him­self and, with his tal­ent, is hook­ing read­ers. The Omaha World-Herald has hired Dick­son, a for­mer Hol­ly­wood gag writer, to spin a set of one-liners six days a week on local to national top­ics, from pol­i­tics to sports and enter­tain­ment. The jokes are at

His exec­u­tive edi­tor told the Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ism Review, “I had one per­son try to equate our hir­ing of Brad to the down­fall of news­pa­pers and West­ern civilization.”

That reader must be very young or very old, to not remem­ber when colum­nists attracted read­ers to the paper by being inter­est­ing and not always pre­dictable. In fact, it hasn’t been very long since a sim­i­lar col­umn ended after sev­eral decades, “Star­beams” in the Kansas City Star, an items set of quips, whose final writer was NSNC mem­ber Bill Tam­meus.

Good copy isn’t going any­where. We just have to be a lit­tle tricky to cre­ate it, then to move it.


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