fightin' words

Editors I've Known

Notes on the column game

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I’ve been in the column game here since DUBYA declared ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Been through countless editors. Seen a lot of 1099s.

It’s been an unexpected run. Fifteen years and most of that weekly. Two political runs and a sports column stint. Sometimes I worked babyface, sometimes I worked heel. And then there’s this, the current stage.

A while back, a friend reminded me that there aren’t nearly as many columnists left. “The last of the Mohicans,” he called me.

I understood what he meant.

Column writing is a dying art. The column was meant to be on the kind of smudgy newsprint that folded over the shell of an overcoat like a fabric all its own.

A column, especially in a tabloid, is like that. Hard to break news in a weekly, but the upside is the ability/platform to address the big picture. In this space, I’ve been able to do that for a decade and a half. And my best work, such as it’s been, has happened because of certain editors.

Anne Schindler taught me the game. It’s always interesting to see her in the field, when she’s on assignment for First Coast News and I’m likewise on my beat. Careers take many turns.

Jeff Billman reminded me of the importance of stirring shit up. The Billman era was brief but memorable here, with his trolling of the late-stage Alvin Brown mayor’s office exemplifying the kind of thing that was part-and-parcel of great alts in the Northeast, but never really seen here with that brio.

When Billman came in, I was very close to just giving up writing for publication. Sports had started to bore me, and I started to aspire to bigger and better cubicles in the marketing world. I found my fastball again. A different editor, it goes a different way.

And Claire Goforth has been the best of all, an editor who knew when to leave well enough alone and when to push to make a good piece better.

You don’t get that kind of editor very often.

These have been tough times for altweeklies across the country. Jacksonville’s is still here, and a big part of that was the legitimizing and stabilizing force and energy Claire brought to the table.

And to think it was done without staff writers—the model of using freelance talent is rife with potential pitfalls, including but not limited to them flaking on deadlines or turning in bad copy.

Time was when Folio Weekly had two staff writers. Like every other publication, we are experiencing the reality that in a world where information is cheaper and easier to access, reporters have to do more with less. Including less institutional memory, both inside and outside organizations, and with that, less of an ability to do the kind of reporting communities used to be able to take for granted.

I’ve used the “Fighting Words” title for the column here in Folio Weekly for most of its political run. The homage paid in that is instructive of the ultimate ephemerality of journalism.

I was dapping Christopher Hitchens, who in the 1990s and 2000s was the ultimate in slashing, take-no-prisoners polemic.

And now it’s 2018. Hitchens has been dead for nearly seven years. And he’s a mere footnote. The kids don’t remember him. Nor do they remember the stellar essays of his stylistic progenitors, George Orwell and H.L. Mencken.

No matter how good essayists may be, the world moves on.

There is little immortality in journalism, even though there is a certain familiarity, year over year, when you work a certain beat.

The concerns I’ve had have largely been the same in this space. Lots of deep dive City Hall analyses. Jeremiads about encroachments of the state—the police state, the carceral state, the normativity and the dumbing-down and the hollowing-out of the middle class.

(While I appreciate redemptive, “good news” stories, my instinctive belief is that they are often used cynically, to distract from larger dystopian trends.)

I’ve written, to some degree or other, mostly useful columns. There are some that don’t hold up. We evolve, we grow—thank God. We become better people as time goes on. And better analysts.

Keeping up a dialogue with readers helps. And a willingness to listen. That one took a while to develop.

If it works out right, if we don’t get purged or piss someone off or become inconvenient from a marketing sense, we get time to develop. But it’s never a sure thing.

And it’s never, ever, a permanent thing. The old heads can tell you how sudden it is when the hook comes for you, and you’re erased from the record.

If they know what they’re doing, you don’t feel a thing.

2 comments on this story | Add your comment
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frankiem

You've sold me. AG fer editor! Thursday, October 4|Report this

Paracelsus

Well written. The column is still uniquely suited to the culture as a juxtaposition between current concerns and big picture, and represents an important intellectual history—one for which we do not have a replacement. A well-writtten, well-conceived, consistent column represents a dialectical body of work that is unique and distinct from today’s ubiquitous, sloppily written blogs and stand-alone pieces. Bravo AG and Folio for keeping this important art form fresh and real. Monday, October 8|Report this