Every so often somebody takes me to task for something I’ve written (usually because they disagree with the sentiments expressed) and adds a comment along the lines that I have no right to call myself a journalist. I then patiently go through the process of explaining that I have never claimed to be a journalist and that I am a totally different animal called a columnist.
I have enormous respect for real journalists, the foot soldiers of the media. Anyone who is prepared to give up his or her weekend to listen to a bunch of politicians spouting at yet another congress at Gallagher Estate deserves a medal. Then there’s all that hanging around court rooms waiting for something to happen and chasing big stories with every other journalist in the hope of getting a differently nuanced version of events. The need to fill the space between the ads in a newspaper every day puts enormous pressure on real journalists. After all, you can hardly offer your readers a six-page paper with the lame excuse that nothing much of interest had happened the previous day.
We columnists, on the other hand, are a completely different breed. The late Bernard Levin, who wrote a superb column for The Times in its pre-Murdoch days, often marvelled that someone could actually be paid good money to foist his unasked for opinions on the readers.
I’m not sure how other columnists work, but my usual method is to open the laptop with a couple of topics in mind and then attempt to rattle off the necessary number of words. Once the words are on the page, the business of self editing and honing begins. For example, does the column have a natural rhythm and flow? Does it have a beginning and an end? Are the words on the page exactly the right words for the moment? For example, if one wants to write a particularly vicious piece one week, are the barbs poisonous enough?
The whole process shouldn’t take much more than a couple of hours, which leaves the rest of the day free for pleasure, while the real journos scout around looking for stories and get home late.
Is it any wonder then that there are, to the best of my knowledge, no glittering media prizes for columnists? You can win a gong for almost everything else, it seems, but not for contributing a regular column. Is this due to spite and petty jealousy, or it is because the people who sponsor these awards ceremonies simply don’t understand how valuable a good columnist can be to a publication?
Every week I have The Spectator delivered to my Kindle and I read it for the excellent columnists. If it weren’t for the regulars I wouldn’t bother to pay for The Spectator at all. The same applies to newspapers. Readers form attachments to columnists for a number of reasons. They may like the political views expressed, they may like the rich use of language, or they may like the dry sense of humour. Whatever it is, the relationship builds over a period of time and that forms a valuable link between publication and reader, something editors seem to forget on occasion. The news stories will always be different, but if you know that there are three or four columnists you enjoy reading then you are likely to remain loyal to a publication.
Despite the surfeit of ‘opinionistas’ now giving their views for free on the internet, there is still a massive gap between a paid columnist with a following and someone who just likes to write an opinion piece and see their name in print. The difference is the money. A popular columnist is a valuable asset to any publication, as Vanity Fair fans of the late Christopher Hitchens would agree. Ideally, readers should be panting for the next edition of a paper or magazine to see what their favourite columnists are going to say next.
Unfortunately not many local columnists can command that sort of reader loyalty and it doesn’t help that South African editors have decided that it’s okay to sack columnists for something already published. Who on earth would want to push the boundaries with rules like that in place? The fear of losing one’s job has forced writers of columns to opt for nice, safe mediocrity.
Which probably explains why there are no glittering prizes for columnists. It would just cause too much trouble.
This ‘Shooting from the Hip’ column was first published in the November 2012 issue of The Media magazine.