Wick Communications

Farewell to farewell columns?

In Writing on May 4, 2012 at 9:13 am

George Vescey started his, “This is a column about a column.” Gail Spector had this to say by way of explanation in hers: “I’m moving on now mostly because it’s the right time. I’m tired. I’ve given this everything I have.” Jason Gay took a few liberties by writing one for Larry King. “How do I want to go out?” Gay/King wrote. “Content, in the arms of my beloved. Or in Jeff Van Gundy’s.”

Farewell columns are like that. IMHO, some are darn good. Some are TMI. Some are so self-indulgent they make me LMAO. Still others are OMG bad. Using that math, about three-fourths of them should have been consigned to the dustbin before they were published.

For some reason, too many of us think our readers give a good gosh darn whether we ever write again. The truth is, if we are doing our job most effectively, we are all but invisible. Good newspaper writers are like baseball umpires that way. That byline is important only to our mothers.

So why do we feel compelled to say farewell in print every time we get a new job? …

I suggest the editors use a little judgment before printing anyone’s farewell column. Here are some things to consider:

  • Has the writer in question been around long enough to cultivate a true following? Just off the top of my head, I would say that requires at least five years. If your editor is retiring after 25 years with the company, I would suggest his farewell column is about five times more likely to be worthwhile than if he’s been at the paper five years. You do the math.
  • Can the writer actually write something like this? Farewell columns are necessarily personal affairs. That is a foreign assignment for many of us. If you haven’t written compellingly about yourself and your motivations in the past, don’t try to do so as your final act.
  • Is the writer just trying to get something off his chest? Farewell columns should offer some humility. They should be uplifting. They must be original. If someone is leaving your shop on bad terms, the last thing you want to do is give him one last forum to foment trouble. Tell him to pack his unhappiness with the knickknacks on his desk.
  • No one cares how he feels about Russian politics, Michelle Obama or the price of tea in China. If it isn’t relevant to local readers, tell him to find another forum.
  • Finally, read the darn thing. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard newspaper publishers say they just didn’t know Mr. Bad Attitude was going to go out like that. Never, ever let an outgoing employee sneak something past you at the 11th hour. Always read the farewell column carefully.

I think some columnists deserve a last word. Readers need a sense of closure when they have invested so much time with a good writer, someone they have literally invited into their homes again and again. Vescey was one of those special columnists. In that going away column about a column, he wrote:

My pattern was to mix it up — the Super Bowl one day, a high school gym the next day, the familiar, the unfamiliar, opinion one day, description and mood the next. Goya and war one day, Monet and water lilies the next.

I submit to you that too few writers know the difference between Goya and Monet to write something like that. They are better off not trying to do so.

Clay

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