It is a great American art form, read by millions every day.
Taped on refrigerators and tacked up over desks, its wisdom is folded in wallets and e-mailed among friends. The best of it rises to the level of literature: balancing the urgency of news with the precision of poetry.
Deadline Artists is a celebration of the American newspaper column — a reminder that compelling stories told by engaging personalities can resonate beyond their era. Newspaper columnists are their readers' advisers, advocates, and confidants, helping them make sense of current events while subtly defining the spirit of the age. They hold a special place in people's hearts. When the iconic Chicago columnist Mike Royko died, his memorial service was held at Wrigley Field. San Francisco Chronicle mainstay Herb Caen — credited with coining the terms "Beatnik" and "Hippie" — was memorialized in one of the largest public gatherings in the city's history.
That's because columnists speak in a voice readers understand — their own, but just a bit better. It is the voice of the bar room, the locker room and the smoke-filled back room. It is a voice that comforts and confronts. A great column is both a witness and a work of art — helping people understand the world around them while making them feel a little less alone.
The emergence of the popular newspaper column we now take for granted has been centuries in the making. Historians of journalism date the first American multi-page newspaper to Boston's Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick in 1690. It lasted one issue before being shut down by the government. Next came the Boston News-Letter, in 1704. It lasted for two decades, during which period other newspapers began to pop up among the coastal colonies.
The influential publishers and pamphleteers of the Revolutionary era, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, offered insights and incitements that became enduring American wisdom. The Federalist Papers — penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay — first appeared in the pages of New York's Daily Advertiser and other newspapers as anonymous columns arguing for the ratification of the Constitution.
For well-known public figures, writing a newspaper column became a prestigious and profitable sideline: Theodore Roosevelt, O. Henry, Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, and Hunter S. Thompson all wrote regular newspaper columns, at least for a time. In general, however, these celebrity voices don't compare to the workaday professionals whose columns still set the standard for excellence: H. L. Mencken, Damon Runyon, Dorothy Thompson, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, and Mike Royko. In our time, voices like Peggy Noonan, Tom Friedman, Carl Hiaasen, Mike Barnicle, and Steve Lopez carry on this tradition.
We are living in a time of transition in the news media, when obituaries for newspapers are being written every day. In our Internet age, there is a danger that the classic reported column is becoming a lost art. Search engine research is no substitute for getting out from behind the desk and knocking on doors. Before the rise of television, reporters and columnists had to make a scene come alive in the mind of a reader. The result was vivid descriptive writing, aided by more actual reporting — making much of the current opinion crop seem like mere typing in comparison.
This is not to say that the future is bleak for opinion journalism — it's potentially brighter than ever, with a broader array of perspectives and wider access to publication, both digital and print. The classic craftsmanship of these columns can inspire some healthy competition between the generations and serve as a source of durable inspiration for today's columnists and bloggers — opinion writers, all — looking to learn from the best of their predecessors.
The improvisational nature of the newspaper column is what sets it apart, the near-miracle that stories composed on punishing daily deadlines can resonate with beauty and power decades later. Jimmy Breslin's "Are You John Lennon?" was completed less than three hours after the murder it described was committed, while Pete Hamill's first-person account of the attacks of 9/11 from lower Manhattan was filed the same day. These Deadline Artists beat the odds and created something transcendent in a disposable medium.
Excerpt from Deadline Artists, The Overlook Press. Copyright 2011 by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis.