How to write a newspaper column

The afternoon is gray and wet, and the state Capitol sits empty — save for its security guards and a scattering of workaholics. So it’s time to sit back and bask in Mrs. Insider’s peculiar sense of holiday humor.

Forty years later, she has decided that, if her husband is indeed serious about this newspaper thing and thinks he can make a go of it, then some vocational training might be worthwhile.

So under the Christmas tree, she parked the book of instruction that you see above, a 1952 publication by the Iowa State College Press: “How to Write Columns.”

Her husband is studying it as fast as he can, but a few passages are worth sharing in the process. Because you might want to be a newspaper columnist, too. For those unfamiliar with the occupation, it’s rather like being a blogger, except that you get paid.

No, really. You get paid. The practice is in sharp decline, but many, many years ago people paid for information they trusted, and a small sliver of that cash went to the newspaper columnist. Perhaps you trusted it because you paid for it. But here’s how you got started:

First, who are you? The columnist may be himself, writing as he talks and merely delivering a monologue on a few subjects. But as a variety columnist, you may wish to strike a pose. Now is the time to decide. You must select a tempo. Will you pose as a clown or a scholar? Will you be a “regular fellow” or will you speak with authority, or as one having inside information? Why not be yourself – your brighter self. Later, with experience, you can develop into a “character” if you wish.

 

…Don’t think it is necessary to be a clown, to use trick typography, and to think up asinine spelling. You don’t have to use bad manners to get attention. You don’t have to shout. You do have to keep writing week after week….

We have just finished a presidential campaign in which one candidate’s propensity for fibbing was embraced rather than rejected as a character flaw. So it was interesting that, in a book written at the height of the McCarthy Era, columnists were advised to ignore what couldn’t be believed. Call it the Editor Whedon approach:

Printing people’s brags isn’t always a good idea….White lies look black in printer’s ink. Public speakers and curbstone orators have some kind of inherent right to exaggerate facts for an effect, such as keeping the hearers awake or getting their intention. It is cruel to print their words exactly, quite apart from the occasion and the mood.

Race was another toxic area. Jackie Robinson may have been into his fifth race-busting year as a major leaguer, but Brown vs. Board of Education was still two years off. This particular book was aimed at small town newspapers, and so segregation was a topic that went almost wholly untouched. Call it a marketing decision that accurately reflected white America’s wish not to talk about it.

Columnists were presumed to be white, but not necessarily male. Not anymore. The authors devoted an entire chapter to the sexual revolution foisted upon the newspaper industry by a World War II that had gathered up male scriveners:

The term “sob-sister,” originally given in recognition of women’s quick sympathy and keen humanitarian sense, was for years one carrying a taint of opprobrium. Writing advice to the love-lorn did not raise women in the eyes of newspaper men. Working at the society desk with the monotony of births, engagements, marriages, and parties was not attractive to young women of ambition and imagination. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of college-trained women journalists are excelling in feature writing courses and going on to earn their way on newspapers. Some of them are writing columns of various types. Even now, however, many of them are not well trained or informed on matters of primary interest to women….

Yeah, you wanted a list of those female interests, didn’t you?

  1. Engagements and marriages.

  2. Household management.

  3. Beauty care.

  4. Fashions.

  5. Rearing of children.

  6. Health and safety.

  7. Clean government and good moral conditions.

  8. Women’s clubs and organizations.

  9. Entertainment and recreation.

  10. Public welfare.

  11. Religion.

  12. Education.

Who knows? If women can be newspaper columnists, then maybe someday a woman might be president of the United States. But not this month.

On a slightly historical note, several Georgia journalists of the period are mentioned, including Leo Aikman, late of this newspaper, and Joe Parham of the Macon Telegraph. Both are names that can still jog memories in the state.

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