TAKE JOURNALISM CLASSES? NO!
Have you asked people how they feel about journalism classes? Okay, I mean, the contempt has just grown, since I started, which was the early '70s, 20 years ago. And it's been steadily rising contempt for the whole concept of journalism classes. And now, it's sort of a given, I think, that it's a mistake. But I don't know if they're telling kids that who go to journalism school!
REPORTING AND COLUMN WRITING
I think a lot of the time good columnists are also good reporters. Joel is a great reporter. Terrific. Mike Royko is another example. A guy with a basic reporter's eye who takes it in and turns it into, you know, he talks about why he thinks about it, and that's why he's a columnist, he has a strong point of view on it. But he had a thing there that he starts with. I think a mistake that a lot of people make when they write columns, or try to and fail, is that they really have nothing except what they think, and that's generally not enough. There has to be something out there that the readers can relate to that you're talking about. And to just suggest that every day, your own thoughts without any connection to reality is gonna be just so fascinating and important to everybody, I think that's a mistake.
It's okay to write about personal things. I mean, I don't think that's a mistake. I do it. I think a lot of people do it. Well, some columnists don't do it. It's okay to do that, if you do it in a way that the readers can relate to. As soon as you get the feeling when you're reading a column that the basic point that the person's making is, "Boy, am I more fascinating than anyone else in the whole world," then you lose it. It's like those Christmas newsletters that people send out. Every now and then, one of them, you might really want to read more than eight words of. But generally, no. If you knew that person enough to care about that stuff, you'd already know. And that's a mistake a lot of columnists, a lot of would-be columnists, make. They just write, they're just self-involved. And they think that anything that happens to them is fascinating to everyone else, and it isn't. You have to make it interesting.
INTERVIEWS: BE UP-FRONT WITH REAL PEOPLE
I probably do...for a humor columnist I do probably more than a lot of actual research. And I do a fair amount of interviews. A lot of them by phone. I'm always very up-front. I say I'm a humor columnist, I'll sometimes say I'm gonna make fun of what you're doing here. And people, I have always found, and maybe I'm just lucky, but I think it's just too consistent to be any other way, it's amazing how willing people are to talk to you. If they knew how bad most of us are at journalism, we professionals, how often we screw things up, I wonder why they do. But people are amazingly willing to talk to you. Unless they're some professional jerk, whose job is to not talk to you. People in the government, a lot of times. But real people with real jobs realize, who aren't ordinarily dealing with the media, will just be incredibly open to you. I have called up people in Canada, to talk about worm spills on the highway, things like that. And they'll just, they'll give you an hour of their time, and they'll tell you, you call some small town in Nebraska because you've heard there was a giant flying cat terrorizing the town, because it was in the Weekly World News or something like that. And they'll see if they can think of anything like that, and they'll tell you so-and-so at the hardware store might know, and you call in, and "Oh, yeah, sure," and they'll be glad to talk to you. So my approach is to always to say, be real up-front. Tell them who you are, tell them why you're calling, and I'll bet you most of the time, they'll be really willing to talk to you. If they're not, they're not. But they probably wouldn't have been even if you'd been real sneaky about it, you know. I've watched other journalists who seem to act as though every interview is they're getting away with something. Pull out the notebook out like no one notices, give me a break! I take my notebook out, say, "Hi, I'm doing a story about this, I want to ask you some questions." That's gonna work in my opinion just as well or better.
Oh, when people say a good quote, you can tell. Your nipples get hard. And it's 'cause "Now I've got a great quote here." Now that's really important for real reporters who live and die by what quotes they get. And they all have their tape recorders and stuff out. But a humor columnist doesn't come along as often, when somebody says something that's just perfect. But you can tell right away. You know what you're after, usually. If you don't know what you're after, well, then you don't know what questions to ask anyway, so it's kind of hard to be a journalist if you don't know what you're after.
ADVICE FOR COLLEGE KIDS
Yeah, they're all columnists! Nobody wants to be a reporter! You know, this is gonna sound easy for me to say, because I wrote a column for my college paper. I mean, I didn't set out to, I was supposed to be a reporter, but I always made it all up. I think if I were gonna be a college kid who wanted to be a columnist some day, I wouldn't be a columnist in my paper. Or if I did, it would not be the most important thing I did. I would concentrate on writing stories. And not covering student government stories. But trying to find stories that were not obvious but were interesting. In other words, real journalism. I would practice that craft because in the end, you'll learn how to write better, and you'll learn how to find out what's interesting better. Which the in...really how you become a columnist, you have something interesting to say. If you start out in college with the idea that you can just sit down every week and think stuff up that will be fascinating to everybody, I don't think you'll succeed. Unless you're a very, very unusual person. I guess everybody who writes a column thinks he's very, very unusual. But believe me, I've read many many many many many columns by college columnists, and most of them don't have much to say. They're college students! That sounds too condescending, but I mean, I say that of my own columns, you know, when I was in college. There's a lot to learn about the world, and it doesn't hurt to go out and actually find out what's going on and report that for a while and then, when you get older, and have a little more perspective on A, what's going on, and B, what other journalists are doing, maybe you can come up with a different way of talking about it and be a good columnist. So that's my advice, practice journalism first, and think about being a columnist later. You'll never get hired to be a columnist anyway to begin with anyway. You're much more likely to get a job in newspapering if you're a good reporter, and then, after a couple years, that's how you become a columnist. They say, hey, we like the way you write, you wanna take a stab at it? Don't send them your college columns though and expect them to hire you for that.
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