Hey, it’s me over here in the little photo. In a couple weeks it will be St. Patrick’s Day, and everyone will proclaim some dubious connection to Ireland—- it also seems like everyone wants to be a columnist.
Today, there is a dizzying array of platforms for people to voice their opinions to the world. There are bloggers, podcasters, online magazines, Youtube Channels and then there are the rabble that inhabit the comments sections. The good, the bad and the ugly arguing side-by-side.
Some of those people might even be related to you. Recently, a teenager told me she “unfriended” her grandmother because of her nutty politics.
Over the last decade it has become tougher for professional columnists to whine and critique society when everyone out there is competing with us. Unsolicited opinions are as thick as salt-marsh mosquitoes after sunset these days.
One possible reason for this deluge can be found on our beloved smartphones. Phones are a gateway drug to a public soapbox where all can offer opinions on the world’s problems, grumble about sports or share monkey photos. Recently, I read a few statistics on social media trends.
Currently there are 1,754,000,000 active users on Facebook and they spend an average of 648,000,000 minutes a month interacting with it. Some people even get their news from Facebook.
Facebook is the news leader among the social media sites. Approximately two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adults use the site, and half of those users get news there — amounting to 30% of the general population, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.
Is this good or bad? Ask yourself where your news sources are coming from and are they reliable?
It appears we must serve as our own version of a newsroom editor or risk living in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Who and what are professional columnists?
Let us examine the columnist look. They tend to have a photo, so you will not confuse them with someone good-looking. They frequently have a facial expression that alludes to their favorite style of insight. For example, political columnists tend to wear suits, humor writers tend have a smirk on their face and the coolest columnists wear hats. The religious columnists tend to have halos.
Back in my college days I took a fantastic course titled, “The American Newspaper Columnist” taught by one of my favorite Virginia Tech professors, Dr. Sam G. Riley. He taught journalism and authored two books on the history of column writing, “The Biographical Dictionary of American Newspaper Columnists” and “The Best of the Rest,” an anthology of America’s best columnists.
Riley was also a popular columnist for several newspapers earlier in his life. He had a memorable column photo complete with a sly grin and cigar. He had a column name ‘Southern Whimsy” that fit his personality.
The origins of column writing in American newspapers began in the 1850s growing from a tradition of essays and short humor pieces. Among the first columnists were an eclectic band of literary types who realized that column writing could take many forms. It was also a nice way to pick up a little extra cash (in those days).
It is surprising to some (not me) that many of the popular early columnists were women. They reviewed the arts, penned social commentary, reported on celebrity gossip and even pioneered investigative news. Editors liked that they increased readership among women—especially at a time when women read more voraciously. Publishers liked it because they made money for the paper.
Over my course of study, I especially enjoyed three columnists, Ralph Waldo Emerson McGill, Russell Baker and Guy Friddell. All gave me an appreciation for the craft of column writing.
Two of the columnists are Virginians while the third, McGill, was a Tennessee born writer, best known for his work in the Atlanta Constitution from the 1920s through the 1960s.
McGill was often characterized as a seeker of truth. He was equally talented at conveying the natural beauty of the south as he was at confronting its darkest faults.
He wrote one the best essays on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve ever read. He told family-oriented tales and used a funny style that could enchant—- then strike with the fury of a swamp-bred cottonmouth viper. His column “I’m the Gink” had the best name—-it is a slang term for a foolish person.
Baker, 92, is from Morrisonville, Virginia. He is a master of many genres. At one point he was syndicated in five hundred newspapers. He was also a popular author and Pulitzer Prize winner.
I always enjoyed his nostalgia columns in the Baltimore Sun and his hosting role on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. One of my favorite Baker columns is titled “Any Humans There?” In this column, he tackles a junk mail letter sent to his address from the late Rev. Jerry Falwell asking for donations. I marveled at his witty social critique.
“I felt bound to warn Mr. Falwell that a machine was writing letters over his name and trying to cadge money from strangers,” he wrote.
My third hero was Friddell, a longtime columnist for The Richmond News Leader and later the Virginian-Pilot. I liked his self-effacing humor, narrative style and southern-flavored nostalgia. His collection of columns in the book titled, Jackstraws focused on language, his experiences in the military and the odd shape of his own head.
For a brief sample of Friddell’s skill as a writer I present two stellar descriptions of southern women contained in the column “When Southern Women Part.”
“The women drop graceful adjectives as naturally as a dogwood tree sheds petals,” he wrote.
He also added this gem: “You should listen, I said, to two southern women talk, to the trailing wisteria vines of conversation that embellish a delicate filigree of meaning.”
So, before you step up on your social media soapbox think of all of us in the little photo wearing a funny hat.