The Art of the Newspaper Column Discussed at St. Francis College

Panelists Urge Young Writers To Rise Above Loud, Angry Rants

Left-right: Michael Powell, Harry Siegel, Fred Siegel, John Avlon, Josh Greenman and Heywood Gould.

BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — It used to be that a catchy lead was all you needed to get people to read your column, but now your headline has to include catchy keywords to register with search engine optimization programs or your work will get lost in the wilderness of the internet.

The competing ideas served as the background for the panel discussion based on the book Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns hosted by St. Francis College and the Manhattan Institute on October 11 in the College’s Founders Hall.

John Avlon, co-editor of Deadline Artists, led the panel, which also included Heywood Gould, formerly of the New York Post and the screenwriter for Fort Apache, The Bronx; Michael Powell of the New York Times, Josh Greenman of the Daily News and Harry Siegel of the Village Voice.

The group explored the significance of column writing, current challenges facing columnists and the important qualities they look for in a column. Fred Siegel, scholar in residence at St. Francis College, moderated the discussion.

The panel had a great deal of advice to offer young journalists at St. Francis College. First and foremost, the lead is a reader’s first impression of an article, and you only have one chance to make a first impression. Avlon talked about mastering the art of the lead, which is important in order to get the attention of readers.

He discussed the function of Search Engine Optimization, a process used by many writers to increase the number of web site page hits on their articles. Avlon explained that keywords and phrases in the headline and lead provide a better chance of more people reading the story. After all, he questioned, what good is a story that has no audience?

Harry Siegel urged students to always ask questions and discover how things work. He explained these questions will lead to more questions, and the answers may signify a story of even greater importance. Gould added that young writers should never trust their first impression. It is important to take a second look because there is always more to a story.

Greenman said there will always be a place for great columns, and that columnists should earn people’s trust over time through the quality of their writing. Earlier columnists established this trust, and audiences have continued to read their works for many generations.

Avlon said the best columns were about human beings and described why we live and the way we live. The columnist was sympathetic, said Harry Siegel. The panelists agreed that columnists of the past had “guts” and were never afraid to distinguish themselves from their colleagues.

Television eventually dominated print, and the Internet is said to be our digital future. However, as Avlon expressed, column writing is an art form that has the ability to take readers where the camera can’t go. In contrast to the blogs and what he calls blather on the Internet, column writing is a real literary work of art.

Harry Siegel said, “Talk has gone from cheap to nearly worthless,” describing the open forum the Internet provides for individuals to express baseless opinions. He expressed that the function of a column is to add moral meaning to staged events. Powell echoed these feelings and said, “Reporting is intensely important to the column, not just thoughts.”

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Filed under Arts, Brooklyn Authors, Brooklyn Heights

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