Why Do We Still Have Weekly Columnists?

Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a valiant attempt to qualify the internet’s hatred of Tom Friedman by astutely pointing out how difficult it is to write an original thought-provoking piece every week. But I think the real issue is that it makes no sense for newspapers to still have weekly columnists.

Thirty years ago communication moved slowly enough that commentary was still relevant even if the events that sparked it happened six days before. And if a journalist had something important to say, a newspaper column was just about the only place to say it. Logistically, a weekly column also made sense. Primitive telecommunications meant a newspaper was essentially restricted to having columns written by people who were on staff and already in the newsroom. All things considered, a weekly column was a great way for a newspaper to share the opinions of clever people.

Almost none of this is true anymore. The weekly time frame tends to be too slow to engage in the conversation surrounding the news cycle, but too frequent to consistently produce original thoughts. A column about a presidential debate that comes out the following week is already irrelevant, but the pressure to write about a presidential campaign multiple times a month will cause the content to get stale. Nowadays columnists also have blogs, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages, so if they come up with something super-important they don’t need a scheduled column to share it with the world. Finally, the enormous population of talented thinkers and writers that the internet has uncovered means that if newspapers expand their number of contributors they’ll have no trouble printing insightful and original thoughts in every column.

Weekly newspaper columnists are an anachronism. When will the New York Times and other newspapers join the future?


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