Our survey of the journalistic landscape continues, this time dealing with columns and columnists. Last week our stop was the Times o’ Trenton (not to be confused with the Times, the New York Times). There we lingered over a handful of the several dozen writers and reporters who crank out columns on a regular basis for that daily newspaper. Are community-minded columns still important to journalism? Judging by the Times, which is engaged in one of the last cross-town newspaper circulation wars in the nation, the answer apparently is yes.
So what about the competition in Trenton – the tabloid Trentonian? It’s a thin paper these days, and apart from the automotive advertising, you might wonder how it survives. The paper offers the expected number of sports columnists and one lonely general interest news columnist, Jeff Edelstein, whose column appears every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.
As is the case when judging any kind of journalistic effort, you need to read three or four of Edelstein’s columns before jumping to any conclusions. At first blush you will discover that Edelstein suffers from the affliction of many other columnists, particularly young ones (he is only 31): That a column is an excuse to retreat from all the rules of grammar that hang over the head of workaday journalists. Herewith some excerpts from a column that appeared on March 16:
"Unity. Tolerance. Brotherhood of man.
"All wonderful ideas, wouldn’t you agree? . . . Doesn’t happen often.
"By my calculations, it occurs only once a year, and on that blessed day, we’ll manage to put aside our petty differences and realize our common humanity. . . .
"St. Paddy’s Day, ladies and gentlemen. . . Beer brings folks together. Fact of life."
Edelstein’s punchy, get it? An uppercut of a thought here. A jab of common sense there. Then a roundhouse reality check. On the canvas, the reader. Towering overhead, "Rocky" theme music blaring, the columnist.
Getting back to complete sentences, I will offer another piece of constructive criticism for the likes of Edelstein: Take advantage of your position and do a little reporting once in a while. On March 11 Edelstein wrote about the frustration of waiting in the "six items or less" express line at the supermarket and finding that the person ahead of you has several dozen items. To his credit Edelstein acknowledged that this is a cliche column ("the ‘people with more items than allowed’ story is like Chapter 1 in the column-writing book," he wrote). But he figured he was justified because he had his own novel solution – programming the cash register to stop scanning once it gets to the maximum number of items allowed.
That’s a nice try, but an interview with a supermarket manager familiar with the problem and the technology might have been even better.
Now given all of Edelstein’s youthful mistakes as a columnist, what keeps him in business (and what keeps the Trentonian in business, for that matter)? I think back to the cavalcade of columnists in the Trenton Times. In addition to the ones I mentioned last week, there are columns on family concerns, food issues, and – thanks to editorial page editor and minister Willie Smith – thoughtful commentary on issues of importance to the African-American community that might not otherwise be addressed.
As you read through the paper day after day you sense that writing a column at the Trenton Times is a serious mission. In the recent weeks in which I have been trying to keep up with each and every one, I could find only one that had a hint of silliness. It was an April Fool’s Day column by Mea Kaemmerlen that turned out to be a fairly serious look at free-running roosters in Key West, Florida.
With that backdrop, Jeff Edelstein offers Trenton area daily newspaper readers an occasional dose of irreverent fun. When a recent Sopranos episode featured Anthony Jr. considering applying to "Trenton State," Edelstein did a little reporting. "It was disappointing," the PR official for the College of New Jersey told him. But more than getting the name of the institution wrong, the PR person regretted that anyone would believe that a ne’er-do-well like AJ would have a chance of being admitted to TCNJ, where the average SAT score is approaching 1,300.
Edelstein has fun. On March 18 he told the tale of his tongue-in-cheek engagement gift sent to Tori Spelling, the blond bombshell actress-daughter of producer Aaron Spelling, whose gift registry for her engagement was posted online. On a lark Edelstein sent her a $20 spatula and waited to see if he would get a thank you note. He did:
"Dear Jeff. Charlie and I are very grateful for your thoughtful gift of the spatula. Thank you so much for your kindness and support."
Edelstein closed out with a few good rhetorical jabs: "What a gal! Can’t wait for the wedding invitation." Fun stuff. Later.