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.