Is journalism a matter of pouring out words to fill pages, or something more accomplished? Strangely, for a long time newspapers seem to have valued their least-skilled contributors the highest – reasoning that a Boris Johnson, a Melanie Philips, a Polly Toynbee or a Richard Littlejohn is a sufficient brand on their own that their photobyline is worth more to the paper than the accurate or reasoned reporting you could buy from several no-names for a columnist’s wage. “Every copy editor knows that publications indulge in stars, often columnists and critics but also reporters, who are not required to meet the standards expected of an intern. They don’t get things right, they can’t be edited, and they won’t be bothered”, is John McIntyre’s blunt assessment.
In fact, being aggressively inaccurate can be a key part of a polemicist-columnist’s job. When Don’t Get Mad, Get Accuracy made an abortive attempt to get misleading factual claims in the Daily Mail fixed through the Press Complaints Commission, they found that convention was up against them. From the PCC’s judgement on a fact-free Melanie Philips screed against adoption by gay couples:
While the column had been phrased in stark terms – the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by “the fact is”, for example – the author’s claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact. The columnist was entitled to present her particular views on the issue of gay adoption in robust language. Complaints about the accuracy of the columnist’s claims had to be viewed in this context.
PCC judgement quoted here
In other words: the PCC considers columnists to be a special case, exempted from accuracy by the force of their views. A paper hiring a columnist is employing a personality to drive engagement with the paper, and both positive and negative engagement are equally welcome, because whether the letters and comments are of praise or complaint, they’re still a measurable index of success in drawing readers and traffic. Cristopher Fray’s attack on Antichrist was a critical disaster, but it also drew eyes to the page and reinforced a certain worldview for core readers while attracting the attention of opponents.
Columnists have another advantage in a world of digital distribution, at least in theory: because it’s the form rather than the content that has value, the actual words can be protected by copyright and, in a perfectly law-abiding world, paywalled. (Maybe this was part of the NYT’s logic in the now-defunct TimesSelect programme.) But opinion is easy to generate – as evidenced by Boris Johnson and his knock-out-a-column-on-a-Sunday-morning routine – and there are plenty of blogs able to offer a bit of invective, often with even more traffic-driving extremity because they’re loosed from the bare civilities of print.
High quality, informed reporting is expensive, and unlike venting rhetoric, it’s something that professional news organisations can offer consistently whereas amateurs can only create it intermittently and opportunistically. The product of that sort of reporting is facts, and facts can’t be paywalled – legally or practically. But news organisations could, conceivably, develop a structure where readers are happy to pay for immediate access to breaking news, and for the privilege of supporting the valuable activity of newsgathering. The ability to get angry and type is near-universal; the ability to get stuff right is scarce, and if something’s scarce you should be able to find a way to make it pay.