Herewith the fifth and final installment of the columns on columns — the subject of our annual journalism review in this space. We have talked about how the personal opinion column can serve as a personal greeter for a newspaper trying to become a companion to its readers, and how the columns play out at the two competing daily newspapers in Trenton.
Now it’s time for a word about the Princeton area weekly papers and their columnists, including this one.
Somewhat surprisingly, most of the weekly newspapers in our area do not have a fulltime writer who is also a marquee level columnist. The Princeton Packet has its sportswriters pounding out columns (all with titles involving puns on the writers’ names), but their news writers all stick to the news, even though it seems that they could benefit from the strength that a good column can bring to the news pages — a what-the-hell is really happening here reality check when the straight reporting of news just does not add up.
The Packet’s longtime columnist is Pam Hersh, a former editor who now works as director of state and community affairs for Princeton University. While she may well have some of that straight talk insight, she is probably not in the position to deliver it to the general public. Usually I don’t quite get her “Loose Ends” columns, but I always check it out. Just this week I was rewarded, when she told the story of Princeton merchant Ray Wadsworth, who — beginning long before Mel Gibson’s movie — has played Jesus in the annual Stations of the Cross procession at St. Paul’s Church.
Over at the Town Topics, there is no column whatsoever — a shame considering the wealth of characters that walk the streets of the town.
At U.S. 1’s young sister publication, the biweekly West Windsor-Plainsboro News, the regular reporting staff is too busy keeping up with the news to contribute a regular personal opinion column. The paper does, however, have a freelancer who is providing the humorous and off-beat relief that readers often want.
Euna Kwon Brossman’s column — Suburban Mom — captures the essence of a typical West Windsor-Plainsboro housewife. You quickly catch on that Kwon Brossman is not typical — she’s a Yale alumna whose professional career has included on-air news reporting stints with major television stations in California and New York. But then you realize, as you read the column, that she may not be that much different from other suburban moms in these two high achieving communities. The atypical is typical, and you wouldn’t figure that out by reading just the news dispatches.
Now for Richard K. Rein in U.S. 1. Like a lot of other regularly scheduled columnists he has his good days and bad. When everyone else was reminiscing on the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, Rein contributed some intriguing perspective on the Texas Book Depository. A book tour visit by television correspondent John Stossel prompted a Rein column that recalled Stossel’s days as a student journalist 35 years ago — a view of a current celebrity that readers seemed to appreciate. Rein’s column on former Princeton Borough police officer Randy Sutton generated calls from two residents who claimed they had been bullied by Sutton when he was a young and zealous officer. Neither wanted their name printed. When lots of people were whispering about the roman a clef written by the daughter of John McPhee and Pryde Brown, Rein shed public light on the subject — a columnist ought to go to the places where hard news reporters get nervous.
On a few occasions Rein has done what the best columnists always do — he did a little reporting to augment his personal opinion. In the case of his column on his angioplasty and stent, the piece turned into a major feature story. (Lots of columnists would never been allowed to turn a 750-word column into a 3,000-word feature, but Rein sleeps with U.S. 1’s editor and publisher — now you know.)
Of course sleeping with the editor and publisher rarely comes cheap. In Rein’s case he works fulltime at two different jobs. And he rarely gets out at all, let alone to those places where news reporters get nervous.
The result is a lot of trips down memory lane, columns of smoke and mirrors, and other pieces begging for that phone call to be placed, or that little bit of research to be completed. In this town how many times can a columnist get away with reminiscences from a Princeton Reunions?
If you will permit me to slide back into the first person here, I once speculated that the architects aligned with Princeton Future, the private planning group trying to shape the downtown’s development, had a grudge against Michael Graves, architect of the proposed Arts Council expansion. Why speculate? I should have at least called either side or both and asked.
Also, while a columnist’s brethren on the news desk are refusing to take no comment for an answer, the columnist has to be ready to accept the fact that there may be no good answer at all. Call it a sense of wonderment. On that basis, this column sometimes also comes up short.