When David Bullard’s Sunday Times column was canned in 2008, his fans were furious. When Barry Ronge left the Sunday Times for The Star Tonight, it touched a sore spot for many readers. The Sunday Times eventually brought Ronge back and have kept him ever since.
What is it about the pull of a columnist that hardcore journalists simply don’t have? It is personal. We all have our favourite columnists whose work we enjoy, and who makes us think and even inspires discussions. Perhaps we feel we know them personally because they give us a part of themselves in their opinions.With all the changes in newspapers, the core of weekly newspapers is fast becoming opinion and investigations, as opposed to news that you can glean immediately from many other sources.
Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser agrees. “Columnists play an increasingly important role, because they help give us a unique voice on Sundays, and we use them as key components in a package that has to be different,” he says. “Information is not scarce anymore; but clear voices, good writers, and smart opinions well expressed? Rare as hell!”
Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus, says: “Columnists add character, provoke debate, add humour and, hopefully, plug into readers’ experiences and views – and on occasion help to shift these.”
Deputy editor of the Sunday Times Brendan Boyle goes further by saying that what you want in a columnist is someone closely associated in people’s minds with a newspaper and who, through their writing, create “food for water cooler conversations”.
Boyle explains that columnists can be useful in making people feel comfortable with their views because they reiterate what the reader believes in a clever way. But you don’t want too many of those. “Then there is the columnist who generates anger by making good points that readers don’t want to agree with but feel the need to discuss,” he says. Ultimately, Boyle says, editors need to choose columnists very carefully to ensure their readers all find at least one columnist in their publication who they really want to read.
But, he adds, being a columnist is a tough ask. “Coming up with frequent columns is not an easy way to make a living and sometimes columnists tend to write too many columns – few people can dash them off in a hurry with any success.”
In a columnist, newspapers are looking for something out of the ordinary. As Sunday World editor Marvin Meintjies says, “Analysis with no bite is dry and forgettable. A good columnist is able to seize the zeitgeist. You don’t want your headline columnist writing about the “forces opposed to the national democratic revolution” when the nation is seized by the antics of the Zuptas (sic).”
It’s about “adding value and providing something beyond the news one can get on a phone or on TV”, says Carter. “Columns are a means of doing this – great writing, knowledgeable writers and interesting views.”
But if you read around, you will notice that some newspapers are cutting down on columnists and others are increasing their opinionistas.
Boyle says: “It is economies of scale. Every columnist takes space from news. At the moment space is a huge issue. Our paper [Sunday Times] is relatively tight and we need to use the space we have carefully.”
Meintjies understands tight budgets and says because of that he had to choose “just one exceptional writer” in Fred Khumalo. However, editors are sometimes “penny wise and pound foolish”, says Meintjies. “Sure you can cut down on good columnists to save money, but you lose unique selling points. I used to love Bafana Khumalo, Krisjan Lemmer and ‘A Letter to Walter’ in the Mail & Guardian. Those voices are gone and they have not been replaced. Editors have been rash in slashing columnists.”
Meintjies says try dumping certain hot properties like crossword puzzles and “you will drown in an avalanche of hate mail”. “But losing columnists is like slow poison,” he says. “They do take readers with them. Lose them and you won’t have an avalanche of hate mail… but you’ve just lessened your value proposition. People will be left with that nagging feeling that they’re missing something when they buy your paper.”
Pelser agrees that columnists are essential and flies against any trend to cut them. “The only trend worth following is to invest more in the best voices, so we won’t cut on columnists. In fact, you’ll see more investment in voices in Rapport in future, in print and online. The focus will and must be on quality.”
Pelser says weekly newspaper columnists “must take the pulse [but] not over-analyse. This mix matters, because we have a goal not only to entertain but also to inform and ‘vertolk’ (interpret). The paper is increasingly built around conversations, and columnists fuel these.”
Pelser believes columnists draw people to newspapers. “The best columnists have authentic opinions and are not afraid to speak their minds. Readers want real people and authentic voices. Columnists also help determine the character of a paper. There are some columnists we would never use even though they’d fit right in at a rival paper, and vice versa. That’s precisely the point.”
But columnists by their very nature are opinionated and have a tendency to go overboard. Perhaps that’s a good thing but just how much leeway should editors give them?
Pelser’s take is: “The doors and windows should be open so that fresh ideas and new energy can come in, but I need to read and okay every column, because the risk is mine. A columnist who writes a boring column does little damage and even that we try to keep at bay (it rarely happens!). But a columnist who decides to grind an axe or seriously offend our readers will achieve the opposite of what we aim to achieve each Sunday, which is a satisfying, stimulating read.”
Carter agrees, believing individuality is key. “I try not to censor, although hate speech, incorrect facts, racism, sexism or advocating violence would be a red flag.”
Independent on Saturday editor Deon Delport totally agrees, saying “being hurtful is not funny” but columnists should have as much latitude as possible.
Boyle adds, “Of course we want columnists to be controversial and push the limits but it is the editor’s responsibility to be the last filter and pull them back if they have gone to far.”
Meintjies says, “Ultimately, they work for the title and not the other way around so they can, and should, be edited. And the editor’s indecision (sic) is final.”
Obviously taking on big name columnists can work in an editor’s favour, says Delport. “If one’s got a big name columnist, who is admired, one could certainly use that person to entice readers to the title.” Delport says that there are people who look forward to reading the Independent on Saturday’s top columnists, John Robbie and James Clarke, and would consider not buying the newspaper if they weren’t there.
Carter believes columnists aren’t the be-all and end-all. They may entice readers “to the extent that regular readers expect them to be there – they are part of the package readers buy on a weekend but single sales don’t happen on the basis of a column”.
Boyle agrees. “There isn’t a columnist who is bigger than the Sunday Times brand.” The relationship readers have with columnists has been compared to that of radio listeners to hosts, partly because of the personal relationship consumers believe they have with them. Boyle sees the comparison but says, “Personalities are much bigger on radio because if they leave they stand to take a vast listenership. In newspapers, they are a part of the package you commit to when you buy it regularly but on radio you can just tune into that particular person. It is a different kind of sales deal.”
However, in some cases, if you challenge the ‘big name’ columnists, you may risk losing them and many readers to another publication. So is it worth taking on the big names? Delport says: “No-one is indispensable and no columnist should have carte blanche to do as they please. Obviously I would try to create a pleasant atmosphere for all who contribute to this newspaper and show appreciation for their work, but if someone tries to play off my title against another then they must do as they think best. I do not have the budget to play such games.”
And Meintjies says, “It’s a symbiotic relationship. Columnists get a great platform and they help the platform be great. The trick is to manage the tensions that arise, I suppose. But nobody is irreplaceable, not even the editor.”
Pelser welcomes those large personalities. “I’m not afraid of big brand writers. I welcome them and we must help build them, because it is part of what we can offer columnists – a platform on which they can shine,” he says. “Having only one such columnist would be foolish, because then you run an unnecessarily big risk of losing everything when that person leaves (all the eggs in one basket). But a bouquet of brands, a ‘choir of soloists’, can work. Also, when columnists don’t have enough to say anymore, they should move on, and both parties need to know when that day arrives.”
And Carter succinctly puts the final touch to the debate. “If the columnist is more important than the package, then there is something wrong with the paper.” n