SDX 2002 Awards Gallery
Columns need repeat readers
By Eugene Kane
OK, kid. So you want to write a column?
First thing, you gotta find a voice. I mean, your own voice, not some namby-pamby version of Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin. If the newspapers gonna give you a regular space to fill anywhere from one to three times a week, its up to you to make it worthwhile. A newspaper column is a whole different kind of animal. Its not a feature, its not a news report, its not a profile or a take-out or an analysis and, God forbid, its certainly not an essay.
I mean, not usually.
Oh, it can be all those things; but first its got to be a column. Which means its written in a strong distinctive voice, so much so that even regular readers could guess it was your stuff if they took your name off along with the out-of-date picture of your mug on top of the column.
You see, nobody just gives themselves a newspaper column. You have to earn it.
Columns are given out by editors, and editors usually reward reporters with a column for exceptional achievement or for a particularly stylish way with words and information.
Maybe you just nagged and complained for so long, they gave you a column to shut you up.
Some journalists start writing columns after writing thousands of different kinds of stories in their careers so many stories they realize the best way to tell many of them is to forget all about that inverted pyramid crap and just let it fly. As an added bonus, where some reporters are required by concepts of fairness and balance to keep their personal feelings out of it, thats not the case with a column.
In a newspaper column, youre supposed to keep your personal feelings in it.
Once you have earned the right to write a column, youll discover the real challenge is making the column a great read each and every time. Because its your piece of real estate inside the newspaper.
On every side of you, there are other options. There are news articles and features and movie reviews and auto ads and cartoons, so you better do a good job holding the readers interest. Because if nobody reads the column, that pretty much defeats the purpose of your editor giving you the column in the first place.
Eugene Kane is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He won the 2000 SDX Award for General Column Writing.
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Steve Duin, The Oregonian
Its not hard to tell where Steve Duin stands on an issue.
His columns, which run three times a week in the metro section of The Oregonian, are full of detailed reporting about timely topics. Woven into each of them, between the facts of each story, Duin adds his own perspective and feelings to the text.
The columnists consideration for children is especially apparent in his writing. In one column, he wrote about a controversial case in which two white police officers had shot and killed a black man. The man who was wanted on a felony warrant and was under the influence of drugs had called 9-1-1 and threatened to kill a 3-year-old boy who was in his care. When police arrived, he was banging the child against a wall and a dresser. When he refused to stop, police shot him.
Duins column was about a local action group that, with the support of the dead mans family, had publicly charged the police department with racism. The group claimed that lethal force wasnt warranted, and that it was just another case of a black man running into trouble with white cops.
Sorry, but when a child is at risk, the abuser doesnt get the benefit of the doubt.
By all accounts, that child is celebrating his third birthday today because two cops rescued him from a violent, spaced-out guy in a cheap motel. In a perfect world, the police would have pulled that off with beanbags, not bullets. In the world weve got, they defended the only innocent person in the room.
I understand why a lot of people are bitter that Hammick wont live to see 27. If they need to find fault, they can blame him, blame Callahan, blame the hot tub, the drugs, or those who encourage us to divide everything into black and white. But back off the cops.
Duins columns illustrate that hes willing to critically examine his own life, as well. A constant supporter of children, he worked as a mentor for kids at a local home for boys. But when two of the kids in his care ran off, Duin wrote about his own bitterness and loss of faith in a system that he had supported for years.
I figured theyd popped out to the concession stand. When they were still gone 10 minutes later, I figured they were shooting baskets in the cold barn that is the high schools old gym.
Only after Id described the two boys to the police did it sink in that they werent coming back.
Only after I cruised Pioneer Courthouse Square and the bus stations and began drafting my apology to St. Marys did I realize the curiosity about area geography was a cleverly disguised question about bus routes to Portland.
In the history of the boys home, Im told, no mentor has ever lost a kid while on an outing.
I lost two.
As I write, five days later, Curtis and Josh are still on the lam. Also missing is my confidence that either mentors or St. Marys makes much of a difference in the lives of the homeless boys over whom they watch. Judges said Duins personal touch in every column is what made his entry stand out.
Duin leaves a piece of himself behind in every column, they wrote. Readers no doubt know that he cares even when confrontational or pointing out their failings (or even his own).
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Ian O'Connor, The Journal News
The work of a good columnist is similar in many ways a reporter. A columnist collects facts, talks to sources, and figures out the real story in every situation.
The sports columns of Ian OConnor often go a step further and actually break news stories, as well. On the day that Mets coach Bobby Valentine was fired, OConnor was the only reporter in the New York region to land an interview with the coach.
OConnors columns deliver strong opinion and commentary, but his arguments are made even stronger by quotes and interviews with the players involved.
In one column, OConnor looks at the new marketing strategy being used to promote professional womens golf. The coachs own outrageous comments are used to hang himself, and he unwittingly helps OConnor point out the ridiculous nature of the new marketing plan.
Say goodbye to the 30th anniversary of Title IX and say hello to the birth of Titleist IX, the dangerous vision of a dashing carnival barker named Ty Votaw, a just-spell-my-name-right commissioner in hot pursuit of the red-blooded American male. Votaw needs his attention and disposable income to rescue the LPGA from obscurity, and figures the surest way to get both is to ask his women to shape up, dress up and play the skins game all day long.
Votaw swears his fresh marketing plan isnt what you think it is, but the more he says this isnt about sex the more it sounds like this is exactly about sex. The five points of celebrity he began selling to his players in March are performance (obviously), passion (good to hear), relevance (always important), approachability (ditto) and ... appearance (you cant be serious, Ty).
Appearance matters, end of story, Votaw said. If its done in good taste and not in a titillating or scintillating way or just sex for the sake of sex, its the best thing any person trying to compete in the sports and entertainment market can do. ... Who was more marketable, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson? Who was better looking? Appearance matters, thats all Im saying.
In another column, OConnor talks with the father of Chris Mello, a man who was aboard the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Though his son was hailed as a hero, the father said his pain and anger have not faded since the terrorist attack.
People have assured Doug Mello that time heals all wounds. People who never opened a small box to survey fragments of their daughters and sons. People who never had to accept the medical examiners word that these were indeed the remains of a winner, an achiever, a Princeton kid who could have won over the terrorists he was sitting with if only they werent so cowardly and sick.
Time heals all wounds. I hate that phrase, Mello said.
OConnor said the Mello interview was the most challenging part of his entry. I just couldnt fathom his pain, he said. But he added that the column that resulted from the interview and the Mello familys response were incredibly gratifying. They thanked me for handling their raw pain with accuracy and care.
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