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Washington Post Looking for "America's Next Great Pundit" -- Could It Be You?

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The Washington Post, one of the leading newspapers in the country, has announced on its website a contest to name "America's Next Great Pundit." In an enticing blend of reality television contests and print journalism, they are going to run a contest to see who deserves to be printed on their op-ed pages, on the sheer strength of writing. I heartily applaud this innovative effort -- even though I seem to be ineligible to enter. I also applaud anyone who reads this who might normally be inclined to write me a comment, and who instead decides to write an entry to the contest. Because you could be "America's Next Great Pundit." The winner receives a 13-week run for a weekly column, paid at $200 a pop. That's not the million-dollar prize reality TV routinely awards, but the newspaper industry is hurting, so you've got to make allowances. Kidding aside, it's not really the money anyway -- it's the prestige they're offering. But, since I've been an advocate for newspapers to do exactly this sort of thing for a while now, I have to cheer the Washington Post for their outside-the-box thinking.

I have to fully disclose, in true journalistic fashion, my own biases in the matter. Especially since my position seems to be somewhat of a rarity in the blogosphere. I like newspapers. I really do. I like them for a number of reasons. I like newspapers for tactile reasons (reading news online is just not the same as sitting at a cafe rustling pages of newsprint in the sunshine). I like newspapers for stupid reasons (the fun little puzzles they print every day). I like newspapers for juvenile reasons (the comics). Call me brainwashed, I won't deny it. I grew up reading the Washington Post (back when it was overthrowing presidents), and still consider it among the nation's best papers (even though their editorial pages have taken a serious rightward lurch in the past few years). Such early exposure to the Post doubtlessly warped my fragile psyche forever. But I still like newspapers. In all seriousness, I like them because without them our merry blogosphere simply would not be possible -- at least not in its current form.

Look at any of your favorite blogsites. Right, left, or center, almost all of them rely heavily (while at the same time, relentlessly mocking) "the mainstream media." Think about it -- it's just about the only thing that a "Sarah-Palin-loving, gun-toting, secessionist-advocating, socialism-fearing, red-blooded" rightwing blogger and a "Dennis-Kucinich-loving, gun-banning, Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, single-payer-advocating socialist" leftwing blogger can agree upon: the "MSM" sucks. They both have their different reasons, but they both arrive at the same conclusion: MSM suckitude. Which includes all newspapers. Which is why both the right and the left are cheering on the sidelines as newspapers disappear one by one from our biggest cities.

But they're wrong to do so. Corrupt or not, biased or not, corporate-directed or not, newspapers are the plankton in our commentariat food chain. If they die off, people further up this food chain are going to suffer. Don't believe me? Look at your favorite blogsite, whether The Huffington Post or Drudge Report. Count up the stories directly from newspapers. Now count up the blog entries and other stories which would not be possible without them (second-order "feeding" upon news stories includes articles like this one -- where I am free-form opinionating about a story which appeared in a newspaper). When you eliminate the first-order and second-order stories, you are not left with much. Bloggers love to write stories such as "here's what I think about this factual story in the newspapers," or "here's what I think about an op-ed printed in a newspaper." Of course, some of these blog posts stem from television news or a magazine article, but a large proportion of them come directly from the "plankton" of newspaper stories. Without such fodder being around, there's going to be less to blog about.

But enough exploration of my own personal bias, let's get on to the contest! The Washington Post page which explains the contest challenges you to:

Start making your case.

Use the entry form to send us a short opinion essay (400 words or less) pegged to a topic in the news and an additional paragraph (100 words or less) on yourself and why you should win. Entries will be judged on the basis of style, intelligence and freshness of argument, but not on whether Post editors agree or disagree with your point of view. Entry deadline: Oct. 21, 2009 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Now, 400 words is not much. A typical op-ed column in a second-rate newspaper is around 600 words. In a top-flight newspaper, perhaps 750 words. Try writing a 400-word essay on any subject and you'll soon see how limiting it is. But they're doubtlessly going to get a flood of entries, so perhaps it's an excusable limit, especially for the initial entry. You don't get to sing a full song to Simon Cowell in your first round, either. That's a nice touch about the editors not agreeing or disagreeing with your point of view, as liberals have decried the conservative direction of the Post for a while now. What they are in essence saying is: "lefties, don't be afraid to enter."

They then go on to explain the elimination rounds:

Then get ready for the great debate.

Beginning on or about Oct. 30, ten prospective pundits will get to compete for the title of America's Next Great Pundit, facing off in challenges that test the skills a modern pundit must possess. They'll have to write on deadline, hold their own on video and field questions from Post readers. (Contestants won't have to quit their day jobs, but they should be prepared to put in about eight hours a week for three weeks.) After each round, a panel of Post personalities will offer kudos and catcalls, and reader votes will help to determine who gets another chance at a byline and who has to shut down their laptop.

Eight hours a week for three weeks isn't a whole lot, for serious contestants. It certainly sounds like an interesting contest -- which is the whole point. Not only is the Post generating attention from entrants, it will also generate its own "buzz" -- which draws in readers. More customers, more profit. Although this does not sound like it should be a radical business model to follow for any American business, it has indeed become anathema to newspapers. Newspapers seem to be clinging to blandness as a viable business model in an exciting new world of opinions available to their potential customers -- to their detriment. And then they wonder why they're failing.

Now, I have to admit, I've become less and less a fan of the Washington Post, especially since they fired Dan Froomkin. But their loss became the gain of the Huffington Post, who snapped up Froomkin by hiring him to edit their politics reporting. So while the Post was diminished by the entire episode, Huffington Post was enhanced. [More full disclosure: Froomkin does not edit or in any way control my work here, so I'm not sucking up to him by saying this. In fact, I wrote about Froomkin's situation at the Post here, long before he was hired by the Huffington Post.]

And there is still one glaring example of the disdain which newspapers regularly show for anyone who calls themselves a "blogger," codified into the rules of the contest. In the very first paragraph, on "eligibility" is the following:

Entrants may not have previously written or contributed to a regular column in a major national publication in print or online. Sponsor shall determine, in its sole discretion, what constitutes a "regular column", "major national publication" and "contributed".

Which, I am guessing, leaves me out in the cold -- as well as anyone else (right or left) who blogs regularly on any popular blogsite. This is extreme short-sightedness. It's as if Major League Baseball decreed that no professional team in the big leagues could ever hire anyone playing on the "farm teams" (triple-A, or whatever), and instead had to recruit from pickup softball games in local parks.

In other words, the utter contempt and disdain which the blogosphere regularly shows the "MSM" is regularly returned by that very same media to the bloggers themselves. There are plenty of examples of stories which originate from a blogger and then are picked up by the newspaper journalists (often without any attribution), so methinks they should look in the mirror a bit when pointing fingers at bloggers "stealing their work." But, even though I have pretty obviously been banned from even entering their contest, I still think it's a great idea, and heartily endorse it. Because I know that if it catches on -- even just at this one newspaper -- then there will be a "second season" contest eventually. And, to keep things new and fresh, eventually they're going to have to give the bloggers a crack at it. My real hope is that other newspapers around the country see this as an innovative idea to be copied in their own pages. Because one of them is doubtlessly going to relax the rules for their contest. So I remain optimistic that some day I'll be agonizing over which 400 words to use in my entry.

For now, I wholeheartedly support the concept. Ironically, my local paper (which still arrives at my doorstop every morning) recently issued a plea for ideas on how to improve themselves to their readers. They talked mostly of improving "their business model," and not at all about improving their actual product. They patted themselves on the back for their news reporting operation, and didn't even mention their op-ed side of the aisle. They also gratuitously slammed bloggers who "rant and rave" while asking for new ideas.

So, naturally, I sent them my thoughts. You decide whether I'm "ranting" and/or "raving" in my response:

Newspapers and print journalists absolutely refuse to admit the problem with their product -- you have become bland in a new world of excitement. Not so much for the news portion of your paper, but in specific the op-ed page. Which often is a single page. A few times a week, it's two pages (whoopee!).

Has any American newspaper tried the "new business model" of expanding this part of your paper? Not that I am aware. Has any newspaper thought to itself "wow, there's an explosion of opinions out there, we've got to get on board this train"? Again, not that I am aware. You've got to focus on thinking outside the box when thinking about your "business model."

Your op-ed page, like every single op-ed page of every single newspaper in America, draws from a universe of perhaps 100 writers. They are syndicated, and most of their names are well-known to news readers. But their range of thought is actually quite limited. It's what bloggers like to disparagingly speak of as "Serious Persons in Washington." And nobody else is allowed in. Those 100 people (it's really closer to 50 or less) are supposed to do the opinionating for everyone. They have failed. They do not represent a multitude of opinions which are rarely (if ever) heard in the mainstream press.

This is why you're dying as an industry. You are in your Ivory Tower of journalism, which is really an Ivory Bunker at this point. You refuse to let others in (while patting yourselves on the back for barring your sacred gate from the hordes of unwashed bloggers), and then wonder why fewer and fewer people are paying for your product. Or reading it.

. . .

We [newspapers and bloggers] can save each other. Bloggers would love the imprimatur of seeing their names not only online but also in print. Bloggers would love a few bucks in recognition of a fine piece of writing. Newspapers would revitalize their product in two ways -- letting in other voices than the same old stale syndicated op-ed columnists, and inoculating yourself against charges of bias. If you're regularly printing lefties and righties then how can people argue that you're slanted in one direction or the other? And -- most importantly -- you would attract new readership, in an industry which is losing (badly) among the young consumers of news. This is key to your industry's survival.

The guy who wrote the article asking for feedback was immediately snowed under by hundreds of emails, but did take the time to write me back, so I have to give him credit for that. The newspaper is currently mulling over the reactions they got -- many of which were described (in a followup article) as "you're too liberal" or (much rarer) "you're too conservative" -- exactly the problem I was talking about.

But the Washington Post moved quicker, and moved decisively to introduce what the people who talk about "business models" call "a new paradigm." Letting non-professionals (even if they do limit it to non-nationally-seen-bloggers) have a voice beyond the letters to the editor is indeed a new idea. And Americans love competition. The cheesy "reality show" contests certainly pull in viewers by the millions. Most importantly, a huge majority of those viewers are young. This is the audience the newspapers need, and have simply not broken into in any significant way.

So, even with its restrictions and even if they did fire Dan Froomkin, I publicly applaud the Washington Post for at least trying something new. I sincerely hope their contest is a success.

Here's the most important part -- while I've never watched more than a smattering of reality TV contests, I will be glued to my screen watching this contest online. I am not exactly the demographic they may be aiming for, but this is like catnip to a domestic feline -- I simply will not be able to resist it.

Nor should anyone reading this who has ever thought "I could do a better job" than the current crop of pundits out there. What you should be doing this weekend is writing and editing your 400 words. Get your friends and ex-teachers to review what you've written. Write another draft. Make it better. For the love of all that's holy, don't forget to spell-check it. Make it the best you possibly can before you send it in. The Washington Post has thrown down the gauntlet, and is waiting for you to pick it up. Here's how their page which explains the contest ends. It's a fitting end to this column, as well.

Eyes on the prize.

The ultimate winner will get the opportunity to write a weekly column that may appear in the print and/or online editions of The Washington Post, paid at a rate of $200 per column, for a total of 13 weeks and $2,600. Our Opinions lineup includes a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, regulars on the national political talk shows and some of the most influential players inside the Beltway. We'll set our promising pundit on a path to become the next byline in demand, the talking head every show wants to book, the voice that helps the country figure out what's really going on.

So what are you waiting for?

Indeed, what are you waiting for? Get your 400 words together, and enter to become "America's Next Great Pundit" today!

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com