The Soloist Columnist

At the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference two weeks ago, one of the keynote speakers was a guy by the name of Steve Lopez.  You’ve probably never heard of him.  I’m sad to say I hadn’t either.

You may have heard of the movie that was made from his book.  It’s called “The Soloist,” and stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.  It’s based on encounters Mr. Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, had with a street person in L.A.  That man was playing a two-stringed violin brilliantly, which set him apart from the other homeless characters that populate areas of L.A., and Lopez struck up a conversation with the man, Nathanial Ayers.  That encounter turned into a column, but also a friendship.

In case you haven’t seen the movie yet, and would like to, I won’t say much more about the plot, and if you’re smart, you’ll probably read the book first, since movies rarely tell the story as well.  It’s a very compelling story.  The Steve Lopez character in the movie, played by Downey Jr., is not portrayed as being a very nice guy, at least at first.  That, I think, is poetic license by the film’s director.  The Lopez we heard at the conference seemed to be nothing but a decent human being… and then some.

This photograph of me and Steve gives the illusion that we have some sort of relationship.  The reality is that we were both standing in the back of the room, and a woman with a new digital camera forced us to pose for a photo.  That’s before I knew who he was.  Clearly, he is an unassuming guy.

Since Lopez was addressing columnists, his message was both a telling of the story about how the whole Nathanial Ayers thing came about, but also an encouragement to all of us to keep seeking out stories that make a difference.  He wasn’t preachy, but more supportive.  He told of how this story turned into a major initiative, with buy-in from the mayor, to work more aggressively to help L.A.’s  homeless citizens move towards a better, safer life.

The vocation of newspaper columnists has been greatly affected by the decline in the daily newspaper business.  Many of the people at the conference have had pay cuts, extra duties added, taken buy-outs, or been let go.  People who have had a column in their newspaper three times a week for years are now free lance writing and/or posting columns on their own blogs, or something unrelated to their profession.

Part of the message Lopez imparted was the importance of columnists who pay attention to their communities and investigate things, pursue issues, and try to make positive changes.  A news reporter shouldn’t do those things, due to the obligation (not always honored) to objectively inform, but an opinion columnist has no such constraints.

All the “columns” written by bloggers are great – a real democratization of the media – but few bloggers do actual reporting.  There’s nothing wrong with bloggers, but it’s unlikely that a blogger would have discovered, befriended, and championed Nathanial Ayers.  True columnists are journalists first, and look for news rather than just articulating opinions.

So, as a part-time columnist (who frankly does limited research myself) I had the good fortune to meet many of the real practitioners of the column writing profession.  Steve Lopez struck me as a guy who does the right thing because he doesn’t know any other way.  His story is inspiring, and I hope ten years from now guys like Steve still have a vehicle in which to print their excellent work.

See (or read) “The Soloist,” and then subscribe to your local daily newspaper.  Even if it is physically shrinking and less valuable to your life than it once was, newspapers have a value that may be irreplaceable as a reasoned voice in our communities.

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