Sunday, June 17, 2007

About columns and columnists

I have a few passing acquaintances who are active, daily newspaper columnists. Once, one of them made the mistake of asking me what I thought of his column...and I answered.

Columnists have the rare privilege of being able to put their thoughts out to the world. Most people, including columnists, do not want to be controversial every week, or take on issues every single week (myself included). It's work.

So, instead of doing anything meaningful, I said to this columnist that I thought he was playing it safe too much, talking about his wife and small kids instead of anything of any real value, as it relates to taxation and the communities his newspaper services. I thought he had defaulted to the "talking about life lessons" mode. I don't think that a little of that is bad. In fact, a little of that is good for a lot of reasons. But too much ketchup can spoil the burger... and too many family values columns makes for a writer who is more amusing than saying anything about the base's core issues.

I said everyone needs a break now and again, but I just thought he'd been on break for a few years and, as a very talented writer, maybe he might want to start writing again. That was about four years ago. I haven't spoken to him since, so I guess he was offended.

I had the great honor and distinct pleasure (no matter how hard he made it with assignments) to getting to write for the late and great Peter Weiss at the Jersey Journal, as a stringer for awhile. The only person I ever really dealt with there was Peter, for about a year or so on and off. That was more than enough. And the only real reason I wanted to strong there was not for the money, but for getting to know the writer I admired most anywhere -- him.

I met him at the VIP Diner in Jersey City a few times to talk newspapers after work. Actually, just sitting around and talking newspapers with Peter was like getting the opportunity to sit around and talk about the New Testament with one of the disciples. It's hard to eat breakfast, drink coffee and read newspapers when you are absolutely in awe of the person in front of you (and trying not to show it at all).

He was a big one on honesty, not in everything in the world (that's being rude), but when it came to writing, "What are you if you're not honest?" he said. It was his opinion that there was too much flattery in news and not enough honesty. Putting him to the test, I asked him what he thought of my writing. He looked at me evenly and said, "You're a good reporter...maybe even a better than good reporter...but not such a good editor. Maybe OK, but that's it."

Well, the upside was that one of the great editors alive at that time, and maybe all time, thought I could write. The downside was that one of the greats also thought I wasn't such a hot editor (he read the Courier). "Good stories. Good ideas. Editors worry about everyone's work and not just their own, though. And you get self-indulgent with your editorials, which are sometimes gibberish and without a point. Now and again, they're good. But you write news well consistently -- and a lot of it."

I asked for honesty...yes...but I thought I needed to be treated by a paramedic after that. My face was blank. He shrugged. He smiled. He raised his cup and said, "Get better."

I thanked him, and proceeded to work my butt off to get better...and still am. Peter died a few years ago, an event that was a loss for this world on a grander scale than just those who knew him. I had it in the back of my mind to improve and then lure him back to the VIP (with the so-so coffee but great omelets) to tell me what he really thought after the work. But later didn't come and the Lord had other ideas for Peter. Maybe I waited too long. I thought I'd improved, but there was something of wanting to get a real good grade from the teacher in me.

But I learned more from that guy in the hours I had with him than I have anyone about anything in my life. He said to take the criticism I thought was valid (being honest with myself) and ignore it when I thought someone had an agenda. He told me that no one will ever believe what you say unless you do. And he told me if you can't be honest and tell someone you do not like when they've put out something good, then you're not really trying to write news. He said it was easy to give a compliment to your friends, hard to give one to someone you don't like. But harder was better.

He said flattering someone who's a friend about their work isn't being a friend. "And what has 'friend' got to do with making a living anyway in this business?" Lots of things could be said about the guy. I'll stick with 'best writer, best editor ever on my all-time list, with No. 2 about three miles behind.'

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