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A modest proposal: term limits for columnists

I’ve written many columns for various magazines, but I don’t do it so much any more: there are still plenty of places to pitch to, but I’m too old and too tired to pretend to be irate about things I really don’t care about, or to mock people I don’t know to try and demonstrate how edgy and hilarious I am.

That’s the thing about writing columns. Sooner or later you run out of ideas, but you still have to keep writing. So your writing gets worse and worse. How it gets worse depends on your own life; some columnists, hired to represent the ordinary man or woman on the street, end up affluent enough that they write their columns from a gated community in Florida; others are clearly shitfaced when they write; still others end up writing about their own Twitter adventures or just recycle the same copy every week.

Mic Wright, a former columnist himself:

The notion that the issue with columnists is that people outside of journalism demand conformity of opinion is absolute mirror world logic. There is no trans person with a regular national newspaper column articulating that view. Where are all the black columnists with regular access to a national platform? Most columnists in British national newspapers are over-40, white, and either based in or linked to London [in the Scottish press the first two still apply – CM].

The ease with which a writer can slip from The Guardian to The Daily Telegraph or conversely from The Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph to The New Statesman is not an example of their flexibility but of the homogenous quality of British media.

Columns aren’t there, as Freeman, suggests to “reveal a variety of perspectives”. Any columnist who regularly offered perspectives that were counter to the accepted lines of the British media — on houses, landlords, the market, politics, royalty, sexuality, class — would not have that job for long.

The rallying cry of the columnist is “no one tells me what to write” but the point is that no one has to. Every columnist knows that they are subject to the whims of the editor and, ultimately, the peccadillos of the proprietor. If they fall foul of either, they’re gone. A columnist who sticks around for decades is a columnist who knows how to endlessly compromise.

Parker Molloy has noticed the same thing in the US, and argues that the problem is simple: don’t let columnists write columns for very long.

It really does seem as though the longer columnists retain their gigs, the less meaningful output they seem to have. They are not experts in any particular field, but rather, generalists who often run out of useful ideas. This is how you end up with contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake and stories about sandwiches. After five years on the job, swap them out with fresh faces.

…Opinion journalism can be wonderful, but when columnists lose touch with readers and fail to provide factually sound content, we are all left worse off. If newspapers must have opinion sections (another issue that I may one day write about), there’s no valid reason not to strive for a substantive, factual discussion centered around a collection of experts. This is especially true when it comes to things like public health, climate change, and the other challenges that face us.

But as long as places like the Times continue to allow columnists to stay on staff to the point of brain rot, the public is going to continue to be force-fed repetitive nonsense about controversies on college campuses and personal grudges.