The Leadership of Columnists
This weekend I've been asked to speak at the annual gathering of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
I'll be speaking about leadership along with some of my heroes and leaders in journalism, including Dave Lieber of the Dallas Morning News and David Cay Johnston of Rochester.
While I was not trained as a journalist, I think about how I’ve been changed by the columnists I’ve loved — from Anna Quindlen in the New York Times and Tom Shales and Tony Kornheiser in The Washington Post to my personal inspiration, Erma Bombeck. These writers have provided vital insight and perspective while making a difference not only with their words on the page but their presence in the world.
"A good, credible writer can write convincingly from both sides of any issue and delights when reading others who can do the same," says Chris Carosa, who leads the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and happens to live in Rochester. He sees great columnists as empowering thought and perspective.
As I think about the takeaways I’ll share about how to take leadership off the page and into the world, I can’t help but think back to a year ago, on June 28, when I heard the news that a gunman had walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and started shooting.
Wendi Winters, whose job was to write about the community she loved, saw what was happening and — instead of running away — picked up a trash can and ran towards the gunman. With an act of heroic courage, she saved many people.
Wendi was the best friend of my dear friend Paul. I’d heard about Wendi for years but had never met her. As the shooting was being reported in real time, Paul posted on Facebook that he hadn’t heard from his friend.
I instantly felt a sense of dread, which was later confirmed when Paul’s anguish splashed across my feed.
As the news unfolded, I learned the names of all the victims. Gerald Fishman, Rob Hiassen, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smit - and Wendi Winters.
Wendi was a single mother of four children. She moved to Annapolis and started writing as a freelance writer, including a column called “Teen of the Week.” She later joined the newsroom full-time. She wrote about the nonprofit community, fashion, home decorating — what we’d call “light” news. But "light" has more than one meaning, and the term fit her, because I’ve been told her whole personality exuded light.
She also gave back to her community. Those kids she wrote about? She stayed in touch with many of them years after they had graduated and moved away. Each year she organized a “PR Bazaar” to help nonprofits in the community connect to the media.
Her children are assuring that her writing legacy continues. They recently organized the PR Bazaar this year and a blood drive in her honor — all things she would have continued doing if she was still here with us. And her colleagues continue to honor her and her fallen colleagues, as the Capital Gazette received a special Pulitzer Prize this year for their reporting of the tragedy.
Columnists may not think of themselves as leaders, and I’m certain that Wendi wouldn’t have used that word about herself. Yet in the end, a columnist's words and presence in the community — whether local, national or global — are about making a difference and inspiring others to do the same.
That's what columnists strive to do. And some people, like Wendi, did it in more ways than one.
As first published in the Democrat + Chronicle and on the USA Today Network