What a Columnist Is, and How to Be One - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

What a Columnist Is, and How to Be One

The title “columnist” is heavy with the weight of ages past. The word evokes the almost archaic notion of a column of words on the printed page. Some of the most revered journalists have born that title. What the word means today, in the age of Internet journalism, is not always clear.

One traditional concept of the columnist is this: after years of covering a beat, a reporter has gained the expertise to opine on and explain the issue. An important aspect of this type of columnist is that he still has sources, he knows the art of reporting, and so he doesn’t stop reporting.

This isn’t always what’s meant by the word columnist, but it’s how I use the term. My model for a columnist is my mentor and old boss, Bob Novak. Novak’s column always ran on the opinion page, but he never thought he was doing his job if he merely laid out his opinion. His rule was this: every column will have at least one previously unreported fact. Sometimes the fact was a mere nugget on which he hooked his analysis or argument. Sometimes the entire column was reporting. Occasionally, he delivered groundbreaking scoops.

I haven’t set as rigorous a rule for myself, but I have tried to emulate Novak in this regard: as a columnist, I will still be a reporter.

Specifically, I see my job as reporting from a perspective. Sometimes I say, a bit cynically, “I’m a reporter who doesn’t pretend to have no opinions.” It’s probably fairer to say that I try to be a reporter who clearly lays out his own judgments and analysis of what he’s reporting.

Let me explain.

Be a Reporter

The most important thing is to do actual reporting. If something’s happening, go there. If regular people are around, talk to them. Spend hours combing through public records—not because you’re likely to find a smoking gun but because you may find interesting tidbits that readers didn’t know.

Your job as a journalist, including as a columnist, is to tell readers things they didn’t know.

If your aim is simply to edify the readers, nothing does that like new facts. If your goal is to persuade readers, nothing does that like new facts. And if your aim is just to have career success in journalism, nothing will do that like regularly providing previously unreported facts.

Your opinions become valuable only when they rest atop facts.

‘Here’s Where I’m Coming From’

“Objectivity” is a ridiculous notion, if taken literally. Related ideas like “balance,” “fairness,” and “setting aside one’s bias” are achievable—and the latter two are always desirable.

But “objectivity” means describing the object itself, rather than how some subject sees it. This is impossible. As humans, we don’t have access to things-in-themselves. We only have access to them as we see them. A good journalist, especially one tasked with creating “straight news,” will try to take in an object from as many perspectives as possible.

Often, of course, our media totally fail to do this. In part, because it’s not a priori obvious how many perspectives there are. “Both sides” journalism, by definition, presumes there are only two sides. In politics, this is rarely true.

The constraints of time and word count leave any reporter to cover a subject from only a few perspectives. Fine. But if the reporter leaves the impression that this is an “objective” assessment, or a comprehensive analysis, he is misleading the reader.

A columnist reports from a perspective, and makes his perspective perfectly clear to the reader.

Everyone who read his column knew Novak was a conservative who championed tax cuts, opposed the Iraq War, was pro-life, supported free trade (except with Castro’s Cuba), and was a Cold War hawk.

Owning his perspective allowed Novak to find and tell stories that others couldn’t. I find that is also true with me.

I’m a Catholic, conservative, antiwar, pro-life, libertarian populist. I’m as skeptical of corporate lobbyists as I am of politicians and federal bureaucrats. From this perch, I see things others don’t.

When Congress passed a bill in 2008 expanding a health-insurance subsidy for poor children to include middle-class young adults, none of the media dug into who was really driving the bill. I reported out that the insurance industry was behind it. I was the only one.

During the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, I went on a conference call with a pro-choice group and asked a doctor the difference between what Gosnell was accused of and the late-term abortion methods they defend. The doctor explained that the only difference was that Gosnell killed the baby outside of the womb.

By reporting, very distinctly, from my perspective I was able to introduce new knowledge to the world in these and other cases.

‘If You Know Something, Write Something’

If you were to read a good piece of reporting by a veteran beat reporter and then run into that writer at the bar, he might—after a pint or two—gruffly explain, “Well here’s what’s really going on . . .”

He would explain which public officials in his story were totally full of it, which one was going to win in the end, and which one was really calling the shots. A columnist actually tells the reader all these things. A straight reporter might feel constrained from sharing such judgment calls with the reader.

Reporters like this have reasons to keep their opinions to themselves—and maybe it’s the right move. But they are also depriving the reader of their insights and judgment. Neutrality requires reporters to eschew judgment (sometimes) even when they have expert, crystal-clear opinions on some of the matters they’re covering.

One way to think of a columnist is this: a reporter who doesn’t hide his or her judgments. As my brother John, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, puts it: if you know something, write something.

A columnist is the reporter who lays out the facts, but not “just the facts”—he or she provides context, interpretation, and judgment. The columnist spends the time with a subject until he is nearly an expert, so that his columns can in effect say, as the old-school reporter would say at the bar after deadline, “Here’s what’s really going on here.”

Pick Your Specialty

To do this well, you need to be like that gruff beat reporter. You need to know the lay of the land—the background, the players, the possibilities. This usually involves more than just a few hours of Googling.

Developing a few areas of specialization can be very helpful—for the columnist and for his readers. How do you choose an area in which to specialize? The two factors to look for: What do I enjoy covering? And Where is the supply of coverage low? A third factor might be, Where do I have an advantage given my knowledge, experience, or skills?

When you know things—from studying and from reporting—tell those things to the reader. That’s what a good columnist does.

Timothy P. Carney is Senior Political Columnist for the Washington Examiner and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also the author of The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money (Wiley, 2006) and Obamanomics (Regnery, 2009). You can follow him on Twitter at @TPCarney

Complement with Derek Draplin’s six things you should know about working in media, Kelly Torrance on the six habits of effective journalists, and Stanley Williams on the power of storytelling.

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