MG: What about back-and-forths between other columnists? Is there much communication between the group of you when it comes to topic selection and all that?

GC: Nobody knows what anybody’s writing, actually. They used to ask—and I’m not sure why they stopped asking—but nobody knows. The thing the Times does manage is our groupings—so there’s an attempt to make sure that you’re not going to be on the same day with somebody who’s writing on the exact same thing you are. I’m on with Nick Kristof, for instance, so there’s a very small chance that we’re writing about the same things. And Maureen is on with Tom Friedman. But beyond that, no, they don’t check on us.

When I was a columnist at the Daily News and Newsday, I always wanted the editors to ask us what we were writing about, to have the whole thing be more coordinated. But they would never do it, because in the end they don’t want to own the columns. They want to make it clear that the columns are just themselves. And then, when I became editor, I realized that the columns are just an incredibly hard thing to manage, and all you want to do is say, “yes, yes, yes” to whatever the columnists are doing. When people complain about columnists—they generally treat the op-ed page with much more intensity than they do other parts of the paper—I now understand why editors just say, “Well, those are the columnists, and they just do whatever they’re going to do.”

MG: So the columns we read are pretty much verbatim, from columnists’ lips to our ears?

GC: Yeah. That’s why they talk about voice a lot with columnists, because that’s the whole deal. We’re checked by a copy editor, who looks for libel and stuff like that—but, in theory, the only power the editor has is to pull the column. The editor doesn’t have any power to change anything in the column. In the real world, of course, if you call up a columnist and say, “I really think that third paragraph is going to get you into huge trouble—it should really change,” the columnist isn’t going to say, “No, that’s a really important paragraph, and I’ll never change it.” Columnists are all perfectly rational people.

But the weird part of column writing is that there’s no net. You’re just tossing about out there. There are no rules. It’s a really good job.

 

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.