October 24, 2010

Readability and Relevance in Sun Columns

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Writing a regular opinion column is a demanding task. On the Internet landscape, where everyone is hyper-connected and information is readily accessible, columnists need to know that their opinions will be available to anyone and everyone, for good. A misstep or inappropriate remark in a column today could haunt an author well into the future. Putting oneself out there, indelibly, takes fortitude, especially if the columnist deals in edgy or provocative topics.

And on top of that, actually writing a consistently good column is daunting. Readers have high expectations; they want to be informed and entertained. Columnists have to be pithy and engaging, without getting too edgy, offensive or polemical. It’s an extremely difficult balance to strike.

I received an e-mail from Zachary Newkirk ’12, which prompted me to shine some light on how The Sun’s opinion section is run. Newkirk asked, “My main question is: what are the qualifications for ‘readability’ and ‘relevance’ when publishing a columnist’s piece?”

“I ask this because some days there are (subjectively, I admit) very interesting and relevant columns to Cornell students. Other days there are very dry and often irrelevant columns that I cannot relate to at all. Every columnist has a certain tone and some are more formal than others.”

Newkirk also asked whether the newspaper tries to bring in a diverse set of voices, and whether there is a “weeding-out process” for less-interesting columns. These are all salient questions, and I exchanged e-mails with Associate Editor Tony Manfred ’11 to try and find some answers.

Manfred said the readability and relevance of his section’s content are on his mind “constantly.” But rather than concerning himself exclusively with micromanaging the content of individual columns on a given day, Manfred puts more stock in the hiring decisions he initially made. He relies on the intensiveness of the columnist application process to uncover the good writers. “Once I hire someone,” Manfred said, “I’m fairly confident that they will deliver the quality and type of columns that I expect them to deliver.”

On a macro level, the opinion section looks for diversity of viewpoint. With respect to individual columnists, clear writing style and unique perspectives are a must. When potential columnists apply, they have to answer a few thought-provoking questions (one example: “How would your column differ and what would it contribute to the current Opinion section?”) and send in sample columns.

From there, it’s up to the associate editor. He or she picks the new columnists. Manfred told me that his top concern was writing ability, but he also looked to the columnists’ perspective, their area of focus and the strength and distinctiveness of their personal style.

This is not to say that Manfred in any way ignores or shirks his week-to-week duties — not even close. He typically sits down with every columnist for about 30 minutes and edits the columns the night before they run. (He does this with my column too, except on occasions like this when I quote him; when that happens, another top editor takes care of it.)

“As far as readability, it’s my job to make sure that (within the bounds of their individual voice and style) they publish well-written columns that have a clearly-defined point and stay on focus,” Manfred added. “Beyond that, things like how ‘dry’ or ‘interesting’ a column is are up to the reader’s subjective inclinations.”

On relevance, Manfred says it “may actually be the trickier topic because I don’t think a column needs to be relevant to have value.” Manfred said he prefers readability: “I am entrusting [columnists] to deliver a column that is worth reading 100 percent of the time, regardless of whether it is related to some national or campus event.”

There is still, however, diversity of subject matter in the columns. For example, What’s Up, Doc? and Barely Legal are written by medical school and law school students about their respective fields. Manfred brought on two columnists, Ruby Perlmutter ’13 and Jon Weinberg ’13, with the knowledge that they would write on “something explicitly related to Cornell 99 percent of the time.”

Perlmutter, who is also The Sun’s arts & entertainment editor, has written on freshman writing seminars and foreign language courses, among other topics. Her columns typically offer thoughtful and creative critiques of life at Cornell. She proposes proactive ideas in response to those critiques. And for his part, Weinberg has taken issues of national or general interest and put a Cornell slant on them. I think both columnists add great value to these pages by focusing on Cornell-centric content.

The opinion section relies heavily on the discretion of the associate editor, rather than on specifically delineated criteria, for things like readability and relevance. As such, the section is largely a product of its editor, not of impersonal processes.

Barely Legal note

I would also like to briefly weigh in on Friday’s edition of Barely Legal, “Reforms for Resetting the Legal Pendulum.” I received one complaint from a reader who suggested that it was inappropriate for The Sun to run an anonymous column. I agree.

In my estimation, The Sun should not have masked the identity of the so-called Stereotypical Lawyer merely because he or she wished to remain anonymous. That’s not a good enough reason. It was not in any way a revelatory column requiring anonymity to somehow protect the columnist’s interests or keep him safe; in my opinion, the ideas were rather mundane.

Instead, The Sun gave credibility to Stereotypical Lawyer’s caviling without making that person accountable for his opinions. There are plenty of open forums for anonymous cranks to be critical; The Sun should not be one.

Rob Tricchinelli is a third-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli