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The essential Seattle newspaper columnist

The prominence of the big city newspaper personality has diminished, but the job remains important. Danny Westneat is the best of the lot in Seattle.

Of all the big changes roiling the newspaper industry, the one that gets little attention is the decline of the city columnist – the old Mike Royko figure who commanded a big audience, shaped discussion of the city ("did you read Royko today?"), and out-hustled the rest of the newsroom.

Today, many of the best writers go off to books or magazines, or write long features for their papers. The best reporters often wind up on investigative teams, appearing every six months with a supersized Pulitzer submission.

For those still doing the job of column-writing, two other changes have diminished their place in the civic landscape. Newspapers run more columns to expand the number of voices; a good idea, but it also dilutes the audience for any one writer. The audience is further diluted by rising competition from bloggers, who are often quick or good, sometimes both. And second, the whole notion of the "city" has been broadened to include the suburbs, whose residents may not care about doings in the central town. So the one safe topic to draw readers is traffic congestion.

In Seattle, the most consistently good metro columnist is Danny Westneat, a reporter who worked his way up from covering the suburbs, did a stint in Washington, D.C., and also covered the environment. Westneat is not a flashy or elegant writer. His prose is direct, simple, spare.

Today's Westneat column is typical of his work. He calls for canceling the project to widen Interstate 405 and use that money to fund replacement of the Evergreen Point Bridge and replacement of ferries that are damaged from salt corrosion.

I have no idea if his budget numbers are correct. It's just a fun read, with nice everyday language, common sense, and a voice that doesn't take itself too seriously. He's also written strong columns on race in Seattle schools, King County Executive Ron Sims, and the changing character of Ballard.

I wouldn't call Westneat the city's best newspaper writer. That would be the Post-Intelligencer's Art Thiel, who is unequaled in his ability to write fast, well, and funny. (Suck-up alert: Art's a personal friend.) Before Westneat, the best metro columnists included Emmett Watson (P-I and Times), Rick Anderson (P-I, Times, and Seattle Weekly), and Erik Lacitis (Times).

Westneat has many of the necessary skills for the metro columnist, which are:

  • Have something to say. This sounds rudimentary, but there are many opinion writers who assemble facts that lack a point. Call that "analysis," and yes, time will tell, government must look seriously at this issue, blah, blah, etc., etc., but don't call it a readable column.
  • Show courage. It's easy to criticize a politician. It takes real guts to call b.s. on conventional wisdom. Westneat does that.
  • Have a brain. The best columnists see things the rest of us miss. Or ask questions that cut to the issue.
  • Get out of the office. It's amazing how few columnists actually leave the newsroom. Westneat recently traveled to Portland to ride that city's rail system.
  • Have a voice that wears well. Scolds get tiresome. (I know, I've failed that standard.)
  • Show range. The worst columnists get stuck on a few subjects. Tom Wolfe once warned columnists never to quote their kids or their spouses. A good columnist can move from cops to sports to the arts, from Roxbury to Northgate, and make them all interesting to a broad audience. From that we get a true sense of place.
  • Do it in 750 words or less. Not all good writers succeed in both the short and long form. One successful example is Terry McDermott, who wrote a fine column for The Seattle Times before moving to Los Angeles.

Westneat has his critics, and that points to another essential. You must write in a style that gets noticed and discussed. Thick, ponderous prose won't do. If you're not being read, you're irrelevant. No matter how busy I get, I read Westneat.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 5:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Glad I'm not the only one who's noticed: Westneat is definitely among the city's best columnists. I only wish he would ditch the Times, which I try to avoid except for him, and move over to the PI already.

I first really took note of him when he took up the topic of race relations in the public schools. It took a lot of guts for a white guy to speak publicly on this topic and face the slurs and charges of racism that would inevitably (and did) follow. Yet he somehow remained focused, diplomatic, disarming, likable, and just plain sensible in his columns and online chats, and he was a persuasive messenger of an important point - that the primary mission of schools is to educate.

I'd add "Keep an open mind" to your recipe for success. So many columnists take the low road and try to attract a readership by picking up a few axes and grinding away at them column after column. Why would I read someone if I already know that they are going to say? I'll take intelligence and pragmatism over dogma any day.

Nina Shapiro from the Weekly is another of my favorite reporters for similar reasons. She is a master (mistress?) at the art of picking interesting topics, doing the research, and writing in a way that lets the stories tell themselves. She should get an award for her recent article on the ham-handed way in which the justice system deals with domestic violence cases.

Your own Mr. Brewster deserves a shoutout here as well.
Sean

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 5:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Meh ....: Westneat's okay, but inconsequential. He doesn't have "it" ... that instant sit-up-and-take-notice quality. Few do, though.

And Thiel? Give me a break. Dude can't get out of the way of his own writing. He'd be funny if he wasn't so stylistically self-conscious.

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 7:18 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Meh ....: Nonsense! Casey Corr is the simply the bestest!
--
XXOO danny
noah

Posted Wed, Nov 28, 8:07 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Meh ....: What you think "it" is, and who you think has "it".

The most effective way to get people to "sit-up-and-take-notice" is to be obnoxious, ridiculous, and controversial. Anne Coulter has based her entire career on that strategy. If that's what you mean by "it", then no, Danny Westneat does not have "it".
Sean

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

I may be wrong but i doubt it: That was the name of one of Royko's column collections. A columnist's got to have attitude and none of those you mentioned have it. You've also got to be a reporter first and opiner second; none of those mentioned are aware of that. And you have to leave the office a lot more than just taking a nice train ride to Portland. Of those earlier writers you mentioned, I thought Anderson met those standards the best (and still does) - and that was back when those guys did at least three cols a week for a lot less money (these guys do two a week, whadda joke). I also like Shapiro a lot though she's never been a columnist. Of those current cols mentioned, there's Art, and the rest of them can't carry his jock.

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

You're being Seattle-centric again: Peter Callaghan of the News Tribune is at a minimum head and shoulders above Westneat, and far more over most other Seattle columnists. Even though he writes about Pierce and Tacoma-centered stuff occasionally as required by where he works, more often than not he weighs in effectively on issues with much wider reach with more acuity, sharpness, wit, historical knowledge and poking-at-sacred-cows perspective than any other columnist in this region. And -- hello! -- it is a region, even though many Seattleites, including Crosscut writers, tend to spend substantial time believing their city is the center of the universe. As for Thiel, though occasionally brilliant, his self-satisfied smugness and metaphors twisted beyond recognition usually reduce his meanderings to self-parody.

arthur

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm almost certainly wrong, but who cares, I've got attitude!: Once upon a time, attitude may have been a way for a columnist to distinguish himself. These days, most journalists (including bloggers) offer nothing but attittude. If you take in a lot of local journalism, all the self-righteous ranting and snarking and demonizing and game-playing becomes annoying after a while, and eventually just plain boring.

Reading Joel Connelly's incessant whining about The Stranger, for example, or Erica Barnett's incessant whining about Joel Connelly, is, to paraphrase Knute Berger, a lot like being waterboarded. Like so many journalists in Seattle, they are both intellectual lightweights hiding behind their attitudes.

This discussion reminds me of the Great Sea-Tac Menorrah Skirmish of 2006, during which Seattle's Jews and Christians suddenly started going for each others throats. Out of all the attitude and rancor bouncing around the media emerged a wonderful piece of journalism about growing up Jewish in Seattle from Eli Sanders, one of the few writers on The Stranger staff who doesn't use attitude as a crutch (and for that reason, I suspect his days there are numbered). Much of this comes down to personal preference, but in my opinion, intelligent and measured writers like that are far more interesting and valuable than the mudslingers.
Sean

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

And furthermore: By attitude - and Sanders, Anderson, and to a certain extent Westneat, have it too - I mean a strong point of view that is backed up with reporting. Don't confuse it with mere opinions, which are like assholes...etc.

Posted Thu, Nov 29, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

KNUTE BERGER MY FAVORITE: Knute gives good column. Westneat does about one good column out of every four....which is not bad. You can tell he's from Seattle which is not good.

kieth

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