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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

See ya, it's been a blast, Part II

By Charles Memminger

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part column.

Talk about long goodbyes. It takes TWO columns for you to say aloha, sir? That was the tone of one reader somewhat distressed that I would dare wrap up my career as a newspaper columnist in two installments instead of just one. It's not that I have a lot to say. I don't. Which is why in these two going-away columns, I'm really just re-running some of my favorite lines from the past year. Space is tight, so it takes two columns to say goodbye.

When I started writing a column many years ago, a "column" would weigh in at about 850 words. You could cover a lot of ground in 850 words. You could write about grand, imposing subjects, such as the rise and fall of empires, geological epochs, the space-time continuum, famous actors under 5 foot 7 and the development of the internal combustion engine. A column of 850 words was roomy. You could spread your arms out and spin around like Julie Andrews on that Austrian hilltop in "The Sound of Music."

Then, somewhere in the Reagan administration, newspaper column space began to shrink. It might have been just a weird, unexpected side effect of Reagan's shrinking of the federal government, sort of like people who took that insomnia drug Ambien suddenly developing an urge to compete in the World Series of Poker. An 800-word column was still doable, but you had to hit the ground running and avoid complex metaphors and Lithuanian names. Like, you wouldn't want to throw in a Vilnius potato farmer named Naujokaitis Lukoše vicius Užugiris Butkintas unless you really had to.

The "news hole" in newspapers (that's what's left for the newsroom after all the advertisements have been laid out) continued to shrink dramatically in the early 1990s. Soon, 600 words was considered a sufficient column length.

Now, 600 words is getting into Readers Digest territory. Readers Digest once ran a condensed version of "War and Peace" that was 589 words long and began, "This is about Russia and stuff," but it was hard to write a humor column in 600 words, because some funny bits need a certain amount of set up. When my columns went long, the editors found a nifty way to make them fit by seeking out punch lines and excising them like a surgeon snipping off moles.

Like the stock market on a bad day, column space continued to plunge until it reached the current threshold of 470 words. I'm not even kidding. In 470 words I don't even have room to run some of my favorite Charleyworld lines like I intended to do today. So, maybe it's good that this is my last column. I've seen the columnists of the future. They're on Twitter.

It's been fun and I thank the millions or several readers who were entertained by my enlightening and/or incoherent ramblings. To close, I'd like to leave you with these few words of wisdom: Naujokaitis Lukoševicius Užugiris Butkintas.