Kevin Slimp, founder and director of the University of Tennessee Institute of Newspaper Technology, addressed the continuing importance of newspaper columns during the 2016 SEJC conference on the Austin Peay State University campus.
Although newspapers are traditionally known for relaying news, they also feature columnists’ opinions on a multitude of potentially controversial subjects. Even though columns may not be considered news, Slimp said good columns can be highly regarded because of what goes into them.
“They aren’t just a list of facts,” Slimp said. “Columns include other things. They include your opinion, other sources that you pull in, other people’s opinions and things that happen in history.”
Even though columns are based off opinions, Slimp said the important part is backing up opinions with research and talking to experts on a particular subject.
He also said the best columns are the ones that bring light to issues in society. However, Slimp said these controversial topics often scare young columnists away.
“When you’re younger and when you’re starting out, it’s only natural that you don’t want to push too many buttons,” Slimp said. “You don’t want to make people mad. But as you develop the skill of being a columnist, you’ll come to the point just like I did, and it was about 17 or 18 years into it when I figured this out, that you realize if you’re a good writer, and if you’re a reasonably intelligent person, and most people in journalism are, then probably most people think about the same way that you do.”
Ultimately, he advised young columnists to “(not) be afraid to write about what you think, if it’s the truth.”
After choosing a topic, Slimp said the writing process is different from newswriting. While it is important to make sure your grammar is correct, he said you have to be more casual when writing a column.
He said the best advice he ever received was from his high school senior English teacher.
“You write the way you think and people will read it,” he said.
Writing the way you think includes putting more of your personality in it than you would with news writing.
Slimp also addressed the claims that newspapers are dying out, and said those claims were a “load of crap.”
He talked about a column he wrote three years ago regarding large newspapers that elected to go “digital only,” including The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. So Slimp wrote a column about the importance of newspapers.
He said a small group in New Orleans composed of eight individuals who owned about 75 percent of the city’s wealth contacted him about New Orleans losing its primary newspaper with the Times’Picayune going to three-days a week for its print edition and focusing on its nola.com website. The group was concerned that the loss of a daily newspaper would drastically affect the city’s economy.
“They were concerned that if New Orleans loses its daily newspaper, then everyone will consider us a second-rate city and nobody will want to move their industries here and it will be a huge economic blow to the city,” Slimp said.
Ultimately, rather than the city losing a newspaper, he said The Times-Picayune just lost its quality. In turn, The Advocate of Baton Rouge swooped in and became New Orleans’ only daily newspaper.
Slimp said this was proof that newspapers will never die, but also partially because newspapers are the most accurate medium for news.
“Really, if you really want to find the truth today about news, you really need to look at a newspaper,m because newspapers check sources and double-up on sources and check facts,” he said. “When you watch TV, like ‘60 minutes,’ they can stick a microphone in front of anybody, and anybody can say anything.
“I had no idea the response that that story was going to have. That week, that story ran in over 2,000 newspapers in the United States. I got thousands and thousands of messages from people, and guess what? Not one bad message. Every one: ‘You were right.’”