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What should a news column look like in the age of Twitter?

(If you're in a hurry, you can skip the Intro and jump straight to the pitch)


Returning to reporting after a 3 year, 148 day long adventure, first in web and digital training and then in CMS wrangling, I find myself pitching for a spot as a daily news columnist.

And desperately needing some help.

It’s not the writing, I’ve done this job before - in fact the first job I ever had on a daily newspaper was as a news columnist for the Toronto Sun - it’s not the writing I’m worried about.

But here’s the thing - in the year 2011,  what’s a daily news column look like? It sure can’t be just the same old 20 column inches of type, three times a week that it’s been for many years (decades) for many columnists.

We no longer talk at or to our readers, we talk with them and we forget this at our peril.  (My very first story coming back into the newsroom is a feature - it’s not out yet and already I’ve been scooped three times on it - and two of those three times were people I interviewed for the piece. Ok, I get it,  I’m awake now.)

So - what is a news columnist’s job about today? 

After thinking hard about it and coming up with a rough pitch, it occurred to me (right about the third time I was scooped) that, maybe I should step into this century.

I’ve decided to crowdsource my column pitch to you. And you, and you over there. 

I’m putting this out over Twitter, on Facebook and Tumbler and on an email list or three. Please read my pitch - and make it better. Add a comment below, DM me, write on my wall, track me down and I’ll buy you a coffee while you set me straight.  ‘Cause one of the things I learned when I stepped out of the newsroom is that reporters, despite how smart we all think we are, are  — almost by definition — the dumbest, most ignorant person involved in any story; that’s why we have to ask so many questions. So I’m asking.

And here’s the pitch....


Witness - a news column for this century

News doesn’t happen in newsrooms.  Funny, you’d never know that to look at one. Walk into your average newsroom today - even your ravaged, post-layoff and voluntary departure newsroom - and you’ll see an awful lot of reporters sitting at their desks and trying to sweet talk other people into doing their job for them. 

Witness will not be done by phone - although it may be livestreamed by one. 

Witness will be just that - a journalist giving witness to the things he saw and heard and said. Three (five?) times a week I’ll come into the office only long enough to check in, pick up some new batteries, my laptop and camera, and then head out again. I’ll be out of the office before 9am and stay out until I’ve found my story. Because there are no shortage of stories, just of people willing to find them.

Our city is incredibly diverse - a post-industrial university town desperately struggling to reinvent itself and overcome a crushing poverty rate and a crumbling core. Yet it also houses a vital - if threatened - agricultural sector, an energetic and entrepreneurial artistic community, and world class medical research facilities.

Witness will cover that whole city, range across it daily, looking for stories - not just the comfortable ones, or the ones fed to us by self-serving sources. 

The landmark Northwestern study of newspaper readership found something like 9 key reasons people bought and read newspapers regularly. People, real people, and their stories, was one of top reasons for reading. Another was getting the feeling that the paper, the writer, was “on my side”.

Witness will also bear witness, reflecting the heart of the community and telling stories for those whose voices have been silenced. 

Trust is something to be earned, not assumed.

Witness will also practice transparency and openness and I’ll publish to the web my written notes, and unedited recorded interviews. I’ll provide links to every bit of research I do. 

News is a conversation - which means shutting up sometimes and letting the other guy talk. And listening. I’ll listen.

Witness will publish to the web at 5 pm on the day before it appears in print. And every night we’ll cull the smartest, truest comments on the column from the web and publish them in the paper the next day right beside the column. News is a conversation.

The community conversations, story telling, takes place on many different platforms.

Witness will also maintain and use Twitter and Facebook and photo and video sharing sites to ensure we are always open to and taking part in conversations with our commuhnity.

Witness will solicit reader/community ideas, stories, photos and will use them all.

Witness will publish to the web, publish to print, publish full versions via RSS, and will also podcast each column for the commuter, the visually impaired, the auditory learner.

Although the columns will clearly and necessarily feature a strong and passionate voice, they are not to be a mere sounding board, or soap box for my opinions.

Witness will be about our city, her people and their stories. Not mine. Once a week, however, I will produce a very short (60-120 sec) self-produced video column which will offer a less restrained look at the week’s events - by way of commentary, exposition, satire, or hell, I don't know — stick figure animation. The vast majority of news video is either pretty pictures, self important or just plain boring. Video as a medium can do so much more and iWitness Video will do just that.

Witness will stop talking about itself in the disembodied third person right now.

That’s it. Please share your thoughts and comments. Help me make it better, for all of us. (And yes, I know it needs to be shorter. Tell me what to cut.) Oh, and please hurry - they're interviewing this week.

Bill Dunphy


6 comments to What should a news column look like in the age of Twitter?

  • I like the idea of having the enlightening web comments featured next to the column. Take right now for instance, I’m sitting out on my back deck listening to the Bill Kelly show on the radio while cruising Facebook on the Internet using my wireless laptop. I’m also enjoying a store-bought cigarette. Too funny, eh Bill?

  • “In the age of Twitter, what does a daily news column look like?”

    Gee Bill, ya never make them easy do you?

    I’ve been thinking all day and this is what I’ve come up with (and I think you already know this since I think it was you who enlightened me, but I digress).

    A daily news column today is the same as it was 10, 20 years ago. It comments on the news of the day, the people in it. However, it’s no longer central to a location (in this case Hamilton). The world is global now thanks to the Interwebz, so the daily news column should be too. Just because it happened somewhere else, doesn’t mean it won’t mean something to Hamiltonians.

    But on top of this, you need to include the web 2.0 part. The Twitter usage, a blog, etc. where you can talk “with” your readers and not “to” them. I don’t think you have to be working every hour of every day, but the blog could be items that are too small for a full-column.

    Maybe even have a Mailbag day where you address comments on the blog, on Ywitter in your fabulous Bill Dunphy way.

    Good luck!

  • I hope you snag the gig Bill. Crossing fingers.

  • […] Bill wants to be a columnist. I have written hundreds of columns, but I’ve never been a columnist. In my 30-plus years in the newspaper business, I wrote columns about sports, religion, entertainment and agri-business. When I was the editor, I wrote a weekly column that might address something that was happening at the newspaper or issues in the community or nation. Or whatever I wanted to write about. I was, after all, the editor. But I wasn’t a columnist. I was an editor who also wrote a column or a reporter who also wrote a column. I learned that a column grows well out of other work. […]

  • Thanks for asking for my suggestions, Bill. Here’s my answer:

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joey Coleman, LesleyESimpson. LesleyESimpson said: What should a news column look like in the age of Twitter? […]