America's Next Great Pundit

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Fred Hiatt
Editorial Page Editor
Wednesday, October 14, 2009; 11:00 AM

There's only one week left to submit an entry for the Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest! The ultimate winner will win the opportunity to write a weekly column for the Post, a launching pad for your opinionating career!

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt was online Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the contest.

A transcript follows.

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Fred Hiatt: Welcome all and thanks for joining this chat. The subject is our contest to pick America's next great pundit, but I'm sure we may also digress in the next 30 minutes...

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Washington, DC : Mr. Hiatt, If I may, why did you do this contest? What America needs right now is not a mindless pontificator, but actual experts knowledgeable in economics, ecology, law, and more. I am a journalist, and a professional at that, and when so many journalists are losing their jobs, this seems like a foolish promotion. What do we as readers gain from the contest?

Fred Hiatt: This seems like a good place to start. Why did we do it? We thought it would be fun--fun for contestants, and fun for readers also. And we thought there are probably a lot of people who would like to try this, who would be good at it, and would have interesting, insightful things to say that our readers would benefit from reading.

Fred Hiatt: Also--I agree we need journalists with expertise. I don't look at this as an either/or proposition.

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Boston: Great idea in theory but $200 a column doesn't seem like it is worth the scrutiny a winner would receive for putting their views out there. Seems like not a lot of upside for the potential downside of a current or future employer questioning your judgment for participating.

Fred Hiatt: I don't expect most people will be doing it for the money. (Of course, most journalists wouldn't be journalists if they were doing it for the money.)

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Birmingham, Mich.: Is this what the world really needs, another pundit? Why do you consider a WaPost column merely a "launching pad" for a pundit's career? How do you expect to gain readers if you have such little regard for your paper?

Fred Hiatt: We say 'launching pad' because we're offering the winner a chance to write 13 weekly columns for us (online or in print or both). After that, it will be up to him or her...

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Boston: Last year Daily Kos posted a net profit of over $1 million dollars. Josh Marshall, Duncan Black, Digby, Jane Hamsher, etc are not doing too shabbily either. On the other side Michelle Malkin and a few others are raking in readers and money by the yard. Which leads to the obvious question. Why would anyone with an original voice or compelling point-of-view want the Washington Post's masthead and $200 per column?

Fred Hiatt: There are lots of ways and lots of place to express a point of view these days. I think that's great. We're not by this contest denigrating any other forum. But the Washington Post reaches a lot of people... and I think the competitive aspect of this may appeal to folks... and while your question may be "obvious", we've had many, many people entering the contest already.

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Bethesda, Md.: How do you feel about humor?

Fred Hiatt: I'm for it.

I also think it's very hard to do. As someone who reviews scores of oped submissions every day, I can tell you that humor is frequently attempted, only rarely successful.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: 400 words seems pretty short. Do any of your columnists write 400-word columns? Does the winner get to write longer columns for the gig?

Fred Hiatt: 400 words is short, I agree. (Our regular columnists write on average about 750.) We set that limit for the first entry just because we're going to have so many to judge. Once we get down to ten finalists, they will be asked to write full-length columns, as well as complete other tasks.

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Ellicott City, Md.: In the process of selecting the winner, at what point would you personally get involved?

Fred Hiatt: I'll be one of several people here weighing the initial entries. To get from ten to one, we will have different judges for different parts of the competition. Stay tuned.

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A Better Contest: How about a contest where readers get to decide which columnist to terminate? The Post's Op-Ed page is littered with writers who are either obviously phoning it in and therefore unreadable or so steeped in promoting their ideology they are willing to create their own "truths" that most sentient readers quickly realize go against all established facts.

A contest to cut down the deadwood could really create a groundswell of support for the Washington Post. It should also improve the quality of what is on the OpEd pages for at least a few months.

Fred Hiatt: In one sense, we have that kind of contest every day, since we can see which columnists attract large followings. But I would never compose the oped page on that basis alone. I think some of our best and most important columns don't attract the biggest audiences, but they're important to publish nonetheless.

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Arlington, Va.: What sorts of qualities are you looking for in a potential winner?

Fred Hiatt: Spirited writing; original thinking; the ability to respond nimbly to events.

We won't be biased for or against any particular political point of view.

One quality I think is important in columnists is the ability to report, to gather information. To some extent of course that will be harder for someone just doing this temporarily--we won't expect them to have sources. But we will expect them to get their facts right.

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Bethesda, Md.: On what sorts of topics do you hope or expect contestants to expound? Political? Economic?

Fred Hiatt: Totally up to you. If readers think they can do better on topics already being covered on the page than what's being written, that's great. If they think there are important topics our regular columnists aren't paying enough attention to, that's great too.

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Minneapolis: Can you submit more than one entry?

Fred Hiatt: Nope. One entry per person, please.

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Arlington, Va.: If this doesn't violate any of your concerns, can you give us a rough estimate of the number of people responding to this?

Fred Hiatt: I think I'm not supposed to say until we get past the deadline. It's already exceeded our expectations, and a lot of them look really good.

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Charlotte, NC: When I read 'pundit' I think political. Is that the focus? If someone wanted to write on animal rights, for example, not from a legal or political perspective but from a more personal point of view, would that be acceptable as a submission?

Fred Hiatt: Definitely.

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Arlington, Va.: This contest does sound like a lot of fun! washingtonpost.com already has a number of amateur pundits that haunt the chats and the comments sections. This contest is a great way for them to come out of the shadows, and perhaps learn that punditing on the big stage isn't as easy at it looks.

Fred Hiatt: Thanks! Send an entry...

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Aledo, Ill.: Must the next great pundit reside within the narrow confines of the Beltway, or may he or she live in the cornfields of controversy that typify the Midwest?

Fred Hiatt: We're definitely not limiting it to people who live in the Washington area.

Check the fine print--I think we require that you be a legal resident of the US, or legally able to work here, or something along those lines.

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Chicago: How many writers are on the editorial page staff and do they discuss, debate, argue, and vote before editorials are published?

Fred Hiatt: We've got eight people who write editorials, including me. We do meet most mornings (along with our cartoonist, and oped and letters editors) and debate and argue, yes.

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Annapolis, Md.: I have felt that "pundits" have become nearly irrelevant. The Post has Krauthammer, Kristol, Kagan, Gerson, Will, you Mr. Hiatt, and lends its op-ed page to Palin, Wolfowitz and Bolton, just to name a few. This is a lot of neoconservatives whose time has come and gone.

My question is: by which criteria do you select "pundits" or grant columns to people out of office?

My beef is that few of these people travel, develop sources, seek insights. They sit at home or in think tanks and tap out their thoughts from behind keyboards and seem to pride themselves on language manipulation alone. I don't need events pre-chewed by former speechwriters or former politicians many of whom still have a bitter or nasty agenda.

Please explain how we got this way and why the Post has succumbed as it has to the views that it prints. Great newspapers are defined by great journalists, not hired guns or guests with an attitude.

Fred Hiatt: I know many readers, particularly liberals, feel we have too many conservative voices on the page. On the other hand, I hear from a lot of conservative readers who think we have too many people they consider too liberal (Dionne, Robinson, Meyerson, Marcus, et al.).

We try to provide a range of views--no matter who is in power.

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But we will expect them to get their facts right. : Does that go for current columnists too? It seems to me there has been a problem with that recently, (George Will for one) and the Washington Post's only excuse has been that it's on the Opinion page so they aren't responsible for fact checking. Does the Washington post insist on facts even in their Opinion pages? This goes to credibility.

Fred Hiatt: Yes, we do check facts, and we publish corrections when we (or columnists) get things wrong.

I think it's also true, though, that some readers expect us to check or censor "wrong opinions", and we don't do that.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Who says humor is difficult? People have been laughing at what I write for decades, including the IRS.

Fred Hiatt: Sounds like we have a likely contestant here...

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Rochester N.Y.: Fred, could we run a competition to find your successor as editorial editor?

Fred Hiatt: Speaking of humor... that one's not funny.

I'm afraid our time is up. I really appreciate the questions, both skeptical and supportive, and hope we can do this again as the contest proceeds.

And... we're accepting entries for one more week. Good luck!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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