Should columnists?

There is an argument that newspaper columnists are a relic of an earlier age that should be dispatched as we move in to a new era of publishing. Once upon a time, it made sense to hire a single person to write every opinion piece (or every Saturday's opinion piece, or every technology opinion piece, etc). It was hard to work closely with editors remotely, particularly for any sort of responsive comment, and so it was best to either have someone on staff who works alongside reporters with a different remit, or to have a grandee with a career illustrious enough that they can be trusted to file at length and on time every week without an editor breathing down their neck.

Nowadays, that's less true: every major newspaper has learned the art of filling comment pages with rapidly commissioned responsive articles, to the point that "hot take" has ceased to be a pejorative, and is now just a description of a comment piece. The logistical benefits of having one person do a different column every week are falling away.

That leaves the other major benefit of a column, which is that readers love columnists and they are the stars of the paper. Reporters, much as I might wish otherwise, are generally perceived as faceless interchangeable writers, whose work is seen as a manifestation of the publication at large. Columnists aren't, and that matters: readers will follow star columnists from paper to paper, subscribe when they go behind paywalls, and scream bloody murder if one of them takes a holiday, let alone quits entirely.

But we have to weigh that against the negative, which is: no human being can have more than about ten opinions without going insane.

The best columnists, as a result, are experts in the art of recycling opinions, cycling through them so artfully that you barely notice that you've read the same basic column multiple times before. The mediocre ones give up after a few months and start writing "as I've said before," every other paragraph.

The bad ones try to generate new strongly held opinions every week forever and go quite mad.

My ten

Blogging – of which I consider this newsletter an offshoot – has a slightly different approach to the problem, which is to own it, use copious self-quoting to acknowledge it, and openly devote yourself to simply finding new examples of your ten opinions (or, if you're really dedicated, your one opinion). For my money, one of the best on the market right now is Matt Levine, who manages to write daily newsletters covering the arcane end of high finance while having maybe eight opinions all told.

In the spirit of self-reflection, I thought it best to lay out my ten opinions here. Consider this both a statement of principles, as well as a call for help – if you see me repeatedly straying from this list, I may have caught columnitis.

  1. Climate change is an existential threat to modern civilisation.

  2. The private family car must be destroyed.

  3. An awful lot of innovation in the tech sector consists of finding ways to not pay the costs of your business.

  4. The most interesting conversations about the nature of art in a digital age are happening around video games.

  5. The most interesting conversations about the future of video games are happening around board games.

  6. Socialism is good and necessary.

  7. We aren't good at working out which effects of technology are good and which are bad once they become normal.

  8. We aren't even close to seeing the full effects of the internet on society.

  9. Cities keep civilisation alive but they grow poorly if left alone.

  10. The USA is a failed state, and the world is better the less attention people who aren't in it pay to it.


I wrote last week about the prevalence of Airbnb in newbuild blocks; this Twitter thread backs this up wonderfully. Clean, easily furnished, cookie-cutter flats are easy to rent, and buy-to-let landlords seem to be increasingly happy to become buy-to-airbnb instead, legality being damned.

One of my secret hopes is that The Virus means all the buy-to-airbnb homes get repossessed by the banks as demand dries up but that seems unlikely and also there are probably disastrous second-order effects I haven't thought about.

Pokemon update

I finished the game, but it turns out there is a whole second game immediately after the first, which is impressive generosity on the part of Game Freak. Unfortunately, the first boss of the second game did kill my beautiful Ninetales, and since there are no more areas to explore, that leaves me on a dwindling pool of Pokemon to play the rest of the game with. I think the Pokemon updates might be coming to an end.

As has this week's email.