Gentle reader, advice won't end after Ann Landers

DEAR KIM CAMPBELL: Like millions of other newspaper readers, I've been hooked on Ann Landers' thoughtful, witty advice for many years, I've laughed as she's dealt with questions about neighbors with noisy trampolines and which way the toilet paper should hang. She was equally good when advising people on unfaithful spouses and estranged families. Now that her final column is set to run Saturday, where can I turn for advice? Does her passing last month and request that her column end mean the end of advice columns altogether?


DEAR WONDERING: If only Americans were so problem-free that advice columns could fade away!

But no, with ever more questions for anonymous strangers – such as how to tell a child she is the product of a sperm-bank donor or how to handle people who disguise how they look in online photographs – the ranks of those who have answers for any situation are growing, not diminishing.

To illustrate my point, and put your mind at ease, let me tell you what's happening now that the Ann Landers column will no longer be available.

Newspapers around the country are scrambling to figure out whether they should replace her with another columnist – and as I mentioned, there are plenty to choose from – and if their readers are even still interested in advice columns.

As one editor – a helpful man named Chris Juzwik at the Wisconsin State Journal – told me, "Our philosophy on it was, 'Oh geez, What do we do now?' "

Despite enthusiastic outpourings like yours, questions about the level of interest are understandable. After all, the United States is now a country saturated with advice. Bookstore shelves are full of self-help titles like "Dating for Dummies," and "The Rules" (a new version of that book for online dating arrived in "Dear Kim's" mailbox just this week). The stigma once attached to going into therapy is long-gone, too.

In the past decade, there's also been growth in specialized advice columns, ones that can tell you how to build a deck on your house or how to get Fluffy to stop clawing your couch. And "Dear Kim" would be remiss if she didn't mention the influence of Oprah's good friend, Dr. Phil.

Other columnists I've consulted point out that, with all the advice columnists out there, the "what's next?" after Ann Landers has really been developing for the past 10 years. (Thanks, Carolyn Hax, for your insight.)

As it turns out, many Americans find advice columns indispensable – as much for pleasure reading as for the outlet they provide people who don't know where else to turn.

Dear anonymous...

That point was made to me recently by a psychologist who writes a column for The Boston Globe. "People really are looking for an anonymous resource who will say it like it is, who will give them a somewhat educated, best-shot opinion, which is certainly what Ann Landers did, and did brilliantly," Helene Stein told me.

Whether it's the need for a friendly ear, or simply a desire for voyeurism (we do like to see what others are doing and size ourselves up in comparison, don't we?), readers are letting editors know their preferences.

Readers in places like Madison, Wisc., and Baton Rouge, La., were given a selection of columnists to choose from, and they weighed in by the hundreds. In Madison, more than 1,000 readers wrote in to let editors know that of the columnists they were offered – among them ones who dealt with teen problems and the concerns of Ms. Hax's under-30 crowd – their overwhelming choice was ... (anyone who lives in Madison might want to skip this in case they want to be surprised on Saturday) ... "Annie's Mailbox" and "Dear Prudence."

Those columns are written by former associates of Ann and her daughter (whose column also appears on the online magazine Slate), respectively. (Just a little reminder: Ann was really Eppie Lederer; "Dear Abby" is her sister, Pauline Phillips, whose column is now written by Pauline's daughter, Jeanne Phillips.)

As "Prudence," or Margo Howard, told me on the phone this week, her mother really set the gold standard for advice columns. Ms. Howard tells me that, of the newer advice column writers out there, "Annie's Mailbox" is as close to her mother's columns as any.

One of the reasons Madisonians chose "Annie's Mailbox" and "Dear Prudence," is because they figured that, through their various affiliations with Ann, her "common sense must have rubbed off on them," says Mr. Juzwik.

A market for young readers

As you may have guessed, there is some discussion about whether younger readers are as interested in advice columns.

But Ann Landers was getting thousands of letters a week on e-mail, her syndicator points out. Hax also receives hundreds of e-mails and letters for her column "Tell Me About it" every week – the bulk of which are from people in their 20s. And "The Advice Goddess," Amy Alkon, says her column is being scooped up by papers interested in attracting a younger crowd. She aims to turn "psychology into comedy," and she tells me her column about relationships isn't made in the Ann Landers, Dear Abby model. "I see myself in a totally different genre," she tells me. "I'm simply presented in format like theirs."

In the end, Wondering, it would seem that advice columns are not going anywhere.

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