GC: One of the things you learn when you do newspaper journalism for a really long time is that election day really sucks. There’s nothing you can do, so you just sort of wander around. So, this year, for the first time, I organized it: I got my hair cut, I went to the dentist, and then we did a program at the Times. And then after that I just went to a friend’s house for a party. My column didn’t run until Thursday, so I sort of had the night off, for all practical purposes. And then the next day was my usual column-writing day.
MG: So you normally write your columns in a day?
GC: Yeah. And during the campaign, most of the debates were my writing nights. So you’d listen to the debate, and it would end around 9:30, and then you’d have a 10:00 deadline. So it’s really kind of bouncy. But that’s fun. My assistant, Amanda, really enjoys that, the sort of “here we are, and it’s deadline!” excitement. You don’t get much of that in the op-ed section; you don’t have that deadline-a-minute thing that everyone else does. So everyone really likes it when there’s a debate, or a State of the Union, and we’re running around, trying to do it all at the last minute.
MG: That’s funny—in my mind, one of the best parts about being a columnist would be being spared the deadline-a-minute pressure.
GC: Well, you like a mixture. When there’s really not much going on, like now, you can be planning a column days in advance. But just the fact of deadlines is glorious. I love having deadlines. When I was an editor, I thought, well, of course, I’ll write all the time; I’ll just write on my own schedule whenever I get inspired. And I barely wrote anything. I was very interested to find that if I wasn’t forced to write by somebody saying, “You’ve got fifteen minutes,” then nothing would ever get done.
MG: Do you ever miss editing?
GC: No! No, it was a wonderful experience—it was the best thing to have had a chance to do—but I was always determined that it wasn’t the thing I was going to do forever, that there would be an end to it.
MG: What do you see to be the overarching role of a columnist?
GC: What you really have to do is find a new way of looking at something people have already looked at. But also to bring new stuff to the table—so when people come away from your column, they have new thoughts and new insights and new information, really, about what’s happening. All of the columnists on the op-ed page of the Times are also reporters. Paul Krugman, sure, has never been a reporter, but Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, which I guess is even better than being a reporter—emphasis on the “better”! But everybody goes out and reports. Just sort of saying your opinion is not enough. That doesn’t move it. It’s a much broader challenge than just, “Well, here’s my take on the news.”
MG: Do you see that role changing, now or in the future, particularly given the proliferation of opinion writing on the Web?
GC: The column as we do it now is something that will probably die off with my generation. Currently, the critical thing you have to have to do a column—besides the general reporting and writing—is the ability to be able to deliver exactly 800 words twice a week, on deadline. On the Web, though, there’s no reason for that. The constraints don’t exist. So the next generation of columnists will be a totally different breed than we are. I don’t know exactly what they’ll look like—I mean, you can see hints now of what it will be—but they’re going to be a totally different thing.
MG: Do you ever find the print constraints limiting?