Opinion writers know somewhere deep down in their hearts that they are lucky. Everyone holds opinions of varying strength on many topics, but how fortunate are the ones who get to express them regularly on a platform that readers will read? And how incredible is it to get paid to do so? We columnists are lucky souls.
Anyone who writes a column for a small publication dreams of becoming syndicated. It’s a good deal: You write one column, and many outlets print it. Your writing gains a wider readership, and your pay goes up accordingly.
Syndication is a goal never achieved by most of us columnists, but we write anyway. We console ourselves with the thought that although the wider exposure of syndication would bring more recognition and praise, it would also lead to more criticism and unpleasant feedback. Kind mail and hate mail come to the inbox of even the least famous columnist.
Younger writers look up to more established writers, and lesser-known writers find inspiration in writers of renown. I’m sad to report that one of my writing heroes has decided to retire from his regular column: We are saying farewell to the wit and wisdom of Leonard Pitts, a stellar opinion writer.
I wish I wrote half as well as Mr. Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. His clarity, his vision, his urgency, his courage, his humor, his economy of language, his generosity of spirit, and his occasional ferocity are qualities to which I only aspire.
If you are unfamiliar with Leonard Pitts, I suggest you look him up. He has been writing an award-winning opinion column for the Miami Herald since 1994. According to his final column, published in December, over the years he has written about 1.6 million words in increments of 600-word columns. A husband and father of five, he writes that, at age 65, he is without a deadline for the first time in 46 years.
As featured in the opinion section of this newspaper, Pitts’ essays have tackled matters great and small. They have prompted agreement and condemnation, which is exactly what opinion pieces are meant to elicit. They have dissected current trends and problems in politics, race and culture, challenged our preconceptions, and presented old history in a new light, also things opinion pieces are meant to do.
Mr. Pitts has always charged fearlessly into the issues of our day, never forgetting that solid opinion essays, although by nature biased, must be based on facts that have been researched and verified. The ethics of journalism apply to any information or statistics or sources cited in support of a stated view. Opinion writers are not supposed to make up stuff or lie.
Opinion pieces are also called op-ed columns, as they once appeared on the page opposite the newspaper’s internal editorial material. They were first separated from the news and given their own page by the publisher Horace Greeley, who established The New York Tribune in 1841. Before that, newspaper commentators like Alexander Hamilton, founder of The New York Post in 1801, did not distinguish between neutral reporting and partisan attacks. Gradually, regularly occurring op-ed columns claimed more dedicated space in our nation’s newspapers. An accompanying photo of the writer often set opinion pieces apart from the news.
Writers have been writing since the invention of writing, as anyone afflicted with the compulsion to write knows. Every writer writes with the intention of ultimately being read and thus speaking to the heart of another person. Opinion writers want not only to reach the heart, but to change the heart. Mr. Pitts’ body of work has done both.
Fortunately for us readers, Leonard Pitts will continue to write while he does some teaching and adds to the number of his already published novels (four so far, along with two volumes of nonfiction). Old writers don’t retire; they die.
I wish Mr. Pitts a happy and healthy next stage of life. May he enjoy less-hurried time with his family and continue to bless us with his gift for storytelling. His published columns will endure as righteous examples to future opinion writers and as treasures of op-ed writing. The grace of his work will remain with me. It has changed my heart.