All stars: A newspaper lover’s guide to columnists

October, 2017 Posted in Columnists & Opinion

carl-sampsonGod, I love newspapers. Not the faint whispers of journalism you see stumbling along these days, but real, robust newspapers packed full of insightful and important things that I need to know. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The best, I think, is The Wall Street Journal. It gives me a broad view of what’s going on not only in the U.S. but around the world. Its reporting is, by my lights, fair and comprehensive. You will not find “fake” news – whatever that is – in it.

But the best part of a real newspaper is the editorial page, which should be chock full of interesting stuff – letters, columns and editorials spanning the political spectrum. Having written editorials and columns for more than 40 years, I find the editorial page to be the heart of a newspaper and its community.

First, a primer on editorials and columns. An editorial is not one person’s opinion. It is the product of the newspaper’s editorial board sitting down and discussing a topic. It does not carry a byline. Sometimes, agreement among the board’s members comes quickly; other times it does not come at all. Sometimes, a conversation with a newsmaker can clarify an issue. Whatever makes it into print has been discussed, argued and vetted so that it represents more than just another opinion; it represents a policy option that readers can rely on.

A column, on the other hand, offers the opinion of only the author. What you’re reading now is a column. It is my favorite part of any newspaper. A good newspaper will offer a variety of columns and columnists that represent a variety of viewpoints.

Over the years, I have developed an “all-star” team of columnists. Some are still around, and some are long gone. Every time I have read one of them I have felt informed, entertained and challenged. I have a better understanding of a topic or an issue. Columnists can be funny, serious or analytical but they must be insightful. Here are my all-stars.

Peggy Noonan writes for The Wall Street Journal. Before writing columns, she wrote speeches for President Ronald Reagan, so she brings an insider’s perspective to her work. She also does actual research, something rare among the talking heads on the tube and radio. If you read her columns about President Donald Trump you will understand what’s going on – and not going on – in the White House today. No other columnist offers that.

Mike Royko isn’t around anymore, but his columns are. He wrote in Chicago and it showed. He could take a subject in that city and make you want to laugh, or cry. Sometimes both. 

Ellen Goodman’s columns range from personal to political. I would describe her viewpoints as something between “right on” and maddening. But she has always made me think. I need that. We all do.

Bob Greene is also from Chicago – that city seems to produce more great newspaper writers than anywhere. Every time I read his columns I learn something.  As importantly, I feel something.

If Noonan, Royko, Goodman and Greene are the main course, I would categorize Dave Barry as the dessert of columnists. Not many people can make me laugh out loud. My kids can. So can my wife. But Barry is one of a kind. He once described Dockers as “pants for the bigger-butted man.” As a Dockers wearer, I knew exactly what he was talking about. He knows what makes people tick, and it shows.

All of these folks have published books that are collections of their columns. I suggest a trip to your local library to check them out. You won’t be disappointed.

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