If you don’t believe that newspaper columns are still an important part of the journalistic landscape (as I have argued in the space in the issues of March 10 and 17), pick up any issue of the Times of Trenton, and check out all those smiling faces beaming out above 750-word opinion columns from nearly every section of the paper.
Not even counting the syndicated columnists – from Maureen Dowd to Liz Smith to Dear Abby – and not counting the reporters who have columns on specific topics – from commuting to science to business to investing to tennis to fishing to motor racing to physical fitness to state politics – the Times sometimes seems to have more general interest columnists than reporters.
Arnold Ropeik is the grand old man of the Times writing staff and he has managed to crank his column out for years, despite various physical ailments. When I ended up in St. Mary Medical Center for an angioplasty I found an Arnie Ropeik column on the hospital bulletin board. It was about his angioplasty and it did what every good column ought to do: It made me feel like he and I were best of friends for years, even though I have actually met the man no more than twice.
Arnie (I feel like he’s my friend) is joined in the columnist cavalcade by Sharon Schlegel, who mixes liberal political views with poignant family memoirs delivered with an Erma Bombeck-like sense of humor.
Mea Kaemmerlen’s "Serendipity" column delivers on its promise and exposes readers to an unexpected or little known corner of the central New Jersey landscape. Kaemmerlen takes readers to places they otherwise wouldn’t go, certainly not if the hard news reporters were the only writers filling the pages of the Times. In a recent column she referred to a guide book to New Jersey by Barbara Westergaard, whom Kaemmerlen described as "an intrepid and diligent explorer." That’s how I might describe Kaemmerlen as well.
Among the Trenton Times sports columnists the one who comes closest to a general interest columnist (and the one deserving critical review in this space) is Harvey Yavener. For years Yavener played second fiddle to Bus Saidt, one of the premier sports writers of his day. After Saidt died I assumed that Yavener would automatically take over his slot. But Yavener toiled for years as a beat reporter covering events up and down the east coast, while cranking out a column on the side. Recently he was named fulltime sports columnist, and has done a great job performing a difficult task.
A word here about that task: First consider the trials of a sports writer, as opposed to columnist. The writer goes to the game and writes a report that will not be read for at least eight or nine hours. By that time the sports writer’s most critical readers have already seen the exact same event live on television, digested countless instant replays, and heard post-game interviews with players and coaches. The sports writer has to come up with some "second-day angle," as we used to call it back in the Binghamton Evening Press in the mid-1960s, that would satisfy the consummate, know-it-all fan as well as the guy who was in a coma during the celebrated event and woke up simply wanting to know the score and the game highlights.
The sports columnist has to do all that and also complement the report of his own colleague who is covering the game. Yavener has the insight to pull it off. Lots of sports columnists fill in with raw opinion where they lack long-term perspective. When "Yav" wrote a column a few weeks ago about violence in hockey, I took it seriously. Yav