Andrea Levy uses a variety of illustration styles for her weekly visual op-eds. (She also provides illustration services through andrealevy.com)
Growing up in Chicago in the ’60s and ’70s spoiled me in regard to newspaper columnists. Mike Royko, of course, with whom no one else can be mentioned, but also Jack Mabley, Roger Simon, Bob Greene before he became Bob Greene™. Critics who were really writing columns: Roger Ebert the unmatchable, Ron Powers, even Gary Deeb, whom Time called the wolf-man of the air waves. In the ’60s, the Tribune still ran “A Line o’ Type or Two,” a reader-contribution aggregation column with its roots going back to 1901. For a few bright years, we had Chicago Today, an airy tabloid that was a nest of columns and columns-in-all-but-name — Mabley, movie critic Mary Knoblauch, TV critic Johanna Steinmetz, gossipologist Maggie Daly, feature writer Bruce Vilanch (yes, that Bruce Vilanch) with his “Mr. Mommy” series.
Many of those names will mean nothing to you if you weren’t around Chicago then. But some of them had national audiences. In those days, even columnists who were intensely local could have national reputations, like San Francisco’s Herb Caen.
Today, outside of the unique situation of the New York Times and Washington Post, the only paper that comes to mind when I think about nationally known columnists is the Miami Herald’s triumvirate of Leonard Pitts Jr., Carl Hiassen and the deja vu experience that is Dave Barry. My own Plain Dealer had Connie Schultz, but she’s moved on.
What’s weird about this is that, with the internet, it’s easier than ever for columnists to go national. Maybe that’s the problem, though: Local columnists who have a chance at the brass ring can grasp it on their own, like former Newark Star-Ledger TV columnist Alan Sepinwall. And when the Chicago Sun-Times reined in the output of Neil Steinberg, he found an outlet for his pent-up punditry with the sideblog “Every Goddamn Day.” With print circulation shrinking and the likelihood that the Advance Digital model of reduced home delivery will spread, being a print columnist just doesn’t carry the same clout it once did.
But if we look away from print, the basic idea of a column — a reflection of one person’s personality, regularly distributed — that’s growing stronger. In blogs, of course, where someone like The Bloggess, offspring of a secret relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and Erma Bombeck, can build an audience for bawdy, self-confessional writing. That is, writing with the bark on, not columns planed down to toothpicks by editors’ concerns about what’s appropriate for a family audience. What interests me more, though, are ways in which the core of columnizing is being translated into things other than 800-word essays.
Eric Zorn, who writes a traditional column for the Chicago Tribune, has also been producing a blog that has become a modern-day version of the old “Line o’ Type”: Short riffs, aggregation of funny or unusual stuff from others, interaction with readers. Gene Weingarten’s reader chats — now reduced to “Monthly with Moron” from their original weekly cycle — are adamantly labelled not a blog. But I hope Weingarten will not take umbrage if I say that what he’s done is invent a new form of column instead.
Changes at my old paper have led to a couple of things I consider visual columns: Bill Neff’s 60-Second Know-It-All videos (marked down from the original 90 seconds), which offer quick introductions to events in news, sports or entertainment with Bill’s Secretariat-paced narration; and Andrea Levy’s breathtaking combinations of illustration and text that take a full page in the print edition weekly.
Finally, I’ve been rebuilding my list of podcasts lately. It used to be made up mostly of panel discussions or newsmagazine formats like “This American Life.” Now, I’m filling up with ‘casts that are more like just the intros to TAL — Ira Glass’s mini-stories, which seem to me to have a consistent “Ira-ness” not only because they’ve got his voice, but also because of the stories he chooses and the way he tells them. In other words, like columns.
Roman Mars hosts “99% Invisible,” which is “about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode is an individual story told by a different reporter — a visit to an empty ’60s-era grade school that was built completely underground as a fallout shelter; the history of skyjacking and its impact on airplane and airport design. But no matter who’s reporting the story, Mars sets the tone with an introduction, segues and little interjections.
That podcast starts out as a radio show, same as TAL. Anna Sale’s “Death, Sex and Money” is, I gather, a podcast only, though it’s also a public radio product. Sale is reporting stories; the podcasts are largely the voices of her sources. But again, it’s her personality that drives the show, her questions that set the agenda. And sometimes it’s her story too; a great entry to her podcast is her story of how former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson saved her love life.
“Radiolab” is both a radio show and additional standalone podcasts. Hosts/reporters Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich have created a melange of commentary, reporting, sound effects and raw creativity. The short podcasts, in particular, are audio columns.
“Snap Judgment” with Glynn Washington is hovering on the fringe of my list — episodes are stacking up but I always seem to pick something else when I poke in my earphones and start my walks. That may be because when I started listening, I got the impression that Washington was making stuff up — I mean, really, one guy worked as a diplomat, wrote music, taught, wrote plays … Turns out, yeah, he did. “Snap Judgment” the radio show includes other people’s stories, but it’s Washington’s pieces that are modern-day columns. They’re stories no one else could tell — not just because they only happened to him, but because only he could tell them in that particular way. Which is what being a columnist should be about.
The newspaper column had a nice run — more than a century. If I’m right and it is fading way, though, don’t mourn. The column lives on — no longer in the inky format that give it its name, but just as thought-provoking and entertaining as ever.