The local newspaper posted an advertisement for a columnist.
I was tempted to apply just for laughs.
I’m churlish enough to enjoy causing consternation for people who’ve caused it for me and so many others.
But the greedy corporate hustlers and their local outlet store minions already posted their reviews on my column back in 2019.
They gave it a thumbs down.
I barely lasted four years in the gig.
My biggest failure, and there were many, was my columns did not light up the metrics board.
By metrics, I mean page views. The golden idol of journalism in the 21st century is metrics: How many “unique visitors” did the “content” draw and how long did they stay with it through a non-stop assault of popups and endless solicitations to subscribe for $1?
The answer for my columns, most of the time, was not enough.
So, they took it away. I was demoted. They didn’t call it a demotion, but it was.
To be precise, they said I could quit and take a buyout, or I could stay in another role.
This was an error in retrospect. I should have left then, started the journey to becoming a teacher. But being a newsman was basically all I ever knew. I decided then that I would make them kick me out.
And they did in May 2020.
They gave me a title, “storyteller,” which is meaningless. It’s one of the endless blizzards of bullshit corporate terms used to describe writing by people who’ve never composed a paragraph worth reading.
I still grieve the loss of my column. That I couldn’t make it the talk of the capital city feels like failure.
Then again, my perspective was tainted by an atavistic attitude. I wanted to be the kind of columnist like Donald Kaul. I read Kaul when I was a kid. I loved his sardonic wit.
I remember a column he wrote criticizing the city government’s big expenditure on a consult for some project that needed publicity. Kaul offered to do the job for half the price and suggested the city advertise in the local newspaper.
I’m not describing it very well, but then only Kaul could write like Kaul.
I wanted to be like Marc Hansen. Hansen made his bones on the sports page. Marc was not as bombastic as Kaul, but he had a good jab. When Ryne Sandburg signed a big contract, the future Hall of Fame second baseman said something about “taking care of his family.”
With amount of money Sandburg was making, Hansen wrote, “He could pay the heat bill until the sun burned out.”
I still use that line.
Another Hansen quip that sticks with me. He was describing George Flagg, the late penny-pinching city councilman. Flagg was running for mayor, I think. Hansen said, “If my baseball rolled into his backyard, I’d think twice about going to get it.”
That’s another line I use to this day.
Bill McClellan wrote columns for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I worked for a while before I screwed up and got fired.
He told stories in a straight forward manner with a dry wit. The best column I ever read by him was one in which he described a father and daughter who went looking for four-leaf clovers on St. Patrick’s Day and searched for leprechauns. The story ended with the father dying. I remember it being such a jolt.
By telling the story in chronological order with important but not overwrought detail, McLellan had made me feel a fraction of what it was like for that family to lose their dad.
Kaul is dead. He retired before the metrics board ascended to godhood. Hansen is retired. McClennan only writes once a week in St. Louis.
I don’t know how any of them would do against the metrics board and I pity the new person who gets this job.
I tried writing like this at the local paper when I was a columnist. I got away with it now and again, but the local paper is part of the great corporate machine. The machine decrees that all stories must have a “nut graph.”
That isn’t true. Not all stories needed it and the rule was unevenly applied at best. Alas, you might be able to fight city hall, but you can’t fight America’s corporate overlords.
Eventually nut graphs were ordered for my columns. I fought for a while, but then I lost my spirit, motivation, and confidence. I wrote well, I thought, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t make the metrics board light up. I knew my time was short.
Columnists, I was told by the metrics masters, bring in a loyal readership. You might think that was good. I did. We were both wrong.
Corporate wants to attract readers who have never subscribed to a newspaper, have no interest in subscribing to one, and only accidently clicked on a story while looking for something else. A top editor once said in a meeting: “We aren’t going to get anywhere with a bunch of 60-year-olds.”
I sat in training after training about how we should use certain words and numbers in headlines to attract readers. We often had to write three headlines for a story or column: One for the print edition, one for social media, and a third for the mobile-desktop website.
We were given a list of social words, most of which I’ve forgotten, and we had to add a handful of words in a box in the computer system that were designed to lure readers.
Basically, the plan to sell the product boiled down to trickery and pandering.
Once, the corporate goons had a digital subscription special. They asked all employees — including those in newsrooms — to promote the special.
I was reared by old journalists who believed in a church-and-state separation between the newspaper’s business side and its newsroom.
Now, it was the responsibility of the newsroom employee to carry its business burdens, especially since they fired almost all of the advertising reps and marketing team.
I started tweeting the link to the subscription deal every day with some snarky quip such as, “Subscribe to the local newspaper and the healthcare reporter will come and give you a backrub” or “Subscribe and reporter so-and-so, born in Ukraine, will teach you to swear in Russian.”
I expected to get in trouble for this obvious nose-thumbing at a corporate initiative.
I got an award.
And like all awards, it included no money.
I did learn an important lesson: The hustlers didn’t know when they were being made fun of. That’s a bad sign.
This is done to lure corporate’s idiotic stereotype of the young reader. Sure, there are some people who live in expensive downtown apartments, drink a lot, and dine out every night. But there are also young people who have families and live in the suburbs.
I don’t blame the corporate hustlers or the local outlet store. The metrics don’t lie. People don’t read stories about city councils, school boards, or county government — unless there’s some issue caught up in the endless culture wars like challenging school library books.
If you ask me, this columnist job is one of the worst gigs you can get.
It sounds like a lot of freedom, but it’s really inviting micromanagement down to the word.
I would not bet on a conservative columnist.
The local paper tried that once. They even hired a guy, but quickly chickened out and took back their offer.
Management embarrassed themselves and threw shade on a lower-level manager who had nothing to do with the withdrawal.
Ah well, I’m glad it isn’t my problem.
Good luck to the new person, whomever they may be.
I hope they can light up the metrics board.
I’m afraid I won’t be much help. I let my subscription lapse.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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