When I was first getting started in professional journalism, every writer I knew dreamed of becoming a syndicated columnist. Back then, columns really did shape the political conversation, and to a lesser extent the cultural conversation as well (though the Eighties, lest we forget, were very political, to the point of virtually excluding art and culture from what got written about on op-ed pages).
I don’t think younger writers feel that way any more, and one sign of the sea change is the fact that you simply don’t see all that many younger syndicated columnists. I started to notice this as early as the Nineties, at a time when I shared the responsibility for editing a major op-ed page, that of the New York Daily News. We were constantly looking for new faces, but the syndicates weren’t offering any, and it never occurred to me that the problem might be a lack of interest on the part of younger journalists, much less a lack of interest on the part of young people in journalism.
Now we all know better. Of late, the only significant change in the op-ed scene has been the hiring of David Brooks by the New York Times, and Brooks isn’t a new face but a well-established writer of a certain age (mine). What’s more, I don’t get the impression that his column is causing all that much of a stir outside narrowly politico-journalistic circles. I don’t think that’s because of the quality of his work, either: I think it’s because op-ed pages in general are losing their traction. I may be wrong, but it’s not my impression that any newspaper columnist, syndicated or otherwise, is capable of stirring up any vast amount of talk nowadays.
You won’t be surprised to see where I’m heading: my guess is that the buzz in opinion journalism has shifted to the blogosphere, partly because it’s new and partly because it’s so much less rule-bound. You can say anything you want on a blog (though I’m sure the day is not far off when one of the big bloggers will get sued for libel, which will doubtless cool things off considerably). Just as important, you can say it right now, not next Tuesday. Needless to say, none of this is true on an op-ed page, or anywhere else in a newspaper, for that matter.
Sooner or later, existing newspapers will make themselves over in response to the challenge of the Web. Probably later, though, because they’re intensely bureaucratic institutions and thus are reflexively resistant to change. The New York Sun is an interesting case in point. It’s a daily paper of conservative hue that was started from scratch a couple of years ago in an attempt to provide an opinion-driven alternative to the New York Times. In this respect, it’s failed almost completely: the Sun‘s paid circulation remains trivially small next to that of the Times. Why, then, didn’t its founders simply do an end run around the insurmountable difficulties of launching a newspaper in New York and instead conceive of the Sun as the first on-line daily paper? That would have gotten them instant attention, not to mention slashing their overhead to pieces. Yet not only did the Sun stick to the old printed-paper model, but it has lagged consistently behind the Times in establishing a meaningful Web-based presence. (At first, the Sun didn’t have any Web site at all.)
The reason, I suspect, is that the Sun was launched by newspapermen who never gave any serious thought to making a complete a break with the traditions in which they were raised. The blogosphere, by contrast, is for the most part the creation of non-journalists and amateurs for whom such time-honored traditions carry no weight. Instead, it has arisen naturally from the organic properties of the Web.
I write for The Wall Street Journal, so you can take what I’m about to say with a stalactite of salt, but I think the Journal‘s Web site (which turns a profit) is the most potentially significant thing to happen to the newspaper business in decades. Yet the Journal is a quintessential establishment organ, the kind you’d assume would find it impossible to break with the past. That it has done so fascinates me. That no other newspaper has done so doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Which is why I’m betting that the first successful on-line “paperless” daily paper will be started by some 25-year-old hotshot who’s never worked on a newspaper, and thus has nothing to unlearn.
As for the coming revolution in opinion journalism, it’s already happened. I like David Brooks (he’s an old friend), but I think maybe he got on the wrong boat. Not that I blame him in the least: after all, he gets paid for his opinions, which naturally matters to a family man. But for any writer who’s more interested in changing minds than making money, the blogosphere is the place to be.