News should inform, but a newspaper column should provoke, according to Thomas L Friedman, a New York Times op-ed columnist since 1995. A good column produces a reaction and even a death threat from a reader is a sign of success, he said.
“A column must produce heat – or light. I am either in the heating or lighting business, to stoke an emotion, or illuminate something,” Friedman, a three-times Pulitzer Prize winner, told an Oxford audience last week.
Friedman explained he knows a column has worked when it produces at least one of the following ten reactions from his readers:
1. If someone reads it and says: “I didn’t know that”.
2. If they read it and say: “I never looked at it that way before”.
3. If it makes a reader think: “I never connected those things”.
4. A reader tells me: “you said exactly what I thought, but didn’t know how to say it”.
5. If a reader says: “I want to kill you dead you and all your offspring”.
6. Or “you made me laugh you made me cry”.
7. Even “I bet that column didn’t take long to write,” (said as a compliment).
8. “You challenged me.”
9. “You have said this before” – (it is important in opinion writing to repeat myself, sometimes I can say same thing eight times, but in a different context it can suddenly erupt.)
10. “you inspired me – I read it and I went out and started something.”
Friedman, who has also written best-selling books, including That Used to be Us and The Lexus and the Olive Tree, said the best columns are those based on a writer’s “own value set”.
A writer’s values shape their attitudes and opinions, he explained. “It is about how you think the machine works, how it is shaping the world,” he said. “[An opinion column] is based on what you have learned about people and culture. How you believe the machine is affecting people and culture, and how people and culture are affecting the machine.”
The columnist said his own values were formed by his upbringing in a small town – St Louis Park, Minnesota – in the United States. “I have an optimism bias – all about the time and the place I grew up in,” he explained.
Friedman was born in 1953. “It was a time and place where politics mattered. Minnesota was a solid floor you could pivot off,” he said.
“People are incredibly nice in Minnesota. I grew up with a deep instinct for the political sector. Corporate social responsibility was invented there,” he said.
Friedman is currently researching a follow-up to his best-selling book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, published in 2004. The title of his new book, The World is Fast, was also the title of his talk, hosted by the Oxford Martin School, at Oxford University.
“The book is called The World is Fast, but it is sub-titled Thank You for Being Late: Pausing to Reflect as the World Moves from Flat to Fast,” Friedman said. “It is about what I have been thinking about when people have arrived late [to meet me].”
He said the few minutes of snatched time while waiting for a guest to arrive, has often allowed him to look around and notice details about how people and society are evolving.
Friedman said the world has changed enormously since 2004. Then, he said: “Big Data was a rap star, Facebook didn’t exist, 4G was a parking place and Skype was a typo.”
“What does this mean?” he asked. Friedman believes the world has entered “the second half of the second machine age.” He described this as a period of exponential innovation, dictated by Moore’s Law in which change is so rapid, and its impact so huge, that it is difficult for society to absorb.
He said the time spent researching The World is Fast had enabled him to step back and reflect on his own value set.
“We have to become faster, fairer and slower,” Friedman said. “As a columnist I am trying to take my world view and push against the machine that is shaping the world,” he said.
pic credit: Oxford Martin School