My obsession is the opinion page. The columns opposite the letters to the editor, full of the ideas and views of professional opiners, is where I turn first when reading the morning papers.
I know that Margaret Simons and journalists of her ilk bemoan the rise of the columnist. They argue that it is a lazy form of journalism, lacking in in-depth investigation. While this may be true, opining isn’t solely responsible for the demise of journalistic standards.
Some editors argue that writers of my generation can’t write and that the way journalism is developing these days doesn’t give those who are new to the trade the ability to flesh out ideas.
I say we can write, but we need the confidence and support of editors willing to give us a go. Interestingly, developing writers like me have often found that support from opinion page editors and websites like New Matilda. But there are few places willing to give us the chance to write an essay or feature of 2000 to 5000 words.
Writing opinion is alluring for two reasons. First, it is the fastest and simplest way I can think of to change public opinion. Secondly, it’s like a game.
The game of opinion writing is all about being on top of issues and ideas, presenting them in a way that makes them shine a little more than others ¾ so that of the 50 or so submissions the editor sees in a day, yours gets beyond the cursory glance. You have to be prepared to chase your piece and convince the editor the issue demands their attention.
Column writing is a style. It is 600 to 800 words, tight, sharp and clever. It is the closest thing writing gets to a competitive sport. Opposing sides can mock each other from opposite sides of the page.
It’s the nature of opinion writing that we often hear the same voices ¾ we like the familiarity of routine. So, in the Herald Sun it is Andrew Bolt on Wednesdays and Fridays. In the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age we look forward to Ross Gittins (preferably twice a week). The op-ed editor’s role is a powerful one, but daily deadlines often mean that a diversity of opinion is not presented. In fact, it’s difficult to achieve diversity of opinion within any public forum.
It was this fact that provoked New Matilda contributor and author Ryan Heath and me to initiate a unique new blog project.
Image from sxc
The internet is often seen as a great leveller. Of course, the democratising effect of the World Wide Web is severely limited by unequal access and its increasing commercialisation. However, it can still be used to disseminate ideas that are usually suffocated in the mainstream.
Newspapers are doing it by setting up issues-based blogs on their websites, and even employing vanguard bloggers like Tim Dunlop.
But how do you use the internet more effectively to get more reasoned opinions and different perspectives into the mainstream?
I dropped Ryan an email when we began working on the Interface project. We are mentoring young writers as they develop an ideas-based piece that will be published in an anthology. The editor had also asked that we mentors contribute a piece.
I’d heard Ryan’s new obsession was trying to convince people of the value and benefit of individualism. Five years ago I undertook a tree change to move to a town where my wife and I felt we could immerse ourselves in a supportive and connected community who would help us raise our children and share our lives. I was going to write an essay about the importance of community values and relationships to our wellbeing.
I proposed to Ryan that we develop our essays for this project ¾ he on the value of individualism and me on the value of community ¾ publicly, on a blog, where we can analyse and criticise each other’s ideas. Readers can also contribute through a comment function and can both watch and participate in the development of an ideas-based piece of writing. Hopefully over time our ideas will be challenged and evolve. We might end up writing complementary, rather than opposing, pieces. Our essays could end up being scattered with the opinions and ideas of others.
Hopefully many people will engage with the project. Ryan and I like to think and provoke. Neither of us are claiming expertise in these areas and will be reading and researching as we go. The aim of the project is to test the rigour of our ideas by developing our writing in a public space.
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