By now you’re no doubt aware of my belief that local newspapers need a strong local voice, the kind that’s manifested in a talented general columnist or two. The New York Herald-Tribune, for instance, at one point had both Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe in that role. Think, too, of Mike Royko in Chicago or Herb Caen in San Francisco. In Dayton, we had Marj Heyduck holding forth from the Journal Herald’s Modern Living section – but everybody had to read her daily four or five vignettes, especially when they had a humorous edge.
These are the kind of writers who speak personally from the places regular people live, rather than the council meetings and police blotter events that fill the news pages. Unfortunately, they’ve largely vanished in the cost-cutting rounds at newspapers large and small, and communities and subscribers are impoverished as a consequence.
At their best, they get out and report stories that wouldn’t otherwise appear – or at least the aspects they dig up along the way are fresh and insightful. At the Herald-Trib, for example, Breslin would go to the city desk and rifle through assignments for ones he wanted to cover from the street – that’s how he wound up in Selma, Alabama, with dispatches from the front line of the civil rights movement.
Within the newsroom, however, they were generally viewed with disdain or even contempt, even when they scooped the beat reporters, as Caen often did to his colleagues at the Chronicle. Part of the gulf originated, I suspect, in the professional wall between third-person and first-person singular writing, and the fact that reporters are supposed to be neutral observers while a good columnist is permitted to be actively present and even emotionally involved in the story. Ideally, too, reporters are to be invisible agents, unlike the star billing given to a columnist.
All of the snow we’ve been getting has me reflecting on the first newspaper I served after graduating from college – and my frustration with its resident Scribe. There were, for starters, his affectations of a thwarted wannabe novelist – the tweed jackets with elbow patches, the scarf, the half-moon eyeglasses, and, yes, the fragile ego that demanded deference if not worship. There was also an over-the-top serving of purple prose but little substance that cut to the bone. Ultimately, what he served up was inoffensive and bland, but he did have a following.
His one redeeming quality, though, was an eagerness to jump into covering two kinds of stories no one else in the newsroom really wanted to do – weather storms and the deaths of prominent local figures. And there he excelled. Looking back, I can see where a first-person voice can enhance the story – we’re all in this together, after all – even when he was weaving in rewrites of breaking news fed to him by reporters and correspondents, as I vaguely think he was. The deaths, meanwhile, lend themselves to an “we recall when” transition from one detail to the next. Moreover, as a minor celebrity himself, his presence probably got many sources to say more than they might have otherwise. Hmm, my memory is that he leaned toward the editorial “we” rather than the more direct and contemporary “I.”
Outstanding local columnists, I should add, have never been confined to the big metro papers.
A few leaps later in my career, launching Jim Gosney’s daily profiles in Yakima, Washington, demonstrated that. He gave us a parade of characters who made a difference in the community without themselves being considered the kind of movers and shakers who normally got quoted.
And then, in Manchester, New Hampshire, John Clayton began doing something similar.
Both, I should add, were top-notch reporters when it came to questioning a source and digging up facts – and both could turn a phrase in their engaging storytelling and flawless prose. (That combination is rarely a given.) What they offered was the kind of local color and connection too often missing from today’s standard and shallow coverage.
Perhaps you know of others who deserve recognition. Maybe they could even serve as models in a rebirth of the tradition.