An award-winning columnist reflects on how her job has changed over the last 14 years, thanks to the Web, and says goodbye to her faithful readers as another paper closes
When I first pitched a column to the editor of a gay newspaper in Chicago, I was expecting to write some short, snappy, girl-around-town pieces for a year or two.
I thought I’d write about what was going on in the bars, in the conference rooms — I’d pass along the gossip everyone wanted to know.
"Nah," my editor said, after listening a moment. "I don’t like that idea. But I like the idea of you writing a column. Just tell your own stories."
"Tell your own stories," he said. And so I did.
For 14 years, I’ve been telling my stories to readers of gay papers from Washington State to Washington, DC. I’ve talked about the struggle to get my dad to accept my lesbian self; falling in love and breaking up; and, most popularly, I’ve talked about my dog Max, still barking at 16.
Those stories somehow persuaded readers to tell theirs and share them with me — originally through the actual mail (I still have all of those and tried to answer most of them), then email, and now as comments on posted columns, or as commentary on blogs of their own.
One reader, from Oklahoma, asked if he should come out to his parents, even though they were socially conservative. I still wonder how he’s doing, though he wrote me about seven years ago. Another engaged me in a debate about whether there’s a place for gays and lesbians in Evangelical churches. He just wrote again recently.
When I still lived in Chicago, I met readers for drinks and for breakfast, sometimes in their homes. Occasionally, someone on the street would call out to me while I was walking my dog. In my pajamas.
In those days, the days before the web, writing a column for newspapers felt intimate. People picked up their free paper on the corner and shared it with a cup of coffee. I felt like I was writing for a community — and I could be pretty sure that someone responding to a column had likely read others and knew me pretty well. It was like we were continuing a conversation.
The Web changed life for columnists. It became more important that columns were topical riffs on the news (the web is fueled by hits and hits are fueled by keywords which are easy to search for). When I started running a website myself (I’m the editor of the news site 365gay.com, I started writing columns I wanted to run, things that clarified or put a new spin on the news story of the week.
There were fewer of my own stories. And that made me start to feel like what I was doing, anyone could do. And maybe I should step aside and make room for the new young woman or young man who could.
When the Chicago Free Press closed at the beginning of this month — a paper that was my editorial home longer than the city was my actual home — the conversation came to an end.
But oh, I’m going to miss you. I’m going to miss your stories. I’m going to miss sharing mine, as if we were friends talking quietly over an afternoon cup of tea. Thanks for being there. And if you ever see me in New York — walking Max, I’m sure in my pajamas — I hope you’ll say hello. •
Jennifer Vanasco (was) an award-winning columnist. E-mail her at Jennifer.email@example.com; follow her at Twitter.com/ JenniferVanasco. She writes occasional pieces for the Huffington Post and is working on a book.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 14, 2010.
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