Hack Attack

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<b>As columnists invade the news pages, are we missing the real story?</b>

When Leah McLaren’s story “The tragic ineptitude of the English male,” appeared on the front page of the London Spectator this summer, the U.K. public got its first taste of the “acknowledged beauty” and Globe and Mail lifestyle columnist Canadians have been enduring for years.

Predictably, the British male reacted with even greater quantities of ink and airtime. McLaren appeared on chat shows and made her way into the pages of at least four national newspapers. “Why Leah can’t pull,” brayed one sub-head in the grave Guardian. (According to columnist Rod Liddle, McLaren’s “anodyne, shrink-wrapped” looks might be a hit in Canada, but, in England, men don’t go for women who expect to be able to talk about their jobs, personal interests and families.) McLaren’s next Globe column was a paean to Canadian guys.

All of this opining on the English libido, while entertaining, suggests a more sober question. Not to be a party pooper, but since when is one newspaper columnist’s inability to get laid A-section news?

McLaren’s English escapades are only the latest in a series of new news lows. Take a look through the papers, and you’ll find a rash of ill-informed, self-referential columnists: from star Globe columnist Margaret Wente’s discussion of hair dye (hers and Barbara Black’s) as a way into an op-ed piece on the all-important issue of how to make one’s private woods look “natural,” to Allan Fotheringham’s froth on the state of federal politics.

Inch by column inch, goofy commentary is invading the news pages. And if McLaren’s burblings on Britain’s burgeoning singles scene are what the Globe now understands to be foreign coverage, what are we missing out on?

This blight of columnists is nothing new. Opinion writers have been popular since Addison and Steele published the first “news” papers in the early 1700s âe" gossip sheets with the occasional fact. What is new, however, is the number of columnists now employed by our dailies, and the amount of space devoted to opinions and editorials.

To accommodate these prolific pundits, at least one paper — the grey Globe — has been scaling back on hard news. In 1999, an entire page was taken from news to beef up op-ed. That’s in addition to the space that was taken from the news pages in 1992 to create Facts and Arguments, the reader-friendly, news-lite forum at the back of the A section.

“There is real value in the columnists,” says the Globe’s Comment editor Patrick Martin. Martin cites a reader survey the Globe ran in the early 1990s. Although columnists were by no means the most often read items in the paper, those who read them, read them intently, took them seriously and most importantly, responded with letters to the editor.

Columnists, then, inspire (and keep loyal) the kind of engaged, thoughtful reader newspaper editors love. But it’s hard to ignore the other reason columnists are so popular with editors: They are cheaper — a lot cheaper — than bankrolling real news.

A foreign bureau, for example, costs $250,000 per year or more. An investigative series is less expensive — maybe $120,000, estimates Martin — but will produce at most twenty pieces. Compare that to the net return of running a weekly columnist: at least fifty items of publishable prose per year, for the low, low price of $40,000 to $80,000. Even at the top end of that scale, it makes economic sense to pack the pages of the A section with Murray Campbells and Margaret Wentes.

This is why we have such absurdities as Marcus Gee covering “The World” from Toronto. (“Makes for less immediate coverage,” admits his editor, Foreign Desk boss John Stackhouse.)

“This is all part of a general trend of closing foreign bureaus,” Stackhouse explains. Like other news organizations, including the CBC and the Canadian Press, the Globe has been shutting down its outposts overseas and relying on the wires. Since the late 1980s, the Globe, has closed seven bureaus starting with Mexico City, Tokyo and Harare, followed by Rio de Janeiro in 1995, Berlin in 1998, New Delhi in 1999 and, this year, Los Angeles.

“The space available to foreign news is maybe half of what it was ten years ago. The newspaper war has been fought largely on business and national news, not foreign news, so they’ve given more space to business and columnists. That space has come out of foreign news. The more marginal stories get squeezed out.”

“Could Al-Qaeda training camps have been a marginal story, say, four years ago?” I ask. Long pause. “That’s a good question,” Stackhouse answers. “Yeah.” Pauses again. “Yeah,” he says again. “Who knows what we are missing.”

Writing a news or op-ed section column used to be a plum job, doled out to a time-tested reporter who had written up a beat for years. Such columnists relied on their hard-won Rolodex of sources, extensive background in the topic, plus daily reporting and research, to inform their points of view.

Happily, this type of columnist still appears regularly, adding context and dissenting perspectives to breaking stories. Would that all columnists sprung from this well. All too many are writing about haircuts and pantyliners.

“There are a number of under-30 columnists now appearing, because everyone wants to appeal to the under-30 readership,” says Margaret Wente. “I don’t think they have much to say.”

But personality columnists such as the National Post’s Rebecca Eckler and the aforementioned McLaren, annoying as they are, may be just the easiest targets. A preponderance of columnists at the doughtier end of the spectrum has its own problems. As columnists scramble over each other to get the first and/or last shot in on the tantalizing topic of the moment, weightier issues like, say, an economic meltdown in Argentina, tend to get short shrift.

So what’s a poor reader to do? Resign oneself to being deliciously appalled by McLaren’s man woes? Follow Gee breathlessly as he tours the world from his computer terminal?

In a cutthroat, competitive market, the sexual proclivities of the British vs. Canadian male will likely continue to win out with editors over dry inflation reports from South America for some time to come.

“There’s no question,” says Stackhouse. “Newspapers have become much more opinionated in recent years.”

Too bad they’re also less informed.

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