Brendan Nyhan asks whether we shouldn't have term limits for columnists, which is what most of us probably think about columnists we don't care for. Do people still read Richard Cohen and say, "That really gives me a new perspective on things"? Or maybe the question is, "Do people still read Richard Cohen?"
Thing is, they probably do. Even at a time when it isn't exactly difficult to find opinions, having a column in a big newspaper still makes you a big deal. Despite the decline of newspapers, there's been little decline in the influence of the likes of Tom Friedman or Charles Krauthammer (I explored this a year ago in an article for the print magazine).
But the question of whether we really need opinion columnists at all is worth asking. As a practitioner of this particular craft, I'd like to think that my column profoundly shapes the worldviews of thousands of people who are not actually my mother, but it's hard to know for sure. I have been surprised, however, by the fact that I've spoken to multiple non-Beltway types who tell me that they keep up with things by reading Paul Krugman or E.J. Dionne.
If you're a political junkie (the kind who reads this blog), you may feel that you can take or leave the blowhards on the op-ed page of the Times or Post, since you're taking in lots of information and opinion anyway. But there are still lots of people in the world who aren't sure what they think until they check with their favorite columnist. Which isn't to say that, like every profession, they couldn't benefit from a regular infusion of new blood. Problem is, this market is heavily skewed to the top -- basically, there are the people who are in the Times and the Post, a few syndication stars like Cal Thomas, and then a bunch of people you never heard of who are in five or six of the nation's 1,400 daily papers. Those elite-tier positions practically give you lifetime tenure.
But that's why we have the Internets.
-- Paul Waldman