After nearly 40 years as a news professional and 10 as a journalism professor at the University of Idaho, I found myself isolated and bored. Acts I and II of my career were relatively successful. But I desperately wanted to stay relevant. I needed a third act.
That meant writing again, or more accurately, learning to write again. Not for professional purposes this time — I couldn’t expect to get paid, for one thing, and any audience I might attract would be far smaller than readership at even the smallest of my newspapers. I looked instead to writing as a sort of therapy, an escape from looming, terminal boredom and not a little bit of fear.
That is how I became a columnist. Nearly a year later, I can say the transition has taken time and humility. It’s also been a total blast.
The lessons have been uncomfortable. And the successes, such as they are, hard-won. But they might be worth sharing. So many of us who have built careers in journalism are transitioning to something new, or something old that now seems new. And all of us want to retain — or regain — that sense of purpose.
Not an obvious or easy fit
Shortly after retirement last spring, I asked a former colleague, Tracy Simmons, if I could write occasionally for an award-winning digital news site she established 10 years ago, Spokane Faith and Values. Its core mission is to report news of faith and non-faith communities in the region. The site features a nice mix of news and commentary. Reporters, mostly young, are paid. Those who write commentary are not. After a lifetime of standing firmly in the neutral world of news, I dared ask if I could write commentary.
That wasn’t the only stretch. I am an atheist writing for a site that focuses on religion. In my introductory column, I told readers I would focus on values more than any formal definition of faith:
Writing about personal and professional values is my sweet spot, I think. And that will be the focus of my work for FāVS. I hope to write about the intersection of values and politics, the intersection of values and journalism, even the intersection of values and faith. I may do some reporting. But at this point in my post-retirement life, I feel a compulsion to opine, something I could not do as a professional journalist or public-university academic.
Not quite a year later, that compulsion has produced 46 columns for FāVS and another dozen for other news organizations.
The challenges, and the lessons, have been many:
Developing a column persona and first-person voice: For nearly all my professional life as a journalist and academic, I worked hard to mute my voice and avoid the use of first-person. But a column is an intimate conversation with readers. I deliberately worked on developing the persona of the (arguably) wise elder whose opinions are rooted in decades of experience, tested in one journalistic battle after another. And that meant becoming comfortable with “I.”
In editing myself, my columns still seem more about ego than clarity, an endless string of “I think,” “I believe,” “I feel,” “I did.” But when I realized that readers organically accept the mechanics of first-person, I stopped worrying about “I.”
As for reasonable? In real life, I can be strident, self-righteous and argumentative. In my column, I strive to be convivial, reasonable and, in general, open to alternative points of view. But in a column headlined “Calling it Out,” I made it clear there are some issues where reasoned debate is unreasonable.
Is there a political debate to be held on issues of white supremacy? On anti-Semitism? Is there a political debate to be had with people who would force my daughter to give up her wife? Is there really a political debate to be had about issues of systemic racism? Or about immigration policies that put little brown children in cages? Denial of basic human rights to some people because of particular, personal qualities is wrong. There are no two sides to that debate.
- Lesson: A columnist’s persona is key to relatability and credibility. First-person is crucial to the conversational tone. But an occasional change-up — drawing on the personal to make an unapologetic point — can strengthen the columnist’s voice.
Connecting individual experience with larger issues: A columnist, to be relatable, must write from the ground level. Just weeks into my columnist’s role, it became clear that pieces with the highest readership blended personal experience with civic analysis.
That gave me the confidence to take on explosive issues such as political extremism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. In an Oct. 28 column, I talked about my own experiences growing up in Oregon. It became one of my best-read columns.
History has not been kind to my people.
And for most of the last 2,000 years, the most pervasive anti-Semitism has been perpetrated by Christians, or at least those who would call themselves such.
When I was in the third grade, one of only a few Jews in the entire school, my well-intentioned elementary teacher asked me to explain Hannukah to the class. Her intentions were fine. But the results were traumatic. I had been singled out as different from others in the kid world, a world where differences are cause for derision and bullying. I was teased on the playground, pushed, punched, chased.
A few days later, I sat in the audience as a non-participant while my tormenters played the roles of Mary and Joseph, the wise men, and angels in the class Christmas pageant.
- Lesson: Readers relate to personal experiences which cast light on larger issues. But those personal stories must be authentic and sincere.
Being vulnerable: There are times when, with some reluctance, I have written about important moments in my personal life not really connected to those larger issues — moments about people and incidents that I have mostly kept to myself, sometimes even from my wife.
Those columns have been difficult to write, and I always fear they will appeal to no one outside my family. Turns out those columns have been among the most widely read. Among them: Columns about my atheism and how it informs my moral values, reflections about learning of my family’s connections to the Holocaust, and a tribute to my late father. A recent column about my multiple loves and marriages was my second-most read column for FāVS.
The fact is, I am on my fourth marriage. There is no brag in that statement. Three failed marriages are nothing to brag about. But when friends and family ask about my marriages, I tell them I finally got it right. And that is the truth. On my fourth try, at the age of 60, I found my forever partner. Our marriage is a happy one, stronger now even after a year of COVID-caused isolation.
Given this checkered history, why would anyone listen to me when it comes to matters of love and marriage?
The answer is simple enough. Only a hopeless, clueless, pie-eyed romantic could go through four marriages without learning something of value. That also is the truth. Some people find their answers and make good choices early. Those are the 50-year marriages some of my friends are close to celebrating.
- Lesson: If column writing is about establishing a personal relationship with an audience, there are times when personal reflection is appropriate. Readers want to relate.
Finding and daring a point of view: In all my years in journalism, I had so erased personal opinion from my work life that I had to think hard about what opinions I might actually hold. As a reporter and editor, I had mastered the art of fudge language. In academia, partisanship in the classroom could lead to disciplinary action. Breaking the reluctance to opine was, perhaps, my biggest challenge. Writing and rewriting those first several columns was all about strengthening my voice, being more direct in my expression.
No fan of Donald J. Trump, I still struggled to say what I really thought of his presidency. Yet my most-read, most-shared column to date was a harsh, no-holds-barred attack on my former newspaper and its publisher for an appalling editorial endorsement of Donald Trump. Writing it was a push. But by election day last November, I had finally and fully taken my foot off the brake.
For me and tens of millions of others, the president has been the sower of chaos, a bigot, a bully, and a racist who poses an existential threat to our democracy. I am fully sincere in that belief.
- Lesson: If you are going to say it, say it clearly. Kill the fudge language and tell people what you think. Some readers may not agree with your point of view, but at least they will not be confused.
Lightening the tone: Every writer needs an editor. For my third act, that editor has been my wife, Carla Savalli, herself a skilled newspaper editor before moving into non-profit communications.
Carla does not mince words. A few months into my column-writing effort, she told me bluntly that I had become too negative, too dark, obsessed by politics and the election. “Lighten it up,” she said.
She was right. I was becoming bored with my own voice. My goal now is to lighten up in every third or fourth column. That does not mean avoiding hard issues. But readers seem to appreciate the occasional change of tone. I tried that approach in a column dealing with the so-called war on Christmas.
My nearly life-long war against Christmas is over. My defeat complete.
I have been, variously, a combatant, a casualty, and through my marriages, a prisoner of war. There have been occasional victories, but they were minor and fleeting.
And so, in the seventh decade of my life, I am giving in.
- Lesson: Relentless negativity is a reader turn off. Writing light is not the same as writing funny. Few of us have Dave Barry’s comic magic. But it’s OK to write light, with a smile and a bit of quiet humor.
Accepting that writing, like life, is an ongoing process: Transitioning to regular column writing remains a journey.
I have had to develop the deadline discipline I once imposed on my newspaper staff. I try to have the outline of my Tuesday column finished by the previous Friday, but too often I am without a good topic going into the weekend. Still, an idea always seems to emerge, maybe in the minutes before falling asleep at night, sometimes reading the news, or watching TV. I have had to learn to trust that ideas will come.
I have had to develop thicker skin. As a newspaper editor, I was backed by a large organization that provided something of a buffer between me and our harshest critics. But as a freelance columnist, a stand-alone, it takes self-discipline to let the critics have their say. Some posted comments have been harsh, personal. But I am learning to let them go, to avoid responses that are more defensive than clarifying.
- Lesson: We are never too old or too set in our ways to sharpen old skills or learn new ones. Flexibility and adaptability are key.
After 50 years in news journalism, I am again a work-in-progress. I am not sure I can even call myself a professional in this, my third act. The organizations that accept my work do not have cash for freelance opinion writers. I still have amateur standing.
For me, the value has been in the writing itself, and in the learning. It’s been my therapy in the face of COVID and retirement and maybe even the opportunity to stay relevant as I enter the twilight of a long and happy career.
As third acts go, that is not a bad thing.
Steven A. Smith is a retired newspaper editor and journalism professor who now writes a column for a faith and values website in Spokane, Washington.