Anyone who knows me knows one of my favorite films is “The Paper,” Ron Howard’s 1990s ode to New York tabloid journalism. Many a time when I have been sidelined out of a newsroom, it keeps me going. He captured the energy of “the good old days.”
One of my favorite parts is a tirade by editor-in-chief Bernie White (Robert Duvall):
“I hate columnists! Why do I have all these columnists? I got political columnists, guest columnists... celebrity columnists - The only thing I don't have is a dead columnist. That's the kind I could really use... We reek of opinions. What every columnist at this paper needs to do is to shut the f*** up.”
Today’s journalism landscape is treacherous. Just today, I read Reporters Without Borders dropped us to “problematic” status in their press freedom index, and just last year, we stood in horror as a gunman struck down our colleagues at the Capital Gazette. Economic difficulties have shut the doors on papers nationwide, hedge funds strangle resources at remaining properties and journalists increasingly come under fire for bias.
Missteps and opinion masquerading as analysis have muddied the lines between news and op-ed. Add in failures in information architecture to clearly delineate between commentary and news, and a public increasingly lacking background in how to read a newspaper, it wouldn’t be out of line to think folks have had enough opinion.
On the other hand, opinion is more popular than ever, and in my mind, there’s a very good reason for it: It’s personal. Not only that, it’s necessary.
As a kid, my local paper carried Mike Royko’s syndicated column. I fell in love. Reading Royko, even though I lived nowhere near Chicago, was a joy. He had wit, but he also had the ability to break down news, politics and culture in a way that made it personal to me. He made me care. I was too young at the time, but now, I think of Royko as the guy sitting next to me at the bar.
Naturally, I gravitated to Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and so many others around the country. (And I highly recommend HBO’s “Deadline Artists” documentary about Breslin and Hamill. If you haven’t watched, you are missing out). These were the folks who had their fingers on the pulse of their communities. These were the writers I strove to be in league with.
I wrote my first column in the early 1990s as a sportswriter at a small daily in southeastern Pennsylvania. It came to me naturally. To steal a little from David Brinkley, I felt everyone was entitled to my opinion. Though I am no longer affiliated with a newspaper, I continue to write editorials and columns to this day, when and wherever I can (BTW, interested? Let’s talk!). I’ve never won an award for my writing, but I’ve learned something through the years that is far more valuable, both through my own work and that of my colleagues.
The people who approach us through the years— in person, with letters, web comments, phone calls — that’s the reward. That conversation. We reached. We’ve made the reader think. Not just about the things they didn’t know, but the things they already thought they knew and believed.
As this dangerous trend of news deserts has taken root, I have increasingly become an advocate for community journalism, both in my work and my writing. We’ve all read the terrifying numbers of journalists out of work, newspapers disappearing, lack of civic engagement and rising costs of government where there are no watchdogs. That’s why I continue to write. That’s why we all must continue to write.
The columnist is the model community journalist. What made Royko, Breslin and Hamill great, even in large cities, is that they were the community. What makes the columnists in my life effective is they are the community.
I’ve been blessed to know so many columnists in 30 years —personally and electronically. They write sports, politics, culture, personal memories, local government, good news, family news and humor. There’s even a grammar guy (boy, I hope he doesn’t read this!). They make us laugh, cry or angry. They commiserate with us, they let us know we aren’t alone. They support us. A reporter, for all the good work they do, is a faceless byline on high, but a columnist is personal. They listen. They are approachable. They invest. They take a stand.
There is a reason today is Columnists’ Day. It is the day Ernie Pyle, the great WWII columnist, was killed by a sniper in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It is tragic he died so near the end of the war, as if covering the war was the reason he was here. Many reported the war, but Pyle wrote about the people. He made the war tangible for the people back home. He put faces on it.
That’s why we need opinion writers. That’s why we need columnists. That’s why I write.