Behind the Scenes: Judy Putnam

News columnist for the Lansing State Journal Judy Putnam, 60, is the news columnist for the Lansing State Journal. She is a Michigan native who spent a dozen years working for newspapers in Mississippi and Texas, including a stint as a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before returning to her home state. There she covered the capitol as a reporter for a chain of Newhouse papers now known as MLive.

You follow a long list of opinion setters at the Lansing State Journal – Jim Howe and John Schneider. Is there a sense of that legacy for you?

They are very big shoes to fill. I’ve talked with Jim a few times and he’s just a great storyteller. And Schneider just could cut right to the chase and to the quick very fast. Those guys were just tremendous. I’m not even trying to do what they did because I’m not that person. I’ve got to be my own person.

I’m still here a year later. I hear from someone every day who appreciates my column. So that sort of keeps me going.

How many columns do you write a week?

I’m averaging about three. They’re not making me write every day, which I appreciate. I’m not that fast. John Schneider in contrast had a presence every day. So I take a little time with them. If there’s another side I try to hear that before the column. I’m not under pressure every day to get a full column out.

What is your journalistic voice?

I’ve been at this a year and it was very open-ended when I came into it. I thought after a year I would really be able to answer that in a short sentence. I’ll give you a long sentence: I just try to tell interesting stories that appeal to me and that I think will appeal to readers. I try to spot injustices that I can weigh in on. I try to connect readers to resources.

A lot of times people call me who don’t speak English very well. It isn’t their first language or they don’t use a computer. Or they just don’t know where to turn. Sometimes if I can just connect them to somebody, I will. It may not rise to a column. I get a lot of calls from people who don’t know how to Google. So I Google for them.

What are the ingredients of a compelling column? How do you fashion it?

I can use my long experience as a reporter or as an advocate – I worked for the Michigan League for Public Policy in the Kids Count Project – to help somebody who is being battered by the system or doesn’t understand the system. To me, that’s a satisfying role that the newspaper can play to help people in our community.

You work in a profession increasingly shaped by metrics. What does that mean?

It’s been really interesting because I started out with typewriters and glue pots. When you wanted to edit a story you cut it apart and glued it together. I really try to be quiet about that. I don’t want to date myself, but it’s where I started. I had an electric typewriter, a really advanced piece of equipment.

What I see in the metrics does affect me. If there’s a story that gets a lot of hits and people are reading it, I think, yes, that’s what I should be writing about. But then, there are stories where I get very few online hits and columns that don’t resonate with the mobile readers, but I get letters about them. So how do you balance those who read me on their cell phone with the reader who takes time to send me an email or calls or stops me, or comments on a column that resonates with them? I struggle with that.
When you talk about metrics, what do you mean?

It’s not only the number of readers who click on the story, but how long they stay on it. I think we’ve been told that 30 seconds is good reader engagement. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but my columns often get a minute, which is good. You’ve got to balance that with the number of clicks.

So what do you do?

I don’t have an answer to that yet. But I do track responses. Try to be modern about it. If I get feedback from a reader I put it in a spreadsheet. I try to balance the metrics that we are constantly being bombarded with and some old fashioned ways of getting reader interaction. And just remember that some of those people not reading us online are buying the paper. I think their voice is important too. My gut, which I’ve always trusted, sometimes conflicts with metrics.

Aren’t there just some important stories that have to be done and they may not have a tremendous audience?

I steal this from long-time LSJ columnist John Schneider: “You have to give some vegetables to your readers before you offer the dessert.” I’ve got to be mindful that if I want to keep doing this I’ve got to hit some stories, big time.

So who is your audience?

I think my audience changes depending on the subject. I hit different audiences, and I think that’s O.K. I do have some folks who give me regular feedback.

Good feedback?

Yeah, I get good feedback; but not all of it. That’s important. There are a handful of people I hear from again and again and again. I would say they are older, a mix of education levels, people who appreciate having a face at the newspaper that they see.

Is being a columnist what you thought it would be?

I thought I would be getting a lot more consumer complaints. I’m not and maybe it’s because I haven’t done a lot of them. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’ve gotten a lot of, ‘how do I deal with government,’ questions.

I don’t know if it’s a sign of changing times, but I get a lot of calls funneled to my desk from people who are just in sheer misery. They just don’t know what to do or where to turn. It’s people just hitting the bottom.
You note that you’ve been a reporter, but you are a columnist now. What’s the difference?

Well, some things are just hard and fast rules. You have to be honest with people, your readers. I do think I have way more latitude to suggest solutions and to criticize. And to prod and pull and praise and to use that for results. I think that’s what my job is.

Is it more liberating?

It’s more liberating, definitely, but it doesn’t always work. You don’t always get the results for people and I don’t like that. I get a lot of stories that are hard to do and I don’t get a lot of the easy ones.

This conversation with Judy Putnam has been edited for space and clarity.

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Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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