Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ombudsman Offers Columnist Critique

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ombudsman Offers Columnist Critique

Article excerpt

The Washington Post's Geneva Overholser addresses the NSNC convention in Virginia

As an Ombudsman, Geneva Overholser has a good sense of what readers want. She knows they want columns in their newspapers -- and that they want some of these columns to be better.

So the Washington Post staffer traveled from D.C. to Williamsburg, Va., to tell National Society of Newspaper Columnists conventioneers how important their work is -- and how they can improve it.

First came the praise.

"What you do is close to what readers tell me they want in newspapers," Overholser told the NSNC audience. "You bring a human face to an institution that is so often seen as a faceless monolith. You bring judgment and context, a recurring presence, identifiability."

She added that the best columnists aren't only "wonderful" wordsmiths, but also good at entertaining readers, being honest, telling stories, explaining to readers why they should care about something, and covering all aspects of life -- not just politics.

Top columnists, Overholser continued, "talk about untalked about" issues relating to race, gender, religion and other topics. They describe "what works and doesn't work in the community," she said. "They hold people accountable. They walk streets others are not walking. They dare to be naive, dreamy, hopeful, outraged or sad."

Then came the criticism.

"Too many columnists are succumbing to the ills of journalism," Overholser said. "They're listening too well to editors telling them not to be offensive. They're seeking the elixir of national recognition and not writing about their communities."

Her advice? Columnists need to "get out arid report" more, accept invitations to meet groups that don't consist of "big shots," listen carefully to reader comments and ideas, talk to their colleagues in the newsroom, and argue "thoughtfully and respectfully" with management about what they as columnists "need to do."

At the same time, she said, columnists also need to listen to management. "Your boss may have something you really need to hear about your community," stated the former Des Moines Register editor.

Overholser noted that columnists are especially important at a time when many newspapers have declining circulations, owners who are fixated on making a large profit, and staffs that may be getting more diverse in race and gender but more homogenous socioeconomically. …

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