OpenColumnist - Asking for Input From Readers

by: David Sirota

Tue Oct 09, 2007 at 11:44

I write the regular Strategery section here at OpenLeft, but I wanted to break off from that for a moment and ask for some help. As many of you know, I have just started writing a nationally syndicated weekly newspaper column through Creators Syndicate. From the beginning, I set out to make this column different from the typical inside-the-Beltway, divorced-from-everyday-reality bromides that fill our media - and that means more than just being one of the only columnists anchored in and reporting from a non-DC/New York location. It means rejecting the old model whereby a columnist simply issues their edicts to the masses from Mt. Olympus. It means engaging readers in a far more serious way than the rest of the insulated Punditburo. And I feel a special responsibility to this considering I (think) I am one of the first - if not the first - syndicated newspaper columnists to come out of the Netroots.

To kick this off, I want to ask readers for some input on my first few columns. As I said, this is just the initial step - I have some more ideas on how to really try to pursue the spirit of transparency inherent in Open Source culture. I was really inspired by the OpenLeft effort to open up the legislative process a few months ago as it related to Sen. Durbin's telecom bill. I want to try to be the first OpenColumnist, if you will - and this is just the beginning.

David Sirota :: OpenColumnist - Asking for Input From Readers
So, to review, here are my first four columns, from most recent to oldest. I am including a synopsis and a few thoughts on why I chose to write them:

  • Immoral, Not Inept: The Bush administration is regularly chastised for being unwilling and/or unable to engage in hardball diplomacy. But in a Central American vote happening this weekend under a virtual American media blackout, this same administration is using fear and intimidation to go to bat for its biggest corporate donors. I thought this was an important column to write because the vote was happening just a few days later.
  • Tyranny of the Tiny Minority: New polls show the public is outraged that Congress has been unable to pass anything. But a look at the mathematics inherent in our constitutional framework shows that a tiny minority has, through the U.S. Senate, the ability to hold the rest of the country hostage. That means state legislatures are where real progress will - and is - being made.
  • Over the Dead Bodies...Again: The term "NAFTA" has become a 4-letter epithet to most working-class Americans. So why are Democrats bowing down to corporate lobbyists and pushing to expand NAFTA just a few months after campaigning on an explicit promise to reform the old NAFTA?
  • The Lesson of the DMV: A look at how a routine trip to the Division of Motor Vehicles tells the story about budget and tax debates better than any data or economist ever could.

I tried to cover the intersection of foreign policy and economic policy, a  take on Washington that very few have explored, and more than a little state/local politics. I deliberately avoided covering any of the presidential machinations because I believe they are grossly over-covered by columnists, primarily because it is the lazy choice (it is far easier to simply write about what some presidential candidate said in a given week than actually doing some real reporting).

At the bottom is a poll asking you which column you think was the best. It is a very blunt instrument, so for those who have a bit more time, please use the comments section to expand further. Which of the columns did you like and why? Which did you hate and why? Do you think my rationale about where to focus and where not to focus is sound? What issues do you think I should delve into? What issues should I avoid because they are too overexposed? And obviously, if you have specific column ideas, send them along.

Clearly, four columns cannot comprise the overall scope that I hope to cover on an ongoing basis. For instance, I plan to write on land politics and some civil liberties issues, and I also hope to focus more intently on Iraq (though again, that issue is so covered by pundits, that I only want to weigh in when I have something to say that few others are saying). But this gives you a flavor, and anyone who follows my writing knows that my passion is economic and class issues, which I think these columns represent.

So thanks in advance for your feedback. The more I hear from readers, the better a writer I can be, and more importantly, the more I can use this platform to represent the unrepresented. Our movement is regularly ignored and vilified by the media - and we rightly complain about mistreatment from the David Broders and Joe Kleins. I want this platform to be a chance for us all to fight back - and I need your input to do that.

As always - if you'd like to see my column regularly in your local paper, use this directory to find the contact info for your local editorial page editors. Get get in touch with them and point them to my Creators Syndicate site.

Which column do you think was the best?
Immoral, Not Inept
Tyranny of the Tiny Minority
Over the Dead Bodies...Again
The Lesson of the DMV


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Please cover costs of doing nothing about Global Climate Change (0.00 / 0)
This is one of the more under-reported angles of the Global Climate Change debate out there today.  I hear alot of talk about a green economy and green jobs.  I hear about conservatives complaining that we shouldn't do anything about climate change because that would hurt the economy.

But what about the damage occuring to the economy from climate change?  I think I caught one article about ski resorts in Europe closing because of annual lack of snow.  But if you look closely, Florida spends millions and millions of dollars replenishing the sands of many of it's beaches, and the cost is growing at a rapid clip.  The cost of drought, wildfires, many of these are measurable and increasing costs.  It seems like another 'personal responsibility' approach to passing the costs of climate change right to individuals.  The businesses causing the problem know climate change is happening but they don't want to get stuck with most of the cost of the damage they have done.  But it seems that their willful deflections and denials are only increasing the costs that will be spread across the entire economy inevitably.

DMV (0.00 / 0)
I liked the specificity of that piece quite a bit. It really brings government spending home in a key way: explaining how it works in our everyday life. Great piece.

Immoral, not inept (0.00 / 0)
My choice is partly conditioned from being a foreign policy nerd, but I liked the focus on an area that gets even more tragically forgotten than most trade policy and the exposure of a whole catalogue venality. Although if you word counts allow, a little more grandstanding from your soapbox would be a nice addition too.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

Advertising Tax (0.00 / 0)
I'd love to see you write a column about instituting a tax on all advertising. Advertising has two components: providing information and propaganda. The former is often useful, the latter is usually just a means to convince/emotionally move people to do things that they probably shouldn't do (buy a useless or expensive product they don't need, vote for a bozo, etc.).

Given the nature of these two types of advertising, there is probably no legal or effective way to separate them. And given the First Amendment and the important need to protect political speech, placing restrictions on advertising is usually not possible or desirable. But taxing it might weed out some of it. And it would provide a good funding source to pay for a truly public broadcasting system.

Getting an advertising tax passed is extremely difficult, of course. Virtually every business and politician buys a lot of advertising and would not like that cost to go up. And, of course, getting the word out through the commercial media is really difficult. Still, I think it is a worthy topic.

Also: more columns challenging lobbyists, corruption, and the mainstream media. Thanks.

Define Progressive (4.00 / 1)
Perhaps this is only a pet issue of mine, but after 20+ years of being (and voting as) a Democrat, I have finally chucked it and I now tell people I'm a progressive.  And I've adopted the label all the way, i.e. non-aligned with any current political party.  For me the axis is defined by the ends, progressive and status quo.  I think many people of all kinds of political stripe are willing to sign onto a movement that directly counters the status quo.  But perhaps there is a better definition for progressive than what we aren't.

Bottom line, I think progressives need to get out in front on the framing issue before a negative frame develops that is accepted by the mainstream media.

Good luck, David.

My two cents on what 'Progressive is... (0.00 / 0)
or rather what Progressives want:

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

Simple and covers everything....well, not yet as I'm still working on the follow up posts but it will. I would have had 'Prosperity' done if not for Stoller tipping me to The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker...

Gotta finish that thing first.

Thanks Matt!

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

[ Parent ]
DMV was good because (4.00 / 1)
it spoke to an issue that most people don't think of in political terms, and drew political lessons out of it.

Also, I imagine that the more you write stuff like that, the more editors will publish your column. They don't want more DC pundits yelling at one another -- and so if you can mix Dave Barry observational storytelling with progressive values, you'll become a top-level columnist.

Keep up the good work.

Real Philanthropists (0.00 / 0)
That is part of a quote from a clip about a new movie coming out called "American Ruling Class"  Clip is here:

While the song is fun the the "meat" in this for me was when the "waitress" character chastises the Yale graduate in response to  his comment about all the philathropy practised by the capitalist class.  It went something like this:  "Don't tell me about philanthropists, the real philanthropists in our society are the people who work for less than they can actually live on, because they are giving of their time and their energy and their talent all the time so that people like you [the rich] can be dressed well and fed cheaply and so on. They're giving to you."

It might be a great jumping off point for a few columns on the haves and have nots.

Good luck:)

More on trade policy (0.00 / 0)
I especially appreciated your columns on trade policy and think this is an area that needs ongoing digging and clarification (as you've already done) to reveal the dominant trade policy's fundamental corruption of the global political, economic and social systems. 

To counter the pro-corporate trade policies it seems that we need a steady stream of facts, narrative and human-focused storytelling that reveals its true dynamics and damage (in our country and others), underneath all the complexity, free-market posturing,  politician evasiveness, and corruption.

Thanks for inviting our input.  Your work is much appreciated.

My personal preferences are not the nation's preferences (0.00 / 0)
My personal favorite was Tyranny of the Tiny Minority. It was a good explanation of Congressional math. It helped me understand why the legislative process is so out of touch. It was easy to understand, it had surprising numbers that I will remember. Best of all it pointed to some promising strategies for improvement.

But my preferences aren't going to make you popular and effective. Every columnist with a big audience is a storyteller at the core. Paul Rosenberg explained this. That's why I voted for The Lesson of the DMV. It has the storyteller's personal touch and immediacy, at least in the first paragraphs. It uses a personal story to explain bigger issues. That's how every major columnist gets big success. They make it personal, they can get their audience to identify with the issues in a personal way.

Most of your columns read like college lectures. I like that, and most OpenLeft readers like that, but 99% of Americans can't relate. They feel talked down to and the issues are remote from them. They have no personal investment and no emotional hook. It's too abstract and they tune out.

One more thing: Please don't end columns with rhetorical questions or rhetorical statements. It feels weak and pessimistic. Try a ringing moral declaration instead. See where that gets Keith Olbermann?

Another thing (0.00 / 0)
Another thing. If you think I'm asking you to dumb down your columns, you're right in a way. Your columns have so much research and information and ideas, they could easily be split into 2, 3, 4, even 5 separate columns. The storytelling aspect could occupy more column inches. Adopting a more storytelling style might make your writing job easier, if you can generate many more columns with the same amount of research.

[ Parent ]
post to wiki and let others collaborate (0.00 / 0)
One idea would be to post your columns in a wiki, in addition to your normal locations.  This would allow anyone that has useful additions to the article, such as additional hyperlinks, editing, etc., to modify the article.  You could then either take or leave the final product, but what I think you'll find is that the article would have a lot more citations and an article that is clearer and more succinct.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the culture of Wikipedia, but usually editors have a handful of pages that they watch.  If you can attract a 3-6 "regulars", they'll take take of reverting vandalism or not-so-useful edits (like tirades and rants), and allow everyone else to focus on actually making useful edits to the article.

This is just a thought, and I'm not sure if it would work but it sure would make you an "open columist".

end the occupation of Iraq

thinking some more... (0.00 / 0)
If you occasionally posted your column to a wiki 2-4 hours before it went out for syndication, and told a few folks (say, the OpenLeft community) that it was up, you could collect valuable feedback _before_ it went out to the rest of the world.  Again, I have no idea if this would result in useful results, but it might be worth a try.

end the occupation of Iraq

[ Parent ]
Bankruptcy Bill (0.00 / 0)
The Bankruptcy Bill seems to have totally disappeared from the scene.  I would ask readers to go look carefully at their credit card statements - they may be shocked to find that the interest charged may be up to the high 20s or even 30s. 

I am shocked that during this election cycle I have not seen Biden asked why he not only supported the bill, but help kill amendments that would have helped people who need to declare bankruptcy because of medical bills or that would have put some limit on credit card interest rates.

People often comment that politics have no influence on their daily lives - this is one issue that really is affecting people - and they probably don't even know it.  It also is a good argument on why we need to elect more true progressives to counter the large number of corporate friendly Dems currently in office. (If telecommunication companies get the immunity they want from a Democratic Congress it would be yet another example of this frustrating situation.}

Nothing is more "out of the beltway" than these kind of economic policies. 

I'd like one on the 'Third P' of Politics.... (4.00 / 1)
We've all thrashed the first two around a lot; that is, Personality, what most folks vote for and Presentation, the spin, CW, propaganda whatever you want to call it.


There needs to be some thought about Policy. That is, how can candidates tells stories that get policy ideas, and how these policies would change their lives for the better, across to the voters.

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.

David ... (0.00 / 0)
...I've got some advice that is not related to the content of your columns but rather getting your column into more papers.

I was the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate (International), where I worked for 12 years before the Chicago Tribune bought the Times-Mirror operation and, over three years, shut down LATSI. About three-quarters of my work was supervising a staff of editors and working directly with writers, cartoonists and other feature providers, about a quarter had to do with sales.

Syndication is a tough business. If you haven't already learned this, your syndicate partner at Creators (and this is true at ANY syndicate) will only push your column for a few months at most. Then they'll be on to the next flavor and you'll be back-listed with a couple of dozen papers (if you're lucky, and no growth for the remainder of your contract - seven years, right?)

Only a very few columnists ever make the big time. By that, I don't mean "get rich," but reach a wide audience. Those who do don't depend on their syndicate sales "team."

LATSI's most obvious example of this was Cal Thomas. He became the number-one columnist (as determined by number of newspapers, not their size) by hectoring editors in every town where he arrived for a speaking gig. It took him a lot of years to reach approximately 500 newspapers, somewhat more than George Will, the number-two syndicated columnist. When he spoke at various venues, he encouraged his audience to write the editorial/op-editorial editor and ask that s/he buy the column. Over time, this worked.

He also, of course, pushed the syndicate, and hard. Most columnists just accept all the we're-doing-the-best-we-can BS. And, believe me, it IS BS.

One other aspect of Cal's campaign, perhaps the most important, was his constantly telling editors that there were no conservatives on their pages and that they needed one for balance. Although other people made that claim, too, it was Cal who really took it home. And it worked, even though it was a lie. There were plenty of conservatives, just no hard right- wingers, like him, although he looks fairly tame these days.

You might think about this in terms of how there are scarcely any progressive syndicated columnists in the papers today - for real. A few mild liberals, to be sure, but nobody as far left as you. So take a page from Cal. Making this work means doing your homework for each paper you approach.

Good luck.

Ideas (0.00 / 0)
1) Take a look at the biggest missed story of the Iraq war: The massive refugee crisis (see my comment here as well as the most recent issue of Middle East Report) and what policies are being proposed to deal with it. Refugee flows are creating a humanitarian crisis spread over the region with the potential to destabilize several countries. What would be a progressive and responsible policy response?
2) Cover the Bush Dog campaign. Let voters who are despairing about being represented by capitulating Democrats know that there is a movement afoot to get real progressive representation in Congress. Push the label "Bush Dog" further into the broader culture.

I liked the DVM story (0.00 / 0)
for the same reasons cited by others - story telling.  Such may be difficult to apply to the other stories, however, as you may not be in contact with someone directly affected by the topics covered (or are you?).

However, I think one aspect would strengthen the article.  Where did all the money ("saved" from paying taxes and the DMV workers) go?  That is - more clearly depict the actual choice that was made by those who chose to reduce state taxes in CO.  What promises were made by the tax-cutters?  Have these been realized?  If not - where did all the money end up?

Such a conclusion will leave the reader with a clear distinction - I could have had a more functional DMV, but instead we got ----------. 

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


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