So what are we to make of these pesky newspaper columnists whose names (and often faces) stare out at us from most every newspaper we read — from this one to the New York Times?
Or should we even try to make anything out of them? These columnists, after all, are not bound by the same rules of coverage as their hard-news counterparts. More often than not, it seems, the columnists are just dashing off whatever thoughts creep across their brain as the next deadline approaches. And isn’t it often the columnists who get caught creating fictional characters and inventing stories to help them look good? I’m thinking of Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe as one example of that.
Still, the columnists are drawing cards. Some become the highest paid writers at their newspapers and the object of bidding wars by circulation-minded publishers. Others get deals to appear on television at presumably even more money than they would make at their print publication. And, yes, I’m thinking of Barnicle of Boston as an example of that, as well.
And, as I reported last week in this space, still others get held up as insightful commentators. That was the case for my old friend Dave Rossie of the Binghamton, NY, Evening Press, whose work was cited in a recent obituary published in the Times of Trenton. The deceased, an upstate New York man with relatives in the Trenton area, was remembered for his many letters to the editors in defense of his “favorite columnist,” David Rossie. So on the assumption that the best columnists not only have something to say, but also have some artful way of saying it, I am dedicating my annual media review to our local columnists — and I promise to save my most critical comments for my own column.
So what’s the art of writing a newspaper column? There are certainly no rules, but I think you can tell a good one when you read one. A good columnist for a newspaper is like the distinguished guest who offers the perfect toast at a party or a wedding; the columnist is the raconteur who entertains the patrons at the local bar or diner; the columnist is the traveling salesman, who always has a joke to tell when he visits or calls on the phone.
The columnist is the one writer who can be counted on to change the pace of the editorial content, to give the readers some relief from the unrelenting drone of the who, where, what, why, and when news. When every other reporter is drilling blindly into the news hole, the columnist can step back and make some sense out of the big picture, if there is sense to be made; if not the columnist can expose the nonsense.
For a columnist pacing is everything. In my early days in journalism one of my heroes was another writer for the Binghamton Evening Press, Tom Cawley, who wrote a five-day-a-week column, as well as numerous feature and news stories. I remember talking to Cawley about a column he had written about a guy from New York City, who had somehow become embroiled in the news in Binghamton — I recall that he might have been in charge of tracking down scofflaws and his quest somehow took him upstate and into Cawley’s line of fire. “The key to that column,” Cawley told me, “was holding back the guy’s name until the fifth ‘graph. Lots of writers would have used it right in the lead.” The name: Charles Atlas, and Cawley had a field day at the typewriter.
Good columnists, even when they are breaking the hottest news, do it in such a relaxed way that the reader figures it must be old hat for this eminently wise observer of the passing scene. It helps with that pacing issue, and it also helps when the wise observer has no hot topic of any sort. In that case the reader will at least come along for the ride, since you never really know until the fifth paragraph or so if the columnist really has anything to say. And by then, you might just have the reader hooked for another day.
And that’s another hallmark of a good columnist: He or she will brave the editorial front every Wednesday, or every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, or every single day as the case might be, whether they really have something to say or not. The great extemporaneous public speakers are not reviewing the rules of grammar when they address the crowd; they just connect with the audience. And the best columnists aren’t afraid to just wing it — fueled only by the gift of gab.
And when the columnists do not have something to say, the best ones are not afraid to use their position to ask some questions and figure it out. Did a mid-level New York bureaucrat named Charles Atlas take grief for his name? You and I might wonder; Tom Cawley asked him.
So what should we make of our columnists at the Times of Trenton, the Trentonian, the Packet, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, and other community papers? And how well does this column stack up to some critical review? I am plunking coins into news boxes, gathering stacks of reading material, and will return in two weeks, Wednesday, March 31, to offer my report.