For the first time in a decade of teaching, I'm doing a seminar on column and opinion writing. And I find myself wondering if I'm training another generation of buggy-whip makers, skilled craftsmen with no demand for their work.
Three things prompt the thought.
First, I wonder if the whippersnappers will be any good.
But I wonder, too, whether the day of the opinion columnist is over. Certainly we are unlikely to again see the likes of Walter Lippmann, that intimate and informal colleague of the politically powerful for half a century. There will be a few writers whose ideas those in power may from time to time find interesting, and there will be a small number whose columns provide a useful outlet for the ideas of those in power. But don't look for new giants on the horizon.
The third thing is suggested by one of the best in the business, Tom Friedman, in his new book, "The World Is Flat." It is that the ascendancy of the Internet and the easy access of ordinary people to both vast quantities of information and platforms from which to offer their opinions will make professional opinion-mongers relatively useless. Why make an appointment at the JCPenney studio when you can photograph the kids with your own digital camera and crop and print the results at home?
But turn these same three things around and take another look. There are scores of journalists writing interesting opinions -- hundreds if you add the localists, with their intimate and helpful knowledge of small communities, and the specialists whose opinions are based on technical expertise. These are the people you ought to read before moving to a new town or buying a new car or digital doodad.
If the days of the Lippmannesque giants are over, so too are the days of the three (or four) dominant TV networks, thanks to the advent of cable. But it doesn't follow that television itself is on the way out. And I can tell you from personal experience that you don't have to be a giant to have a great (and occasionally useful) time in this business.
The same torrent of information that makes blogging attractive also underscores one of the services columnists provide: the weeding-out function. During those times when a single story dominates the news -- as during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath -- you don't really need a columnist to help you know what to think. It's those other times, when there is genocide in Darfur, political violence in Gabon, race riots in France, bird flu in Asia, the toppling of a government in Canada and a congressional scandal in the United States, that you may find it helpful for someone to arrange the information for you -- not so much to tell you what to think as to tell you what, among thousands of options, you might want to think about.
News organizations have always done that, of course, in what some describe as a gatekeeping function. That is, they not only decide what is on the news agenda in any given news cycle but they also do their best to screen out bad information and to distinguish between hard fact and rumor -- something the unchecked Internet cannot always do. To say you read it in The Post or the New York Times is to claim some level of authenticity. To say you read it on the Internet is about as helpful as saying you heard it on the telephone. That's the branding function of newspapers.
But sometimes you feel the need for something more. I find it useful to have a half-dozen opinion columnists digest the day's offerings for me so I get a sense, from several points of view, of what is worth spending my time thinking about.
That, by the way, is one of the reasons I deplore those members of the craft who write (or so it seems to me) as political propagandists. I don't need a political-operative-by-stealth using valuable op-ed space to promote partisan interests. But some of us do need to know what an intelligent conservative thinks about an issue or a candidate, just as we need to have the viewpoint of thoughtful liberals, worried housewives, stressed-out educators or retirees sitting on shrinking nest eggs.
Some of us still need columnists.