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Children should be seen and not heard

by: Eric B.

Wed Dec 04, 2013 at 16:47:44 PM EST

I've written a weekly newspaper column now for about a decade. I could probably figure out with precision, but it would be a stupid waste of time. The point is that I've been doing it a very long time. Part of it is the fun; I'm kind of a local celebrity, although I'll take that seriously when people start buying me things. Part of it is that I just enjoy doing it. I've written straight reporting and feature stories and unsigned editorials, and have always found the freedom in using a voice of my choosing to be best suited with my talents, such that they are.

The last few years, there's been noise that media outlets mostly employ as columnists people like me, white men past the age of 40. I was 32 or 33 when I started writing my column, so I was a young white man when I started and am now a middle aged white man. Yesterday, there was apparently a Twitter kerfluffle about how Detroit media outlets mostly just employ white men over 40 as columnists. It's summed up here.

Occasionally I'll get someone who will ask for tips on how to write either opinion or about politics. The linked-to post feels an awful lot like someone was having a sad that they haven't gotten a big, fat paycheck to share his opinions in a newspaper, so with a series of innumerated points I'll explain why it's not bad that very few young people are given jobs writing columns while hopefully providing some useful advice for people who want to get into writing opinion pieces and/or about politics.

1. Having an opinion and writing opinion are two very different things.  Nobody cares what your opinions are. People are interested in why you hold your opinion. If you say, "I like Mark Schauer because he is a Democat," people will promptly tune you out because you have nothing of value to offer them. If you say, "I believe that health care reform must necessarily include an individual mandate because the oldest cohort of Americans is also its largest, which leaves a smaller portion of the American people paying into health care," people will probably call you a communist. But, at least you've given them something worthwhile to think about. And, no, being young doesn't give you special insights into anything except what it's like to be young, which all of us already experienced. You'll understand this a bit better when you've put a few years behind you.

2. Knowing what you're talking about helps quite a lot. When I started writing my column, one of the first topics I hit was Nestle's bottling facility in Mecosta County. Before I wrote a single word, I read three books of history (Cadillac Desert, Rivers of Empire, and Dave Dempsey's On the Brink), reports by the USGS and the DNR/DEQ and looked at hydrology maps. I also took a tour of the plant. As a result, when I wrote pieces and people corresponed with questions or complaints, I could handle them in educated fashion. I could say something like, "The idea that a Public Trust is the same thing as eminent domain is so idiotic that I won't dignify it with a response."

3. Experience as a reporter helps. I am a local expert on the following: Fluoridated drinking water, storm drains, the history of Mount Pleasant's Millpond Park and local parking policy. I know these things because I spent time reporting these topics as a news reporter. I also read the city charter and the state constitution along the way. This helps add not just a necessary temperament, but also perspective on opinion topics. Any asshole can drone on about the evils of zoning. It takes an asshole who has covered a planning commission meeting to do it in a way that explains things to people.

4. Insitutional knowledge probably strengthens your point.  Why are so many of our columnists old, white men? Because when those old, white men were young and/or middle aged, white men ran everything. That's increasingly no longer the case, and that's great (I, for one, welcome our new minority and female overlords), but really good opinion can reach back into the past and use it to explain the present or the future. At the very least, it's a good idea to have someone around who can say, "Well, shit, Dennis Lennox is the same guy who stalked Gary Peters around CMU's campus, got sued for altering Mark Grebner's Wikipedia page and lost(!) and was forced to resign the post of Cheboygen County Drain Commissioner in disgrace, and later donned a ski mask so he could taunt striking CMU faculty ... why are we publishing his Op-Ed again?"

5. A column is not a blog post. A column is an informal essay built possibly around a single idea that a writer hopes to convey. A blog post can be that. A blog post can also be the opinion equivalent of a fart joke. For almost as long as I've written a newspaper column, I've also blogged. So, odds are pretty good I know what I'm talking about on this. This is really only topical because a millenial insisted the other day that columns and blog posts are the same thing.

You'll notice a common thread running through them all, which is that it's most advantageous to know what you're talking about. It usually takes a few years to do that, and a good columnist knows something about a lot of things so he or she can bring unique insights into issues or stories. Building up that reservoir of knowledge takes time.

Eric B. :: Children should be seen and not heard
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