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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the March 10, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Columnist Dave Rossi

ENDWELL, NY — Morgan Hughes, 92, died peacefully Sunday, February 22, at Hilltop Retirement Center.

Now there was an obituary, printed March 2 in the Times of Trenton, that was sure to catch my eye. As I have written before in this space, the Times (and other newspapers) now charge the families and friends of the deceased to publish the details of their lives. It ends up being good for the readers. Editors accustomed to ferreting out hard news would never appreciate some of the telling details of a person’s life that the family deems important.

So I scanned the Hughes obituary, looking for the connections to Endwell in upstate New York, where I spent my formative years. Hughes had spent his childhood in Johnson City (one of the neighboring Triple Cities), served in World War II as an Army “cryptoanalytic and code compiler,” and pursued a career as a high school language instructor in Yonkers. He retired to upstate New York at the age of 62 and his survivors include a son, David Hughes, and David’s wife, Susan Finch, of Pennington — explaining how the obituary ended up in the Trenton paper.

Toward the end of the death notice I found the paragraph that touched me most directly:

“He was an avid writer of letters to the editor and wrote at least 17 attacks against the evils of cigaret advertising, the necessity of church-state independence, political cronyism, wasted time in doctor’s offices . . . , Sandra O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, inconsiderate dog owners, the pro-life misnomer . . . , and defense of his favorite journalist and editorial writer, David Rossie.”

David Rossie! Nearly 39 years ago, when I began my journalistic career as a summer sports reporter for the Binghamton Evening Press, one of the aces of the staff was Dave Rossie. While I went on my merry way, Rossie remained in the Triple Cities, eventually becoming the paper’s editorial page editor and one of its leading columnists. Naturally, whenever I drag myself back to upstate New York, I always look for Rossie’s column. What’s he up to this time, I wonder.

That’s the power of the newspaper columnist. He or she becomes the old friend you always want to check in with whenever you have a chance. He or she is the person who is on your side, as the late Morgan Hughes must have felt about Dave Rossie. He or she is an important element of any newspaper.

I read the Hughes obituary at the same time I was pondering my annual review of the central New Jersey media scene. Some of you may recall my inaugural effort in this regard just a year ago. I wrote a series of columns on how a reader should judge a newspaper, and how the various area newspapers — including U.S. 1 — stood up to those standards. I thought it might be fun. Journalists, after all, spend a good portion of their day being critical of everyone from the guy who sells them their morning coffee to the president of the United States. Maybe, I thought, they would get a kick out of someone looking critically (not necessarily negatively) at them.

Was I ever mistaken. How could I take advantage of my position to criticize other journalists, one media mogul wanted to know. Another took issue with a shortcoming I had noted in his otherwise commendable publication: His not-for-publication letter included a reference to my failed marriage and a “bitter and expensive divorce.” My my, I thought, how long will we have to wait before we have a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Even my own staff walked around as if I were the Judas of journalism. I had written that most of the papers in town had nicknames, and that sometimes the nickname told you something about the paper. U.S. 1 had been known in its early days as “U.S. Fun” and I thought that maybe the older U.S. 1 had lost of some of the irreverent fun that earned that nickname. No, I had to explain, that did not mean that all that hard work put into covering those very serious issues was for nought. It simply meant that maybe we could complement that work with some other, more light-hearted pieces that would make readers appreciate the entire publication more.

Whether or not any of the journalists understood what I was trying to do, I managed to stay in business for one more year, earning me the right to try this journalism review process one more time one. So now the subject is newspaper columns and the men and women who write them. We will start with a simple little discussion of how a columnist differs from a news reporter and what elements might make a reader particularly like or dislike a column.

Then we will discuss the columnists, paper by paper, and yes we will name names. Finally we will take a long, hard look at the column you are reading now. Since we know already that some journalists are notoriously thin-skinned, and since I have always been my own worst critic, this figures to be quite a blood bath.

I can tell you one thing: I have read a lot of columns, and I have read a lot of obituaries. And I have never seen any columnist other than Dave Rossie get praised in an obit. Time to go.

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