A reformed student of television, I came to journalism in college, enticed by a summer spent as a sports stringer. Bitten by the bug, I changed my major to print that fall and by the next summer was the newspaper’s full-time sports reporter.
The pay wasn’t great (shocker!), but one of the perks was I was expected to write a weekly column.
That summer, knocking out sports columns, it seemed to me it couldn’t get much better than making a living pontificating at 700 words a pop. Even at 20 years old, I had no shortage of opinions and was happy to inflict them on the local sports world. I enjoyed being a sports reporter, but writing a column was where the fun was at.
I had cut my teeth on the syndicated writing of Mike Royko out of Chicago, who, along with Jimmy Breslin and Hamill, I consider the three greats of the craft (in my lifetime, anyway). The Gotham columnists would come to me later. I was from the Philadelphia area, you see, and we don’t take kindly to those New Yahk-ers. Back in those days, the last golden era of local journalism, we had our own legendary voices, too.
So, my introduction to Breslin and Hamill was through their books. Novels like “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” and nonfiction, such as “Why Sinatra Matters.” Later, when I read their columns, I realized what I had been missing.
When Breslin died three years ago, and again, when Hamill passed away a couple of weeks ago, I found myself reading back through their work. What struck me, as I read their columns, and reflected on Royko, as well, is they never lost sight of reporting a story.
Columnists, particularly in the political vein, tend to resemble lecturers on high. Even most sports columnists spend their time asd armchair coaches and GMs. The magic of these titans, however, was using their wit, prose, characters (and characterizations) to tell a story. Sure, it was laced with opinion, but, in the end, they were bringing issues to the forefront that might not otherwise see the light of day.
Stories about good people. People who were struggling. Political travesties. Thorny issues. Stories that needed to be told, and maybe, that column was the only way to do it. They brought attention to what was happening in the communities they covered, as if you had pulled up a stool next to them in the bar and they were telling you something they had heard about someone else in the neighborhood over a cold beer.
They walked us through moments of great elation and terrible tragedy. When the twin towers fell, Hamill, fresh from finishing a book, took off for Ground Zero. Like all reporters, when people were fleeing disaster, he ran toward it. In the aftermath, he wrote what we would deem a column, but in reality, he reported what he and the people who were there experienced in those moments. Reporting 101.
As someone who has grown into an evangelist for saving local news, their work represents community journalism at its best. They were entertaining. Must reads — “must clicks” in today’s world. When we, as local news sources, look desperately for content that draws readers, we could do far worse than tear a page out of that book.
Hamill’s passing made me reevaluate my own writing. With the caveat that I am never a fan of my own work, it would be generous to say in 30 years of columns I may have achieved that a handful of times. That’s enough to give anyone writer’s block.
Someone I worked with along the way shared advice they once received from a colleague: Write when you have something to say. Not beholden to a schedule any longer, I intend to do that. I can’t vouch for what comes out the other end. I only know, it will have meaning for me.
I can’t write fluff and be happy, and I am old enough to know I don’t have all the answers. I have no delusions of grandeur, but I hope to create work that has consequence.
That seems like something to strive for.