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October 11, 2011

Deadline Artists: The Art of the Newspaper Column

Panelist Urge to Young Writers to Rise Above the Din of Loud, Angry Rants

It used to be that a catchy lead was all you needed to get people to read your column, but now your headline has to include catchy keywords to register with search engine optimization program or your work will get lost in the wilderness of the internet. The competing ideas served as the background for the panel discussion based on the book Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns hosted by St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute on October 11 in the College’s Founders Hall. (Watch the video)

John Avlon, co-editor of Deadline Artists led the panel which also included Heywood Gould, formerly of the New York Post and the screenwriter for Fort Apache, The Bronx; Michael Powell of the New York Times, Josh Greenman of the Daily News, and Harry Siegel of the Village Voice. The group explored the significance of column writing, current challenges facing columnists and the important qualities they look for in a column. Fred Siegel, Scholar in Residence at St. Francis College moderated the discussion.

The panel had a great deal of advice to offer young journalists at St. Francis College. First and foremost, the lead is a reader’s first impression of an article, and you only have one chance to make a first impression. Avlon talked about mastering the art of the lead, which is important in order to get the attention of readers. He discussed the function of Search Engine Optimization, a process used by many writers to increase the number of website page hits on their articles. Avlon explained that keywords and phrases in the headline and lead provide a better chance of more people reading the story. After all, he questioned, what good is a story that has no audience?

Harry Siegel urged students to always ask questions and discover how things work. He explained these questions will lead to more questions, and the answers may signify a story of even greater importance. Gould addeded that young writers should never trust their first impression. It is important to take a second look because there is always more to a story.

Greenman said there will always be a place for great columns, and that columnists should earn people’s trust over time through the quality of their writing. Earlier columnists established this trust, and audiences have continued to read their works for many generations.

Avlon said the best columns were about human beings and described why we live and the way we live. The columnist was sympathetic, said Harry Siegel. The panelists agreed that columnists of the past had “guts,” and were never afraid to distinguish themselves from their colleagues. He explained that presently, reporters seem to think they “have to conform so that they can be a part of the conversation.” He points to a trend in the industry where reporters are rewarded for being louder, angrier, and conforming to popular opinion.

Television dominated print, and the Internet is said to be our digital future. However, as Avlon expressed, column writing is an art form that has the ability to take readers where the camera can’t go. In contrast to the blogs and, what he calls, blather on the Internet, column writing is a real literary work of art. Harry Siegel said “Talk has gone from cheap to nearly worthless,” describing the open forum the Internet provides for individuals to express baseless opinions. He expressed that the function of a column is to add moral meaning to staged events. Powell echoed these feelings and said, “Reporting is intensely important to the column, not just thoughts.”

While some might suggest that the art of column writing is dying, most of the panelists agreed that it is very much alive, and stressed that writers should strive to be unique and successful in their craft, despite the obstacles of new forms of media. They say it’s the same formula that led to the success of past columnists.

Voice, passion, unpredictability, independence, and facts were five unique qualities that Greenman explained he looks for in column writing. Powell echoed Greenman’s thoughts and said, “It is important to have passion as a reporter and writer.”

Although the book featured a number of great columnists, audience members raised questions about the exclusion of certain writers. Avlon said, “We didn’t consider the book to be definitive, it’s just a start.” It seems that the public can look forward to the opportunity to read the second edition of this book in the future, and learn more about the significant role of columnists and their impact on our generation.

Deadline Artists was edited by Avlon, Jesse Angelo editor of The Daily, and Errol Louis of NY1 and features the writings of legendary columnists like Jimmy Cannon, Murray Kempton, George Will, and Stanley Crouch.

Professor Siegel has been instrumental in bringing a number of timely and provocative events to the College. Past forums hosted by St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute include Young Voters and the 2012 Election, What Happened to All the Good Men?, Is the New York Times Good for Democracy? and Independent Voices of the Middle East.

[Photo: Michael Powell, Harry Siegel, Fred Siegel, John Avlon, Josh Greenman, Heywood Gould]

By Sade Falebita ‘12

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.


St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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