I wouldn’t quite support banning the words “Democrat” and “Republican” (or the euphemisms often interchanged for them), from Michigan Daily opinion columns, but I’d come very close.
Of several themes I’ve picked up from becoming a full-time reader of this paper for the past two months, among the most disturbing is the trend of one-dimensional columns that provide general, unoriginal commentary on national political issues. Many opinion columnists seem to have either lost sight of, or never been advised of, the unique character of the Daily’s editorial page — and the wealth of possibilities it provides, beyond just stale talking points gleaned from some MSNBC primetime news commentary show.
Since about the late 1980s the Daily’s editorial page has had an unwritten policy of avoiding international issues, except in very rare, special situations. National issues are addressed often, of course, but editors are reminded every year that the Daily’s focus is local, campus and state issues that students are unlikely to learn about elsewhere.
While that policy mainly targets the Daily’s unsigned editorials, columnists are also encouraged to think locally. Simply put: However interesting the esoteric issues you learned about in some international relations lecture might be, most of that is not what readers of this paper care about, or what you are really qualified to write about.
Columnists used to also be pushed away from writing about national political issues with no local hook or consequence. But judging by what I find on the editorial page these days, apparently that isn’t harped on much anymore. And it’s a shame because without columnists writing creatively about local issues that matter to students, this page loses what makes it special. If columnists choose only to write about the idiocy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the hypocrisy of President Barack Obama or the fallacy of Republican rhetoric, this page is nothing more than a weak, inconsequential imitation of a national newspaper.
It’s true that the Daily should aspire to be like a great national newspaper — The New York Times, for example. However, what is to be valued and emulated is the Times’s strong, passionate editorial voice, its top-notch reporting and its clean, straightforward writing style. The Daily should focus on improving those same basic tools and apply them to the topics it is best positioned to cover. It does no one any good, however, for the Daily to copy the Times to the level of writing about precisely the same issues covered in national newspapers. As well-informed and creative as Daily columnists may think they are, there is no Paul Krugman here.
I do not mean to imply that Daily columnists are incapable of writing interesting and noteworthy columns. My point is only a bit of advice to columnists who I think will really improve their work: Don’t stack the deck against yourselves.
You want to write a great column? You want to show your friends, parents, readers and potential employers that you are a capable thinker and skilled advocate? That’s great, but believe me, you aren’t going to accomplish that by writing yet another column bashing the Republicans in Congress. It’s very unlikely that most readers will get more than 20 words into that thing.
My basic rule is this: If your column practically writes itself after 15 minutes of Googling, you haven’t done your job. Either you picked a topic that’s too easy (and has therefore been written about in every other paper), or you have not thought enough about a topic to craft a unique, illuminating viewpoint that rises beyond tired cable news diatribes.
This is a college paper, and we are all students. While writing for the Daily is not coursework, it is still an educational experience, and opinion columnists are in a better position than any other staffer at this paper to try something new and grow as writers. There are many interesting things happening in Lansing, Detroit, Ann Arbor — even on the Diag or North Campus — that are fodder for exceptional commentary. If you must write about national politics once in a while, at least do us all the service of thinking about the issue enough to find a unique or local ideological component.
Whatever you write about and however you do it, the main purpose of a Daily columnist’s work should be to add something worthwhile to the jumble of words floating in our general discourse. And to do so, I recommend you take the easiest path, and use the advantage you have in being close to and most qualified to comment on local issues.
The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.