Twilight of the Op-Ed Columnist

The influential French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1898 that newspapers "both enriched and leveled ... the conversations of individuals, even those who do not read papers but who, talking to those who do, are forced to follow the groove of their borrowed thoughts. One pen suffices to set off a thousand tongues."

This is what the most influential op-ed columnists are able to do. Yet in the age of the Internet, we don't need to turn to the back of our paper's A-section to get some perspective on the news of the day (if we're still getting the paper, that is). With the proliferation of news sites and blogs, anyone can access the opinions of millions of commentators, some of whom are as good or better at explaining, edifying, entertaining, and persuading than the lions of the op-ed page.

So does the op-ed columnist have a future?

Not if the newspaper doesn't, and the industry is in what could charitably be called a period of transition. According to the Newspaper Association of America, print revenues at papers have plummeted, falling 17.7 percent in 2008 from the year before (classified-ad revenue declined 29.7 percent, thanks in part to Craigslist). Total paid daily circulation has declined every year since 1987, and last year it fell below 50 million for the first time since 1945, when the population was less than half of what it is today. And the remaining print audience is graying: A survey last year from the Pew Research Center found that while 52 percent of respondents over the age of 62 said they had read the paper the day before, only 16 percent of those under 31 said the same.

No one knows what the newspaper industry will look like in 10 or 20 years, but a few things seem clear. The days of 20 percent or 30 percent profit margins are over. More papers will end their print editions and become online-only, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did this year, and every newspaper will shift attention and resources to the Web. "If I had to bet money, says Rick Newcombe, the president of Creators Syndicate, home to such prominent columnists as Pat Buchanan and Mark Shields, "I'd say the Internet will play out the way television is today" with three tiers of news content: some free and supported by ads, some available by subscription, and some available on a pay-per-view basis. This presents a problem for both the syndicates and the columnists whose words they sell to papers, because it's hard to get a paper to pay much for a column that runs only on its Web site. And as The New York Times found out when it made its columnists available online to subscribers only, there are only so many people willing to pay a monthly fee to read Maureen Dowd's bon mots.

Not that newspapers pay all that much for syndicated columns as it is. The syndicates use a sliding scale based on circulation, so a small newspaper may pay as little as $5 a week to run a column; a large paper might pay as much as $100, with the rest in between. The typical syndication contract stipulates that all fees will be split 50-50 between the columnist and the syndicate. The result is that a columnist could see his or her columns run in dozens of papers around the country and only net a few thousand dollars a year. "I would be shocked if there were more than 10 or 20" columnists who could make a living just from their column, says Dave Astor, a columnist for The Montclair Times in New Jersey who covered the syndicate industry for many years at Editor & Publisher, the trade publication of the newspaper industry.

In 2007, when I was at the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters for America, we surveyed every daily newspaper in America and asked which syndicated columnists they ran (96 percent responded, so our survey was as close to complete as it could be). While the study identified 201 columnists who appeared in three or more papers and in more than one state, the overall market was extremely concentrated at the top. Using the combined circulation reached by each columnist, the 10 most widely read accounted for more than 35 percent of the total market, and the top 18 columnists reached as many readers as the other 183.

While there may be lots of people who can call themselves "syndicated columnists," in other words, the top two dozen or so are the ones who dominate. Their competition could be reduced further by the cuts happening within individual newspapers. When I asked David Sirota, whose syndicated column runs in a few large papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, and Seattle Times, and a few dozen smaller papers scattered around the country, to predict the future of the op-ed column, he said, "The first thing you'll see is the death of the local national column," by which he meant a column about national issues, written by a local columnist employed by the paper in your hand. In a struggling industry, the economics of keeping that person on staff are just too difficult, when readers can be offered the same thing from a syndicated column that may cost the newspaper just a few hundred dollars a year.

These columnists are already starting to be laid off, but that doesn't mean that those who focus on local issues are safe from the brutal cuts happening in newsrooms all over the country. As Astor notes, "In some cases, even those who are doing everything their papers say they want them to do," like focusing on local issues and contributing to the papers' Web sites, are still getting the ax.

***

It's possible that the decline of newspapers will mean the decline of the superstar columnist, but it may be more likely that the opposite will happen. Despite the near-infinite amount of opinion available on the Internet, newspaper columnists belong to an exclusive club that could become even more exclusive.

That's because what makes a columnist important is authority, the perception among readers that the person who penned this missive is someone whose opinions are worth listening to. That authority can be created in a number of ways -- a history of erudition and wisdom, say, or winning a Nobel Prize in economics. It can also be a matter of style -- Fred Barnes famously said on television, when asked if he could speak "with authority" on an obscure topic, "I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority."

For the newspaper columnist, the largest part of that authority comes from the simple fact that your words are printed on the pages of an important publication. "There is something unique about the power of print" in creating prestige, says Rick Newcombe of Creators, who admits this even as he tries desperately to help newspapers "monetize" the Internet. Tiny dots of ink on paper still seem more important and weighty than tiny pixels on a screen. As newspapers dwindle and the Web expands, space on the printed page becomes even more precious and rare -- imbuing the people whose words occupy it with all the more prestige.

That doesn't mean that op-ed columnists in the future will ignore the Internet the way the older generation of columnists does today. (You haven't read David Broder's blog, because he doesn't have one. Not that you'd want to read it if he did.) As Sirota argues (and Newcombe seconds), when Broder's generation of columnists retires, editors will begin asking a different set of questions about the columnists with whom they choose to replace them. Does this writer have a large online following? Will she drive traffic to my Web site? "The newspaper industry can no longer rely on the newspaper alone to get readers," Sirota says.

Nonetheless, it is still true that maximal authority -- and influence -- is created by a combination of print and television. Consider this: Do you know who Leonard Pitts Jr. is? If you live in D.C. or New York, you probably don't. Yet Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the second most widely syndicated progressive columnist in America (after Ellen Goodman). If you don't know him, it's because his column, which originates with The Miami Herald, doesn't run in the major D.C. or New York papers, and he almost never appears on television. And while bloggers are now showing up on cable chat shows, the most important seats on the primetime and Sunday shows (along with other high-profile venues like National Public Radio's All Things Considered) are largely reserved for the top-tier newspaper columnists, particularly those published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The prestige of the papers that publish their columns gets them those gigs, which further enhance their prestige.

So it wasn't surprising that when National Journal published a survey in September of 375 "political insiders," asking which commentators "most help to shape their own opinions or worldview," the first seven places were taken by columnists for the Times and the Post. The top spot was held by Thomas Friedman, perhaps a testament to the D.C. establishment's fascination with all-encompassing yet oversimplified metaphors (or the wisdom of Bangalore cab drivers). Just as interesting were those who didn't make the cut: Goodman, the most widely read progressive columnist in the country, was not mentioned by a single "insider," nor was Pitts. Cal Thomas, despite his presence in hundreds of papers, was mentioned by only one of the 375.

But as long as there exists a thing called a "newspaper" -- even if many of the 1,400 daily papers currently operating in the United States go out of business -- people will continue to believe that the opinions of those whose words rub off on our fingers are somehow a little more valid and important than opinions we find only on the Web.

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