Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Writing Books about Column Writing Is the Life for Riley

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Writing Books about Column Writing Is the Life for Riley

Article excerpt

Virginia Tech professor recently completed the third of a trilogy on newspaper scribes

When Sam Riley talks about column writing in the '90s, he could be referring to either the past or present century.

That's because the Virginia Tech professor just authored a book called "The American Newspaper Columnist," which covers the field from its origins in the mid-1800s to the present day.

Riley believes the golden age of columns lies about halfway between those two eras - in the 1920s and '30s. That's when writers like Walter Lippmann had the kind of impact that most of today's newspaper pundits can only imagine.

This doesn't mean columnists were necessarily better back then. But they had more visibility and power at a time when fewer media competed with newspapers.

There are not only more media options today but fewer daily papers and smaller news holes. But Riley still finds much to be encouraged about.

For one thing, he notes that the number of local and syndicated minority columnists has skyrocketed during the past two decades. In his book, he includes a chart listing 43 minority writers who did columns between 1885 and 1979. Then, in the 1980s alone, 31 started columns. In the 1990s? Over 60 so far.

"Newspapers are giving a voice to people who didn't have a voice for a long time," says Riley, who says editors are doing this both out of a sense of "social rightness" and to attract readers in an increasingly diverse America.

Another trend is the growth of specialty columns covering computers and various other topics. "It's the quickest route to syndication these days," he says.

Riley is also impressed with the number of talented local columnists in the 1990s. He describes dozens of these nonsyndicated writers in his book.

The author made a conscious effort to include as many local and national columnists as possible. Other books have focused on a single famous columnist or a handful of the better known ones - such as Lippmann, Nellie Bly, Heywood Broun, Drew Pearson, Ernie Pyle, Will Rogers, and Dorothy Thompson. Riley includes those people but also many others whose names have virtually disappeared into history.

So who was the first columnist, anyway? Riley says one possibility is New England author/editor/abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who wrote "Letters from New-York" between 1841 and 1843. …

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