Advice columns mine a classic formula to stay relevant

March 9, 2017

The first advice columns, published in the 1600s, fielded pretty basic questions. While revolutionary for their time, people asked about topics ranging from the existential to bodily functions. Like this question featured in The Athenian Mercury: “In what space of time do you think the whole mass of blood circulates through the body?” A simple Google search would be the best way to find that answer today. (About one minute, if you were wondering.)

Long a regular feature in newspapers, magazines, and online, the advice-column format has stood the test of time better than most classic newspaper staples, weathering the rise of the radio, the internet, and livestreaming. In fact, topical publications and social media have yielded an array of columns that cater to different audiences and niche inquiries—among them are Savage Love, which offers sex advice; Captain Awkward, which caters to geek and nerd culture; and the blog Ask A Manager, which tackles questions on work inquiries and etiquette.

The most successful columnists bring voice and personality to their work, but also give honest advice, veteran columnist say. The resulting direct connection with audiences, forming relationships that predate social media, explain why columns are still so popular today. A similar level of interaction is missing in other sections of media.

Outside of one sided letters to the editor, advice columns allow for an “unedited” window into the thoughts and feelings of readers. “They are the lightning conductors of social unease,” Bob Franklin writes in his 2008 book, Pulling Newspapers Apart: Analysing Print Journalism. He goes on to argue that other sections of the newspaper trivialize personal problems. That’s why advice columns continue to be valued because they listen and respect the problems readers share.

“If you want to know what’s really going on in America, seriously, read advice columns,” says E. Jean Carroll of Elle’s column, Ask E. Jean, in an interview with CJR. “That’s where people’s anxieties, frustrations, addictions, their day-to-day problems are.”

Advice columnists who spoke to CJR found their role among media to be twofold: first to entertain, and second to actually help people. Cary Tennis, who wrote the column Since You Asked for Salon until 2013, then moved it to his own website, tells CJR what first attracts readers are problems that people write in with. “People’s lives are fascinating; people’s problems are fascinating,” he says.

Readers trust columnists and fellow readers with many of their most intimate problems. A few examples include this letter addressed to Dear Prudence from a reader who discovered her boyfriend was secretly taping her to make sure she was actually home when she said. A reader wrote in to The New York Times’ Social Q’s column to ask whether it’s appropriate to offer to pay for a friend to go to therapy the friend can’t afford. And this heartbreaking letter to Ask Andrew WK asks how to continue living after a fiance’s sudden and unexpected death.

The second role of advice columnists is to offer guidance and help to readers. “People are trying to pretend that they feel assured about things,” says Steve Almond, one half of the Dear Sugar column he runs with Cheryl Strayed through the catchall creative site The Rumpus and the radio version on WBUR-FM in Boston. He adds, “ Nobody ever says, ‘my gosh life is confusing. I don’t know what to do. Gee that sounds awful.’ It’s like you’re sort of forbidden to express doubt and uncertainty in our culture.”

As much as columnists choose to feature letters they feel would benefit a wide range of their audience, they also offer help offline and off-air. Elle’s advice columnist, Carroll, tells CJR she remembers a high school senior who wrote in asking how to make money because she could not afford shoes to match her prom dress. “Well, her question was not going to run in the magazine. We have a long lead time,” says Carroll. “So I just sent her the money.”

Amy Dickinson, the New York based author of the syndicated Ask Amy column, which is featured in more than 150 newspapers including The Denver Post and Chicago Tribune, says she uses her columns as a critical-thinking exercise whenever she is invited to speak with middle schoolers. She brings in questions she’s received from other kids and has students come up with their own responses. “I think that’s a really great exercise because honestly underneath it all, I think that my goal for others is that they should really develop their own strong internal voice that tells them they already know what to do.”

One particular topic appearing more and more are letters on the current political climate and how to deal with president Donald Trump. One letter to the NYMag advice column Ask Polly asks, “How can I keep my relationship healthy in this political climate? We’re going to go to therapy, but how can I help my husband unpack his privilege?”

Cary Tennis, who started writing the column Since You Asked in 2001, says he saw a similar angst in letters when George W. Bush came to power.

The Washington Post advice columnist, Carolyn Hax, tells CJR that figuring out how to deal with Trump is something she has given a lot of thought to lately. While she gets letters from people who are really stressed out, she also gets letters asking for a different conversation because Trump is just everywhere these days.

She decided to feature Trump less, but guide readers with the right tools to handle the situation. “I could provide a place where people could step back and regroup, but also connect. It’s not a perfect solution, but I’m trying it.” Hax adds, “You can talk about healthy communications, healthy perceptions, and healthy actions and that can be useful to people who are heavily involved [in politics].”

Carlett Spike is a freelance writer and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.