Bad Blow

Why are the DMN city columnists so lame? Belo wants them that way.

"If I look at the News, I know and respect many of the writers there. But they don't get their opinions in print, not the way they really feel about big issues. Oh, occasionally they'll get one in. But rarely, and the readers of Dallas deserve better. To bridle those writers is a shame, frankly."


Will it ever change at the Morning News? One could look to Los Angeles for hope. In an article last month in Los Angeles Magazine, writer R.J. Smith points to the arrival of hard-edged Steve Lopez, a former Philadelphia streetwise columnist, as a great indicator that the Los Angeles Times is ending years of somnolent city coverage by its columnists. They're the sort that, Smith writes, "favor subjects we all can agree on rather than the messy matters we argue about."

This is not true of Lopez. In Philadelphia he took a company car and illegally parked it in the poor minority section of town. It was promptly ticketed. He then parked it in the Italian section of town, where it remained ignored so many days that the deli where Lopez was conducting his stakeout named a sandwich after him. It's folks like Lopez who show that tough-minded, opinionated metro columns can make papers must-reads.

It works in other Texas cities, too. In San Antonio, there is a long history of old-school city writers going back to former Page 1 columnist Paul Thompson. Rick Casey is one of four strong columnists there now. Casey, who has written his column since 1993 for the Express-News, has lived and worked in cities as disparate as St. Louis, Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City. He knows how valuable a city columnist can be.

"I still see myself as a reporter," Casey says. "That doesn't mean I won't do a pure opinion piece, but I like most everything I do to have a fresh reporting aspect. Sometimes it's investigative. Sometimes it's historical.

"You're a storyteller," he says. "You can put an issue in a context people can relate to and understand, show them why they should care about this seemingly boring city issue. You can show them how it is going to affect them or others."

Casey knows you have to take heat sometimes. He recalls a column that began, "San Antonio has the worst public library of any American city." But, as he points out, he backed that up with reporting, and the entire piece was written in the context of demanding a higher standard from his readers, a sense that "we deserve better." He is now writing column after column examining a controversial local development, the PGA Village, which is being championed as a jobs-generator. It would be the equivalent of one of the News columnists writing in-depth pieces about the Trinity River plan, which will happen about the same time Mark Cuban admits a mistake and my sweat glands produce nectar.

For it's doubtful the News will change the role of its city columnists or hire anyone who would fight to alter it. The paper has the Dallas Cowboys mentality: We won championships (i.e., a newspaper war), so don't question the methods. They saw that the Times Herald had Jim Schutze and Molly Ivins and it lost the war, so why upset the readers?

The columnists know this, even if they don't say it, because they write it. In Gromer Jeffers Jr.'s first column announcing he'd be covering local politics, he wrote, in almost apologetic fashion, the following:

Growing up as the son of a meatpacker and a public schoolteacher, I've always had a love for politics. As a preteen, I had a patronage job hawking tickets to political fund-raisers. I lost that job when my alderman...was convicted of public corruption. Soon, I turned my attention to newspapers, marveling at how Mike Royko and other columnists chronicled the follies at City Hall.

I'm no Mike Royko, and this is not Chicago.

And that, dear readers, says it all.

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