Bill Dunphy wants my dream job.
Bill wants to be a columnist. I have written hundreds of columns, but I’ve never been a columnist. In my 30-plus years in the newspaper business, I wrote columns about sports, religion, entertainment and agri-business. When I was the editor, I wrote a weekly column that might address something that was happening at the newspaper or issues in the community or nation. Or whatever I wanted to write about. I was, after all, the editor. But I wasn’t a columnist. I was an editor who also wrote a column or a reporter who also wrote a column. I learned that a column grows well out of other work.
For much of my career, I thought being a full-time columnist would be the coolest job. But in my best bid to be a columnist, the editors chose someone else. I wasn’t smart enough to dream about the opportunities that came instead.
So now Bill has asked my advice on his pitch to be a columnist. My reflex response — conditioned on decades of envy for columnists — was that he should get the hell out of the way and let me have the job. But on reflection, I’m wondering if that job I coveted so long even has the right name.
Columnist comes from a unit of measure in a newspaper. A columnist today should blog, but blogger isn’t a better name because that’s also fixed on a platform, rather than what the person does. I like Bill’s approach. He wants to call his column “Witness,” but that could become the right name for a columnist in multi-platform journalism. Bill says he will be a “journalist giving witness to the things he saw and heard and said.”
I should say that Bill asked me in a Twitter direct message: “I’m pitching a city columnist job here and crowdsourcing the pitch … any thoughts or suggestions?” And Bill covered most of my thoughts and suggestions on what a columnist should be in the digital age. So I’m providing more encouragement than advice here. I love Bill’s idea of seeing his job as being out in the community, not at a desk. I love his view of transparency: publishing notes and unedited video interviews, linking to all sources.
Before I read and embraced Bill’s view of a columnist as a witness, I was thinking of a name like “conversationalist” (longtime readers already know I’m not good at coming up with titles). Bill sees that as part of the Witness approach: “News is a conversation – which means shutting up sometimes and letting the other guy talk. And listening. I’ll listen.”
Bill is rightly embracing an approach that converses on multiple channels: video (see below), Twitter, Facebook, RSS, podcasts, web and print. I might add a few: Quora might be a good place to pose some questions (and gather answers) the Witness might address. The Witness will want to liveblog some news event. And the Witness might want to study the success of Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook and consider whether email should be part of the approach. The successful Witness is going to converse efficiently, feeding the various channels appropriately and having multiple conversations in progress at any one time.
Bill raises the question of whether the Witness should write three or five newspaper columns per week. I suggest three. Pursue five (or more) conversations a week, but don’t make all your work fit into that inflexible format. Don’t let writing the column be the focus of your work. The conversation will be the focus, a constant rough draft being shared with the community in multiple forms. As the column deadline approaches, edit some of that rough draft into the newspaper format.
Good luck, Bill. You’ll be a great columnist. And an even better Witness.