John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: June 20, 2009

ANYBODY WHO HAS EVER edited a paper will tell you that virtually every potential contributor wants to be a columnist. And why not? Here’s a job in which, to a large extent, you can write whatever you want, whenever you want, unconstrained by what newsmen used to term “the today angle.” In other words, the column can be a riff on current events, musings on a historical incident, or it might even be about the exploits of your cats.

In the case of Jon Carroll, who’s been writing an every-weekday column for 15 years and is about to be honored by his peers, his cats (Archie and Bucket) have popped up frequently enough for them to be as familiar to his readers as some of the other themes ranging from word pronunciation and “failure” to violin-playing or camel riding.

LA-born Carroll, who’s careful not to reveal his age, worked for Rolling Stone and Oui, and edited New West. In 1982, promoted from being crossword puzzle editor, he began his column for the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper that for 30 years hosted the revered Herb Caen. Rumors abound that when Herb Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay switched San Francisco dailies, 100,000 readers switched with him. A long-time practitioner (like myself) of the “three dot” style, Caen was the legitimate heir to Walter Winchell who had pretty much invented it, a style that is sadly now out of favor.

(I got a weekend trial at the Mirror, when I first hit NYC, but failed to make the cut. Winchell was king there but Kilgallen, Sobol, Wilson, Kempton, Sullivan, Jack O’Brian were all in the fray. After Steve Allen was labeled a pinko by Hearst’s O’Brian, the Tonight show host responded with a piece in the Village Voice. A fortuitous event. The gossip-addicted Manhattan columnists of that era were easy to make fun of and I devoted three of my own Voice columns to satirizing their foibles in a series titled Columny.

The main reason why everybody who aspires to be a columnist doesn’t get hired as a columnist is because so many writers have only one idea/fixation in their head and they keep writing a variation of the same column over and over again. However, once with a regular outlet, the great thing about having a substantial daily audience is that almost everything you write brings a response, often in its turn providing fodder for yet another column. Caroll’s remarks about Governor Schwarzenegger’s bronze bear, for example, attracted the attention of a scientist from the National Parks Service. And Carroll has an avid following, bolstered by such stunts as his Unitarian Jihad motif, a parody of Islam group vernacular, which has enrolled thousands of his fans. “Humanity, humor, and philosophy” are among the traits his readers accuse him of, which isn’t a bad rep to have.

Next WEEK at their annual conference in Ventura, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists plan to present the San Francisco scribe with their Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award, and as in previous years (when conferences were held in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, and Grapevine, TX), columnists are expected from many parts of the country.

Some of the industry’s stars will take part in a seminar on the first of the four-day conference, among them being David Astor who wrote about columnists for 25 years at Editor & Publisher; the author, Suzette Martinez Standing, of The Art of Column Writing; Jody Brannon who’s described as director of the Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education (a bit copasetic, but sounds promising) and the society’s president, Samantha Bennett, who writes for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. The syndicate rep is Rick Newcombe whose credits included Art Buchwald and Molly Ivins.

The keynote address will be given by the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez, a hot name currently because of the recent movie made from his book, The Soloist, Two staffers from the Ventura County Star will also take part, columnist Bill Nash and Gretchen Macchiarella who handles the paper’s website.

Carroll gets his award at the closing dinner on Saturday, but the night before there’ll be an address from best-selling author (The Last Lecture) Jeffrey Zaslow a Wall Street Journal columnist who in 2000 was the first winner of the society’s Will Rogers Humanitarian Award. Legendarily, he once joined 12,000 other contestants aspiring to replace Anne Landers in the Chicago Sun-Times. He thought his venture would make a good column, which it did. His All that Zazz offered a fresh departure from the traditional advice column.

On its impressive website, the NSNC now invites online columnists and bloggers to join the 20-year-old organization. It defines its role as promoting “professionalism and camaraderie” among columnists and the more the merrier. It even offers annual awards to student writers and one of the speakers at the conference, legal eagle Frank D. LoMonte will speak on “Fighting Censorship in Student Journalism.” During the era of the Underground Press Syndicate, we could have used somebody like that although most student papers sideline the issue by setting up their paper off-campus.

With the dramatic expansion of cyberspace, it’s no longer difficult to become a  columnist; anybody can set themselves up with a website and plaster it with their thoughts ad infinitum. Indeed, that’s where my own weekly column appears these days, although during my 54 years in this biz, I have appeared in a score of publications. The current trend, of course, is for blogs but these are not necessarily columns although they are in danger of becoming the replacement. For example, Arianna, with whom I share a mentor,  invited me personally to write for the Huffington Post but when I submitted my column it was immediately apparent how a column filled with facts did not mesh with blogs comprised of opinions. After they failed to run the second column, I stopped submitting.

And therein lies the main difference. Blogs (opinions mostly) are easy; columns (facts mostly) involve a little more work. In my own case, I read dozens of magazines every week, condensing what I think are predictions — items with legs — into brief paragraphs. Apart from the “three-dot” element with which every column ends, there are at least seven or eight stories in each column, virtually all of them from sources that not everybody reads. I monitor political magazines from both sides of the Atlantic, scientific magazines, business magazines, trade magazines. I never quote any obvious source such as the New Yorker or The New York Times on the grounds that too many people already read them. However, I do peruse the Skeptical Inquirer, Advertising Age, and Via Satellite.

Staking out Ventura’s Crowne Plaza Hotel for its conference, June 25-28, the NSNC cheerfully forecasts that the conference “lends itself to a Hollywood-type promotion” and it does sound like fun. Local firms are cooperating with Santa Paula’s 150-year-old Limoneira Company offering citron drinks and balloon rides to early arrivals.

 [John’s column appeared in the first issue of the Village Voice in 1955 and weekly thereafter for ten years. Next, it was in NYC’s East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Toronto Daily Star, Tokyo’s Mainichi Daily News, the Montecito Journal, Sydney’s OZ, and  Penthouse and High Times magazines. For the past three years, it has appeared on the website, The column was variously written from Japan, Vietnam, China, Australia, Italy, France, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, England, Malaysia, Mexico, and India. Late-June columns at the website are from a recent exploration of Tanzania.]