Jimmy Breslin was a newspaper columnist. When I read about his death Sunday morning, I felt like I missed all three nouns in that sentence.
I miss Breslin because at his best he was an engaging and insightful writer whose snappish edge functioned as tonal seasoning.
I miss newspapers because, among other things, they gave a home to people in Jimmy Breslin’s racket.
I miss columnists because back in Breslin’s prime, I knew where to find them. In newspapers.
No, newspapers aren’t gone. They’re diminished. Back in sunnier days, you read a good newspaper and you were reasonably well-informed on what was happening in the world, from international affairs to politics to health, sports and entertainment.
Today, mostly, you’re not.
As for columnists, newspapers still have many good ones. Equally salient, columnists are everywhere today, thanks to the explosion in online media and the fact that anyone with an Internet connection and an opinion can post a blog. Like me, now.
The “everywhere” part is the problem. With thousands of articulate, informed voices out there – along with thousands more who are neither – exactly how do you find who’s worth your time?
Newspapers traditionally did that weeding for you. They hired a Jimmy Breslin, liked how he wrote, learned that enough readers felt the same and made him a regular part of what you got for your quarter.
One of the great bargains ever offered anywhere, newspapers made a thousand decisions every day about inclusion and exclusion. Did they always get it right? Pick the right stories, hire the right people? Not a chance.
But the best ones had and have a good batting average. They provide balance, along with thoughts or facts that might not dovetail with everything you’d prefer to believe.
Today, between television and the Internet, it’s easy to find sources that only reaffirm what’s familiar and comfortable. At day’s end, that makes us less informed.
It’s unsurprising and mildly ironic that some of the most ambitious Internet news sites today are trying to do what newspapers have done for 200 years: select and aggregate.
Columnists fit into that picture here: Sometimes we can better understand a subject simply by discussing it in a focused way. Unlike most talk radio or TV hosts, who find talking points and hammer them like top-40 radio, a good newspaper columnist makes a contained point about something that is or deserves to be in the conversation of the moment.
Sometimes less can be more.
A column might be serious, funny, outraged or sarcastic. It might put us on. Breslin covered that whole waterfront.
Like all performers, or presidents, columnists have insecurities, arrogance and flaws alongside their skills. They aren’t gods, they’re just people who write about something we’re thinking about.
Jimmy Breslin had better days and worse days. When you turned a newspaper page and saw he was there, you took a look.
We’re in a different world of media platforms today. Jimmy Breslin’s death is a good reminder of how much there is to be said for an old one.