The Columnist Revolution

As a card-carrying journalist I read Columbia Journalism Review. The current issue carries a lament about “The Vanishing Columnist” that is poignant and accurate insofar as it goes — yet entirely misses the point. I want to link that essay with a recent speech by citizen media evangelist Dan Gillmor which I read as a suggestion that the mass media columnist hasn’t vanished at all. He or she has merely become, as I like to say, mini.

The CJR piece is a hoot, and well worth reading, written as it was by columnist-turned-journalism professor Steve Twomey. In brief, the piece observes that, when it comes to big city columnists, they just don’t make –em like they used to. The Herb Caens, Mike Ryokos and Jimmy Breslins have not been replaced (although I’d say Molly Ivins strikes me as one saucy wench). But I’ll bow to Twomey’s expertise when he writes, “many current columnists are sleep aids.” After all, he read 307 columns in the course of preparing the CJR piece, which may have been nearly as severe a punishment as that meted out to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

But despite his experience, his wit (Twomey quips that he often “consulted psychiatrists and priests”) and his many insights (“local columnists are story-tellers of the tribe”) he failed to grasp the essential point — the big metro columnist has vanished because there is no voice that can speak to and for the metropolis. Ozzie and Harriet are dead. Father no longer knows best. Prime time is passe. We are the society of 500 channel television. Even the faces in our cities have changed, especially along both coasts where 80 percent of our population lives. America is being transformed by the greatest wave of migration in a century. Meanwhile, the native born are changing attitudinally. We no longer have lives. We now have lifestyles. It’s time to wake up and face the fragmentation.

Here is where citizen media, and the new tools for self expression — from blogs, to podcasts, to home-grown videos — will surely alter the media landscape for the better — supplying the sense of place, passion and the purpose that Twomey correctly finds lacking. This is the message of Dan Gillmor, former tech columnist for the San Jose Mercury, whose book, “We The Media” has made him the apostle of this journalistic perestroika.

I’ve taken the liberty of rearranging some excerpts from a speech Gillmor made at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor so as to solve the case of the vanishing columnist:

“For the past century, we in mass media have been giving lectures when we should have been having conversations … Unlike some people, I don’t want the Big Media to disappear … If we’re both smart and lucky, the media will be(come) an ecosystem that is vastly richer and more diverse than we have today. It will become a multi-directional conversation … (by) … Bringing more voices into the conversation … The long-range financial salvation of what some people sneeringly call the MSM, or mainstream media, may depend — at least in part — on a collaboration with what I like to call the –former audience’ … The democratization of information is radical.”

In short what if the future of media, or at least the columnist quotient therein, is like that scene from the end of the movie Spartacus, where the Romans have finally squelched the gladiator uprising and now demand that the captives point out their ringleader for crucifixion. And they stand one after another and say, I am Royko. No, I am Breslin. No, I am Caen.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media