When I read Sara Vanden Berge’s July 31 editorial, in which she announced that the Empire-Tribune is bringing back local columnists, it felt like she was responding to the question I’ve muttered to myself almost every morning for the last year or two: Where have all the columnists gone?

For 17 years, I’ve been reading at least two newspapers every morning, always saving the op-ed pages for last. Columnists I’ve followed all these years feel like old friends (Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, George Will, Leonard Pitts) or old sparring partners (E.J. Dionne, Clarence Page, Cal Thomas).

Until recently, a typical op-ed page featured three or four opinion columns. Lately, though, it’s not unusual for an op-ed page to include only one column or even none.

The reason is no mystery. People who crave commentary no longer have to wait for tomorrow’s op-ed page. They can search the web, listen to talk radio, or watch Fox News or MSNBC.

Call me an old fogy if you must, but I think the old-fashioned op-ed column offers readers depth and civility they aren’t likely to get from those other sources.

It starts with the audience. An op-ed columnist’s audience is made up of people who read newspapers. Since people of all political persuasions — left, right, up, down, and center — read newspapers, the columnist knows that most readers who see his mug on the op-ed page do not share his political beliefs.

On the other hand, people who read The Huffington Post or listen to Rush Limbaugh are mostly people who share the commentator’s views and have Googled her or tuned to him specifically for that reason.

So while Rush Limbaugh entertains an audience of believers, George Will faces an audience of skeptics. When one commentator’s audience already agrees with her, and another commentator’s audience is skeptical, the two commentators will behave differently.

Op-ed columnists usually explain their views in depth because they know that most of their readers are skeptical. E.J. Dionne doesn’t just rant about “capitalist pigs.” He explains why he believes central planning is superior to the free market system.

Thomas Sowell doesn’t just write, “Free enterprise is the American way.” He explains why a free market system is more efficient than a centrally planned one.

However, Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews can spend their airtime reciting talking points and slogans. Hope and change. Family values. Soak the rich. I’m for the regular folks. No, I’m for the regular folks. They needn’t go any deeper, because their audiences agree with them and don’t need convincing. I’m not saying Hannity and Matthews couldn’t explain themselves. I’m just saying they feel no obligation to do so, because their respective choirs don’t demand it.

The commentator who faces a skeptical audience has good reason to keep a civil tone. Columnists like Charles Krauthammer and Leonard Pitts have little to gain by being hostile. Centrist and undecided readers would be more disgusted than impressed.

Michael Savage and Keith Olbermann, however, have little to lose by being hostile. Since their audiences agree with them, they can call the opposition “perverts” or “idiots” or worse without fear of losing listeners or viewers. In fact, their ranting and raving are central to their appeal. Their listeners and viewers want someone to echo their opinions and reflect their anger, and Savage and Olbermann oblige them.

So when you change the medium, you change the audience, and when you change the audience, you change the incentives that influence commentators’ presentations.

As more people abandon newspapers and go to the internet, the television, or the radio for opinions, look for political commentators to become more shrill and more shallow.

I’m looking forward to August 29, when the Empire-Tribune’s local columnists will be introduced. Maybe we’ll discover our own Thomas Sowell or Leonard Pitts, or even our own Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck. I’m sure they’ll bring a lot of pleasure to E-T readers.

Tommy Richardson is an Erath County resident and writes a monthly column.