In Lieu of Leftovers, Please Accept Silence

August 28, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- This is the season when important newspaper columnists get to recycle their work. You've seen the little editorial announcements by the editors. Larry Loggorrhea is on vacation, they say. In his absence the Daily Bleat will republish some of his favorite columns.

This sort of thing goes on every summer on television, of course. Re-runs of old shows make inexpensive programming, and viewers are used to them. Many viewers, in fact, would rather watch a re-run of something they liked than risk wasting their time on something new.

In the newspaper business, re-runs are still uncommon. It would certainly be cheaper to fill the paper every day with old accounts of Anne Arundel County zoning hearings, but they probably wouldn't have enormous reader appeal. The work of important columnists is an occasional exception, however.

There's no denying the fact that there's a certain amount of tension between important columnists, who get to send in old columns again and again, and unimportant columnists, who don't. When unimportant columnists read our betters' recycled wisdom, it makes us envious. We wonder how it would feel to get paid twice or more for one day's work.

What a pleasure it would be, with a deadline inconveniently looming,to be able to reach into the file for a column from years past and just send it off! Politicians may be able to do this with their speeches, and comics with their jokes, but hardly anyone else can. At contract time, Mike Devereaux certainly won't be able to submit his stats from 1992.

Most newspaper writers, like ballplayers, are judged each working day on what they produce. Yesterday's articles, like yesterday's base hits, may have been magnificent achievements, but once they're finished they're history. They're part of the record, but they can't be re-used.

The work of a few heavyweight scribblers is exempt from this rule. It gets brought out again and again, year after year, while the person who produced it goes to the beach. This may suggest that the recycled column is a work of art, something with enduring appeal, but it's odd that once the columnist retires or moves to another newspaper, the recycling stops immediately.

One summer, when my interest in writing was flagging even as my interest in continuing to receive regular checks remained strong, I went so far as to dig through 20 years of printed rubble in search of something, anything, worth republication.

Even if I couldn't find a column that qualified for recycling, I thought I might find an idea that did. A friend of mine who writes a successful newspaper column in another city recommends this. He says he figures he can safely recycle an idea, spruced up with some new language, after about five years -- and in the process get full credit for the production of a brand-new column.

Five years is a long time in the journalism business. It's time enough for a lot of readers to have died or moved away. And if the newspaper's circulation staff has been doing its job, they will have been replaced by new readers to whom a five-year-old idea will seem as fresh as this morning's coffee.

As for those readers who have been around for five years or more, it appears that few are cursed with the kind of memory that can store ideas found in newspaper columns for that long. They read, they smile or wince, and then it just vaporizes. Their brains are the cerebral equivalent of the self-cleaning oven.

Some readers are just plain casual. They read their favorite columnists with the same affectionate inattention that they extend to their spouses over the breakfast table. If they happened to notice an idea being recycled, they wouldn't think twice about it. That's nice, dear. More toast?

Anyway, it's true enough that once you have the idea for a column, you're halfway there. The idea in a column is like the wound-up rubber band in a toy airplane; it's what makes it go. But building a new column around a second-hand idea is still work. So I searched instead for a complete ready-to-print package.

If Ann Landers can take her old columns out of the files and shove them back into the newspaper, I wondered, why couldn't I? But what I found when I looked into the files was a chilling reminder that journalism, unlike literature and perhaps unlike advice to the lovelorn, doesn't have much of a shelf life. Few of the pieces I tracked down are still fit to be seen in public.

And it occurred to me then that if a newspaper writer really appreciates his readers, without whom he'd only be talking to himself, he shouldn't serve them leftovers just because he wants to take a couple of days off. It's far better just to shut up for a while and hope they're still around when he returns. That's what I'm going to do, anyway. I'll be back Sept. 1, if the editors agree and the creek don't rise.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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