When I was about 7 years old, my pediatrician, Dr. Milstein, told my mother he planned to put a soapbox in his office so I could stand on it and give speeches. “He’s going to be a politician someday,” Dr. Milstein predicted.
Not quite. Even if I wanted to run for office, which I do not, my socially liberal Republican leanings have been out of fashion since around the time I stopped seeing Dr. Milstein. But the Internet is an excellent soapbox, and when I sat down to write this post, I realized how well he had me pegged.
Today marks five years since I started contributing to my firm’s every-business-day opinion column. That’s a lot of opinion. Someone else might have run out of things to say by now, but as my weary pediatrician anticipated, not me.
I read about a half-dozen news sites each day. It is never a problem to find interesting people or issues to write about. The trick is to do this without being a self-righteous blowhard. Or at least without being a self-righteous blowhard so often that people start to avoid reading your work, the way I try to avoid reading the work of several New York Times op-ed columnists whom I consider to be insufferable SRBs.
Most of the columns I write, and most of the ones that I enjoy reading, have two parts. The first tells the story; it provides the reader with enough facts and context to understand and care about the issue. The second gives the writer’s opinion about the issue. The typical SRB is convinced that his or her opinion is the more important part. I disagree. People have opinions of their own, but everyone likes a good story. If I write a column that tells an interesting tale, even if it is only about a 7-year-old and his doctor, someone might enjoy reading it. This then allows me to offer my perspective in a way that I hope will not be too self-righteous.
When I look back at some of my favorite columns of the past five years, or some that elicited the warmest response, they were often about someone who did something interesting or noteworthy.
Sierra Harr is a good example. I wrote about her a couple of years ago when, as a high schooler in Idaho, she fought a rules change that would have prevented her from playing on her school’s boys golf team, even though her school did not field a team for girls. The column was picked up by Ezine Articles, where Sierra’s mother found it a few weeks later (and posted a comment thanking me for accurately telling her daughter’s story). Sierra went on to complete a successful high school sports career this spring, and has signed on to play golf for Brigham Young University next year.
I especially enjoy writing about the challenges and triumphs of young people. Last year I observed that some aspiring musicians are building a fan base by putting their music and videos online themselves, without benefit of radio airplay or record label support. Besides performing original compositions, they introduce themselves to future fans by covering songs popularized by established artists.
My column focused on country artists Artie Hemphill and Maddie Wilson, and on their collaborator Andrew Pulley (working at the time under the stage name Drew Williams), who recorded their cover of “Highway Don’t Care” at Pulley’s Sapphire Studios in Provo, Utah. Drew called me a few days later to thank me for the recognition and to ask how I came to write about their work. His call was the start of a strong friendship and working relationship. My firm signed up to support Hemphill’s forthcoming album release (a topic for a future column), and Drew arranged an invitation for my daughter and me to meet his highly talented friend Lindsey Stirling, a violinist who has built a big and enthusiastic global following almost entirely with self-produced tours and online videos. She also happens to be my daughter’s favorite performer.
Another instance of excellent work that I discussed in a commentary came from New York Times writer Amy Harmon, who produced a noteworthy multimedia piece on a young couple who are each living with Asperger’s syndrome. Harmon applied all of the tools of online, video and print journalism in ways that complemented one another to tell the story in a richer way than would have been possible in traditional print or broadcast alone. A former journalist myself, I still follow the field closely, and I thought Harmon’s work was worth special attention.
Things don’t always go swimmingly for young people, of course. The much-hyped but short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement was a case in which I thought that (mostly) young people who had many frustrations but lacked much direction were manipulated to serve other agendas.
Of course I don’t always write about young people, or unknown people. Occasionally I feel I have some personal perspective worth adding about a public persona, such as Walter Cronkite or the late comic Soupy Sales. Sometimes my story is about someone interesting or important to me who is not publicly known at all, such as my wife’s Aunt Margaret, who managed to earn a doctorate in science as a Jewish woman in prewar Hungary and then had to survive Auschwitz before she could use it. A recent post also focused on Hungary and on my small part in a search for lost family and treasure.
Not many opinion writers even attempt to turn out 800 to 1,200 words per day, five days per week. I could not have done it either, at least not for long, without the help of my colleagues Eliza Snelling, in the column’s early days, and of Amy Laburda for the past four years. Though I provide the ideas and framework for each post, and I do the final edits, Amy and I divide the drafting responsibilities. She may not always share my point of view but she certainly understands it, and she provides a lot of the research and background that helps readers appreciate the story behind our comments. It’s fair to say that there would be no Current Commentary without her.
I don’t know if life will allow me to write this column for another five years, so I can’t make any promises about that. However, I can promise to climb down off that soapbox now and then, and to try not to be too much of an SRB.