The Difference Between a Reporter and a Columnist

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I interviewed a prospective intern the other day and she asked a very interesting question. I was explaining how, because our vast publishing empire does so many things – from print to digital, from text to video, from social media to books – we have the flexibility to design an internship program customized to her specific needs and wants. I asked her, “What should you have on your resume that would most impress your future employer? Chances are, you can get that by interning here.”

She was contemplating a different question, though. Something I had told her about what I do intrigued her, and she wanted to explore that. So, instead of answering my question, she asked me one of her own.

“What’s the difference between a reporter and a columnist?”

I leaned back in my chair. Wow, I thought, what a great question!

I had told her I did both. She wanted to know specifically how the two journalism functions differ.

Let’s start with some simple definitions.  Merriam Webster defines a reporter as “one that reports, such as: (1) a person employed by a newspaper, magazine, or television company to gather and report news; or, (2) a person who broadcasts news.” A reporter is “one that reports.” And I suppose a writer is one that writes. Does that mean a journalist is one that journals?

Maybe this will add some light. Merriam Webster defines a columnist as “one who writes a newspaper or magazine column.” OK, that’s a little old school. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists bills itself as an “organization for writers of serial essay in any media.” The group includes both traditional media (print and digital) columnists as well as bloggers.

I suspect the intern candidate was looking for a more hands-on definition. This is what I told her.

Different media companies have their own definitions and expectations for the various roles they assign the journalists working for them. In general, columnists and reporters serve very different functions, the expected audience reception is different, and the profile (or “brand”) of the writer evolves differently.

Before we dig into the differences, let’s explore some of the similarities. Reporters and columnists are both journalists. That means they’re both subject to the same discipline and ethics required of the profession. For example, neither can play fast and loose with the truth. They both must undergo the same fact-checking discipline. (Although this discipline may vary between different media companies, within any particular media company, reporters and columnists must generally abide by the same set of fact-checking rules.)

Above all, both reporters and journalists are writers. They are both story tellers. How they tell the story may vary, but a prose is still a prose (by any other name). We often think of reporters as dry, connect-the-facts, writers. While there are advantages to this style, it doesn’t preclude the kind of flowery prose we associate with fiction. Indeed, I recently read an article (for a book I’m writing) about the fall foliage in Western New York. Here’s a snippet:

“There are many compensations in Nature; she giveth and she taketh away. This Fall she has given several weeks of exceptionally mild weather, but her mildness in and immediately around Buffalo has taken away much of the lavish Autumn coloring ordinarily seen in trees in mid-October.”

“However, this means that those who want to see the fire-like colors of the maple, the oak and the sumac will simply have to drive a little farther into the country than in previous years. And there are thousands who will want to do so, judging from the cars which thronged the country roads on bright Autumn days last year”

“Journey to the far edges of Erie County where the hills are steep and the hollows deep; to the rugged terrain of Cattaraugus; inland into Chautauqua to the high hills; or the gentler topography of Wyoming County and you will see Nature’s art exhibit.”

“In most of Erie County, however, the leaves of countless trees have failed to change from Summer’s green to the blazing yellow and red of Fall. They have turned to a half-hearted orange and most of them are being blown from their branches before they have had a chance to produce the colors which really thrill.”

“In a few hollows, where the little coolness of the last month has been able to settle, the trees have taken on their accustomed Fall beauty. Throughout Erie County generally, however, it has been too warm for October’s paint brush.”

(Buffalo Evening News, Friday, October 10, 1941, “This Year You’ll Drive Farther To See Trees Afire With Color – Mild Weather Has Dulled Nature’s Artistry in Erie County but Beauty Again Abounds Elsewhere,” by Nat Gorham)

Granted, this piece is from more than three-quarters of a century ago, but it still represents reporting, not column writing. And if you notice the citation, you’ll discover another similarity between reporters and columnists: the presence of a by-line.

That also introduces our first difference. Columnists, by the very nature and purpose of columns, always possess a by-line. Articles can be written by a single reporter (in which case that reporter gets a by-line). Sometimes several reporters contribute to the piece, in which case the by-line will read “staff” of all the reporters’ names. It all depends on the policy of the media company.

Traditionally, editors want reporters to inform the audience. On the other hand, they want columnists to incite the audience. The reporter’s approach resembles the “just the facts, ma’am” style of Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday. The columnist, however, relies on the more provocative style of Batman’s Riddler.

You see this reflected in the writing perspective. Reporters write using the third person point of view, while columnists frequently (but not always) employ the first person. In the best sense, a reporter’s prose flows a raconteur (see the Buffalo News clip above). Good columnists’ writing commands with the power of an orator (see anything by Cicero). Just as the reporter fills you with objective points as a scientist would, the columnist uses strong persuasive language to tilt you towards his intended bias like a lobbyist would.

The best reporters, therefore, have the same traits as someone who has majored in the hard sciences. They’re great at sniffing out facts, developing leads, and dispassionately testing whatever hypothesis that arises from those facts and leads. They don’t care where the results lead to, they only want to be the first to report those results in the most robust fashion; thus, making the readers want to read this reporter’s articles first.

The best columnists, though, are well versed in the language arts. This includes both the philosophical underpinnings of rhetoric and the cultural background of classic literature. Not only do they know how to forge phrases to evoke a response, they blanket their hard logic with the soft fluffiness of the common threads of our culture. At their best, their writing will provoke an equal response from both the “yeahs” and the “nays” in the argument; thus, inspiring the kind of audience reaction that’s sure to bring greater anticipation for the next column.

Here’s the thing that makes this differentiation difficult. Sometimes (and I’m guilty of this), the same person writes about the same subject as both a reporter and a columnist. In my case, my articles are pure reporting. Each week I research and interview experts on various subjects. I then simply “connect the facts.” (OK, sometimes, when the muse strikes, my prose might have more flourish.)

Then, two days later, for a different publication, I write a column about the subject (with a link back to the article). Readers that aren’t paying attention might confuse my reporting article for my column and vice versa. I try my best to keep a fine line between objective reporting and provocative persuasion. Unfortunately, I’m not in the mind of the reader.

Or am I?

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