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.
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 omaha.com/section/brad.
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.