What should a good column do?

I had an unknowing exchange with a news editor recently, someone I have a relationship with but did not know had returned to the newsroom. I was whining about a sensationalistic story I wanted to die because I knew it would “sell papers” (and the broadcast equivalent) but felt it would do no public good, and I feared the sensationalism could easily result in harm.

— “Responsible media aren’t in the business of speculation.” My colleague’s grand assurance tasted like something no Trinbagonian media consumer would be a fool to swallow.

— “That’s a critical adjective,” I scoffed.

— “I might be regretting it actually. Not sure a free press has any duty to be responsible.”

Now that was a whole lot more honest. Wow, that was a whole lot more honest.

What exactly is the role of a free press in a small, diverse, divided, questionably literate society like ours, with its history of inequality and state censorship, with laws that criminalise the use of “obscene language,” with libel laws in flux, and where the state and privately held companies own most media?

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 8.39.15 AMBut let me bat in my crease, though, and ask you instead to think with me, as I shared last month, about the role of the opinion column? These spaces where I and a privileged few get to say something wrapped between the fish and the dog mess, the ads and the news stories. These spaces made so much less relevant by blogs and social media, by the Facebook Live. By Rhoda Bharath; by Ranking Kia Boss, whose sensation this paper ranked a lead Sunday story, and who managed to get hundreds of Trinbs to stop working mid-afternoon and use their employers’ internet and computer equipment to waitfully watch a chair.

I’ve been thinking about what columns like this one do and ought to do, particularly within the Trinidad & Tobago media Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 8.49.46 AMlandscape. When—usually at Carnival time—so many of you come up to me and share that you value or enjoy what I write, I’m never clear why. Perhaps you’ll email and say.

If newspaper readers like you got to decide what kind of writers and writing filled the opinion pages of the dailies, what choice, I wonder, would you make?

 

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Would our fascination with authority, ingrained from the nation’s weaning on “doctor politics,” win out? Would we pick scientists and academics? Would we want columns that were deeply researched and full of educational facts? Or at least pretend to be? Would it be good enough to be a tenured academic and to sleepwrite columns that showed no effort? To masquerade enlightenment by citing dubious sources?

Or would we want entertainment? Bacchanal and speculation. Political commesse. Could wit alone suffice, without the legal exposure for the publishers? That playfulness and irony for which our nation distinguishes itself regionally, which I learned this weekend prompted Wayne Brown (the iconic Trinidadian writer and writing teacher who lived the end of his life in Jamaica) to muse is what makes us superior fiction writers to Jamaicans, whose earnestness makes them better poets.

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Should newspaper columns hew closely to public events and public affairs, politics, the economy, policy? Are their essential function as tools of critical national analysis, to be entrusted to those with the breadth—or diversity—of perspective to complement news coverage, to complicate or simplify matters currently in the national debate, to interpret the state of affairs for the reader?

Is diversity itself a core criterion for the columnist lineup? A group of voices who reflect the plural nature of the nation, including those out of the mainstream and in key recalcitrant minorities. Key market demographics, if you’re talking to folks on the business side of the paper.

Should columns follow current affairs? Or would it be enough to tell a good story every week? Some illuminating experience or epiphany from the week gone by, embroidered into a lesson. Inflected by the particularity of the writer’s experience. Essentially, what any good novelist or sermon does. Is our role simply to use our powers of observation for good?

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What about disclosure? Is the writer’s life experience the gold? Apart from the advice column’s clumsy dialogue with our love lives, should some opinion writers at least be required to engage with the nation’s emotional life, our longing, our hurts, our fear? Is the column’s duty to put lives on the page, the writer’s or others’?

And what of readers? Is a column a place to be smart? Or are there other venues for that? Should one instead always strive to be simple? I volunteered for a spell in ALTA’s Monday evening Belmont reading circle, where the Guardian was always available. Though I never asked, the students’ reading challenges appeared to have a wide range of causes: cognitive disabilities, migration, sexism, poverty, childhood illness. The guides sometimes used items in the paper for group reading exercises. The students soon matched my picture in the paper to me. But it always haunts me whether they could understand what I write, and if it’s them I should be writing for.

I spent last week, sometimes wearing a “Readers Wanted” jersey, and steeped in the multi-faceted celebration and contemplation of words and ideas, readers and nation that is the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. (I called it a mangrove in an early column.) Why I write here, and what I ought to be writing, was foremost on my mind. What is on yours?

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