On Saturday, June 29, 2019, Brno Daily published a story titled “Br(u)no: The Onset of Summer”. It was about summer coming and it was an introduction to a year of weekly columns. The headline was meant to be slightly confusing: do anything you can to get people’s attention when you start something new.
For next 52 weeks (50 Saturdays, one on the following Sunday, one on the following Wednesday, plus a couple of Wednesday attempts to be funny during the COVID-19 quarantine period) Bruno in Brno columns appeared in Brno Daily, constantly looking for an angle that would be interesting for the readers of an online English-language newspaper in the second-largest city in the Czech Republic.
Sometimes it failed miserably.
More often, the column got people talking. After all, something has to stick when you throw 50,000-plus words against the wall.
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The Bruno in Brno column was designed to be a snapshot of an expat life in Brno, something that readers would recognize and something to which they could relate.
Here are some things that I have learned about the readership of Brno Daily:
• Never Write About Holidays. I thought that Valentine’s Day would be a good jumping off point to write about the evolution of local restaurant culture. Apparently not. Thanksgiving and Halloween are completely played out. Christmas may have some interest, but not much, unless you complain about hot alcohol.
• No Sports. I had always wanted to give women’s basketball and men’s basketball some extra play, especially at the beginning of their seasons. Big mistake. I don’t even think the team members read the stories. The HC Kometa article, at least, got some interest.
• Use a Broad Brush. To get any number of readers, there always has to a general hook. Spurning a Czech pop star, apparently, does not have enough universal interest. Writing a commencement address clearly didn’t attract the professional class.
• Nevertheless, Even Obscure Topics Interest Someone. It’s weird, though, because no matter the topic, people always seemed to mention it to me, oftentimes months later. It is nice to make an impression.
• Too Much Personal Information — From the beginning it was uncomfortable to use “I” and the first-person narrative tense. It seems self-serving and arrogant. Why would people care? Yet, apparently, they do. Over the winter, I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. I asked him how things were going. He told me, then added “I already know how things are with you: I read about it every week.” I do worry about writing about my kids, and always photograph them carefully.
• Stay Positive. The column was to be a way to appreciate the great city in which we live. Politics and criticism would be fantastic to write about, but they would alienate people. Of course, topics that I thought were conservatively down the middle — like the one about Sept. 11, 2001 — proved to be controversial enough to inspire some uncomfortable comments.
• Tap into a Large Facebook Following. The most popular Br(u)no column was the interview with Napoleon: the American actor/educator Mark Schneider. Attempts to get into pop star fan clubs or sports team online social groups never amounted to much. At least random people still find the stories through key words and browser searches.
• Sometimes Things Can Get Dark. Looking back, there were some times that got quite pessimistic. You can go home but you can never go back again. Whoa! Mr. Good Times. The series of quarantine columns, which turned out to be quite popular, were actually tough to keep upbeat.
• Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist. I rarely struggle for ideas. Sometimes, however, it is tough to match the zeitgeist. And motivation can be lacking at the end of busy weeks.
In any case, I have dozens of solid ideas that will be good enough for another year. I hope you like them.
Here is a list of all of the Bruno in Brno columns for the last year, in chronological order: