What is a column, and can the digital era’s bloggers possibly improve their work by heeding what could be described as classic elements of columns? Do the classic style elements of the journalistic genre of column writing still apply in today’s digisphere, in which every blogger is a potential columnist?
This article sets out to map certain elements of columns as a guide for the blogosphere’s columnists, i.e., bloggers, by attempting to identify the elements that made legendary and virtuoso Afrikaans journalist Rykie van Reenen (1923–2003) stand out as a top columnist – or a person “making columns” (Van Reenen 1954), as she herself referred to column writing – as it attempts to lay down some markers for a current generation of blogger-columnists and what they can learn from the work of a columnist of a bygone era.
The article explores the development of columns and blogs from a media historiographical perspective and offers definitions for both. The historical method is applied, with both primary and secondary sources mined for data. The article’s foundational departure is from within journalistic practice in the field of journalism studies. The latter is regarded as a multidisciplinary approach to the study of journalism in which academic and professional points of departure fuse practice and theory within the spectrum of specialist areas of journalism and different media contexts.
First, the development of columns as an expansion of the essay and a characteristic of 19th-century mass media is discussed. Regarding a definition for a column, it may be summarised as that it has a specific voice (or personality); that it is composed meticulously with a focused subject; that it is published periodically; that the mother publication provides an editorial filter; that it is composed by a specific writer for a specific purpose; and that it is part of a bigger publication that most probably must be acquired by being bought by subscription or through another monetary means (Scherlen 2008:81). As a genre, columns belong to opinion pieces, as opposed to news (or hard news) and in-depth articles (or feature and perspective articles).
This article proceeds to discuss some characteristics of blogs, also described as citizen journalism (Watson and Hill 2006:28). The word blog was derived from weblog(ging), a practice that developed together with the internet and thus presented a new format in the world of personal commentary. We-blog, originally web-log – a journal or “logbook” on the internet or the web – developed into weblogging, weblogger, blog and blogger (Scherlen 2008:83–4). One definition reads that it is a web page on which one keeps an (illustrated) diary that is open to other internet users (HAT 2015). It is also described as real-time reporting, although the filtering element characteristic of mainstream media is not present (Wendland 2003). Blogs are inherently subjective and contra the concept of objectivity (Allan in Hermida 2009:269). Blogs have undergone a shift, from previously being outside of mainstream media, to now progressively being practised by journalists and forming part of the online content of media institutions (Hermida 2009:268). Blogs are regarded as a more democratic mode of publication (Domingo and Heinonen 2008:3), although they have also been described as “categorically not journalism” because they contain information that was neither edited nor verified (Hermida 2009:269). They are self-published, in other words, not under a media brand, and bloggers usually do not receive any compensation (Lowrey 2006:477). While blogs can be described as “participatory, transparent and outspoken”, traditional journalism strives to be “accurate, fair and objective” (Lowrey 2006:479).
The discussion of the similarities and differences between columns and blogs is followed by a short biographical sketch of Van Reenen to provide some context for the persona Rykie van Reenen and to explain her position as a renowned columnist in the South African journalistic landscape (Rabe 2002, 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2009, 2011). Pre-eminent South African historian Hermann Giliomee described her as the most influential Afrikaans journalist of the previous century (2003:564); he later qualified this as “probably” the greatest (2004:470). Van Reenen achieved legendary status (Meiring 2003a:8; 2003b:2), her name also leading to a well-known saying in Afrikaans newsrooms as a description of the quality and flair found in her work, namely a play on her name Rykie as degrees of comparison: ryk, ryker, Rykie (rich, richer, Rykie).
Van Reenen was a versatile journalist and accomplished in several beats (Rabe 2011). However, it was as a columnist that she became a household name. For the Afrikaans Western Cape daily Die Burger she wrote the column “Van Alle Kante” (forth with V.A.K., meaning “From All Corners”) from 1960 until she left for Johannesburg in 1965 to become part of the founding editorial team of her company’s first Sunday paper, Die Beeld. There she wrote “Op die Randakker” (“On the Rand’s Acre”, a wordplay on the Witwatersrand), first in Die Beeld and later in Rapport, for almost fourteen years. In these columns Van Reenen built and maintained a personal relationship with her readers through her sociable style, focused observation and pinpoint expressions.
Following the contextual information regarding Van Reenen and her two columns, some style elements of column writing are discussed. Columns can focus on a variety of subjects, from typical lifestyle subjects such as food and gardening, to more “classic” columns such as ones containing advice, humour and political comments (Harriss, Leiter and Johnson 1992:482–3). A columnist should be anything “from teacher or entertainer to the passive onlooker who records the pleasantries of every-day life” (Silvester 1997:xiv) – in fact, “[g]reat columnists make the difference great sauces make” (Shrimsley 2003:23). One ingredient in a good column is irony, with fluent linguistic skills, grace, style and correct grammar a given: a good columnist does not need “syntax therapy” (Shrimsley 2003:29). Summarised, the elements of a winning column are to have a strong voice, to inform and enlighten, to have a specific focus and a clear point of departure, clarity of thought, a solid story, to be fair even when it is critical, to contain emotion, to introduce new voices, and lastly, to “zig” when others “zag” – in other words, to be something extraordinary (Martinez Strandring 2013:98). Other classic characteristics are that it must have a fixed position in a publication (print or online), a fixed length, the same author and same column title (although individual pieces would have a different heading every time). The author must have a distinctive style, a wide interest, be a keen reader, must write with authority on many subjects, vary congeniality with a certain benign malice, and still present the column with wit to make it extremely digestible and legible.
The randomly selected columns for this article showcase the spectrum Van Reenen could write about: from actuality, including serious politics (e.g., the Verwoerd assassination and Biko’s death in police custody), to the homely congeniality of a warm bowl of “melkkos” (a traditional dish made from milk, vermicelli and cinnamon) on a first winter’s evening (Van Reenen 1980). She did so with a unique application of language, of which one could say that she made Afrikaans tango, twist and tiekiedraai (a traditional dance). Depending on the subject, her columns could be as elegant as a tango, as gyrating as a twist, or as jocular as a tiekiedraai.
Following the discussion of a limited selection of columns to illustrate certain of the highlighted elements, the similarities and differences between columns and blogs are discussed. One study found clear similarities: both columns and blogs have a personal voice or specific point of departure; they usually contain an opinion and/or analysis; can have a substantive readership; and can display either good or bad characteristics of journalism (Scherlen 2008:85–6). Yet blogs also differ in “interesting ways” from traditional columns. They are usually written in an informal way, while columns are usually more polished. Columns have, among other things, editorial filters, while bloggers write autonomously without any editorial oversight. Lastly, blogs usually have open access, while columns are part of a monetised package.
Finally, the article presents some markers crystallising from the work of Van Reenen that bloggers may want to follow. They are: an own voice (without a focus on “me”); an excellent command of language to enable one to write in an unorthodox way in different registers and styles; an unorthodox approach regarding subjects; clarity of thought presented in a digestible way; the author to be widely knowledgeable so as to write expertly on a wide variety of subjects; to take up activist views; sometimes even to be prophetic to show up political idiocies; to take a critical stance without alienating the reader; to be a master of the understatement; and lastly, to set an extremely high standard for your own work. Van Reenen’s whiplash style made her an alchemist of the Afrikaans word and, in doing so, she equalised the genre of column writing in Afrikaans with the best in the world’s far bigger languages, with her corpus of work setting a standard equal to that of the world’s great columnists. Indeed, just as she managed to make Afrikaans tango, twist and tiekiedraai, she might even inspire a new generation of blogger-columnists to make Afrikaans rock and rieldans, kwaito and kwela, two-step, and, yes … also twerk.
Keywords: Afrikaans; blogs; bloggers; columns; genre; journalism practice; journalism studies; Randakker; Rykie van Reenen; style; Van Alle Kante; writing of columns