"After 13 years, Hammer shares his secrets
Thirteen years ago this week, Harrison Ullmann, the crusading journalist and then-editor of NUVO, decided to take a calculated risk on me and assigned me to write a weekly column in this space.
His column, “The State of Indiana,” was a 1,500-word weekly manifesto in which he blasted do-nothing politicians, mocked the self-righteous and occasionally reported on his regular conversations with God, who appeared to Ullmann in the form of an attractive female in a black cocktail dress.
He envisioned this column as a change of pace from the very serious issues he addressed. Thirteen years later, Mr. Ullmann has passed on and the city has changed in many ways but, most improbably, this column is still a regular feature of NUVO.
Other than Dan Carpenter and, perhaps, Amos Brown, this makes me the senior columnist in the city and so I thought I’d pass along some of the lessons I’ve learned since my first column in 1993.
• Don’t be boring. They didn’t teach me that at the Indiana University School of Journalism, but it was the first lesson Mr. Ullmann taught me. Ullmann could take a chart of property tax revenues and turn it into an entertaining, insightful, even hilarious column. No matter how important your point, if nobody reads your shit, then you’ve wasted your time.
• Be careful of criticizing local media. While I’ve never shied away from taking potshots at other local writers, it’s a dangerous business. Why? The same reason that you never see stories criticizing other newspapers for making typos. It’s a glass house situation. If I make fun of a typo in The Star, there’s some kind of karmic law that says my piece will itself contain a typo. This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again.
• Hunter S. Thompson is dead and so is gonzo journalism. Thompson was the king of sex-and-drugs commentary. When he killed himself, one would have thought that style had died with him. Unfortunately, too many aspiring columnists I read seem to think readers are interested in their drug use and their sex lives.
A recent survey of columnists, taken by the University of San Francisco, revealed that when asked what writing a column is like, 17 percent of columnists said “having sex.” This proves only that 17 percent of columnists aren’t having enough sex.
And, if you’ve ever met a professional columnist, it’s not too hard to guess why.
• Republicans are hell on the country but good for columnists. In reviewing 13 years of columns, I found that the ones written during President Clinton’s administration were far less entertaining than the ones from the Bush years. That’s why I don’t believe in the so-called “liberal media” meme. Most columnists vastly prefer conservatives to be in charge of government, because the resulting budget deficits, needless wars and forced Puritanism make for more interesting copy.
• Run out of ideas? Ask a clerk. I’ve been to journalism seminars where the lecturers played Bob Dylan songs as examples of good storytelling. I think my company paid $300 for me to hear that. However, the best ideas I’ve had for columns have come from my friends who work at the Osco near my house, the clerks at the Kroger where I shop and from random homeless people who recognize my picture from the paper. Speaking of which …
• Don’t ever change the picture accompanying your column. The picture of me here was taken in 2000, long before time and stress ravaged my boyishly handsome good looks. Every few months, I get pressured to get a more recent picture taken but I’ve resisted. My mentor here was the late Tom Keating, who wrote a column for years in The Star. He kept the same picture in his column for 15 years. He told me that fewer people recognized him, and thus bothered him in public, if he never updated his picture.
• Don’t fark with Farkers. A few weeks ago, a columnist in West Virginia wrote a piece based on a comments thread on Fark.com, the popular weird-news Web site where irreverence and sarcasm are king. Within hours of his story being posted to Fark, his picture had been Photoshopped into dozens of hilarious but embarrassing poses and his column had been vivisected 20 different ways. For the record, I love Fark, but I’m not going to take on Farkers, or denizens of any Web site except my own.
• Remember that being a columnist does not make you a celebrity. Sure, you might get invitations to exclusive events, and leggy supermodels may beg you for a moment of their time, but it doesn’t have anything to do with you, the columnist. It has to do with the readers you represent. The minute NUVO stops running this column is the minute that all the perks go away. Some columnists never figure this out.
In closing, I’d like to thank the people who have helped me over the years, starting with Mr. Ullmann and Kevin McKinney, NUVO’s founder and editor, who’s believed in me since day one. Thanks also to NUVO staffers past and present, including but not limited to Jim Poyser, David Hoppe, Lisa Gauthier and Jim Walker. On a personal level, Matt Chandler, Erin Brown and Katie Nickas have always been there for me.
It’s been a fun 13 years and I’m hoping for another 13 of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comforted.
Thanks for reading.