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This Position Closed 

If B.L.T. should die, of course we'd sob, But one of us, perchance, might grab the job.

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By Michael Miner

If B.L.T. should die, of course we'd sob,

But one of us, perchance, might grab the job.

In 1912 Bert Leston Taylor was the man. Six days a week his hit column "A Line o' Type or Two" ran from the top to the bottom of the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune. Taylor, described by his protege Franklin P. Adams as "full of healthy malice," depended on contributors to help fill his space. He paid them nothing, and in the above couplet one of them explained why they wrote for him anyway.

"I've got a big stack of people from outside who have been sending me columns," the editor of the Tribune said the other day. "There are folks out there who deeply regret Mike's passing but see it as an opportunity. Which isn't surprising."

If they see Mike Royko's death as an opportunity to jump to page three of the Tribune four or five days a week, they're wrong. Nobody held down that spot before Royko fell into the Tribune's lap in 1984, a fugitive from Rupert Murdoch's Sun-Times with nowhere else to run, and it might be a long time before anyone holds it again. "If I really didn't like somebody around here I'd suggest they start writing a column on page three," editor Howard Tyner told me. "I think that would not be a wise move. It might be way down the road. Even though only part of his career was spent at this place, the most recent part of it was on page three, and the passions people felt about Royko are associated with that place. We don't have the most famous columnist in the country right now, and I'd like to reserve that place for somebody who falls into that category."

When Royko died CNN asked me if we'd ever see another. Certainly not. Chicago's still waiting for its next Eugene Field and Ring Lardner. Great columnists invent themselves; they don't emerge by doing an uncanny imitation of a predecessor. "Healthy malice" is something they all may have in common, but there's little else--besides the power to reveal a city to itself as narrative. Each is irreplaceable. Speaking of Royko's position at the Tribune, columnist Eric Zorn said, "It's almost something that can't be given to someone. Somebody has to earn it with readers."

I'd say flatly that it can't be given. Columnists anointed to drums and trumpets leave town on the floor of a boxcar inside of a year. The ascending columnist begins as a secret, a reader's private discovery. Only gradually does the reader apprehend that his pleasure is a mass phenomenon.

But though no one ever fills a great columnist's shoes, the era identified with him does give way to another era. Pundits, Poets, & Wits: An Omnibus of American Newspaper Columns, the collection by Karl E. Meyer in which I found the above couplet, teems with Chicago columnists: Eugene Field, George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, Bert Leston Taylor, Kurt M. Stein, Ring Lardner, Ben Hecht, Mike Royko. Each was inimitable, and none was the last of the line.

Even so, I've wondered if Royko will turn out to be. This wouldn't be true because the writers are getting smaller, but because the newspapers that carry them are. During her recent troubles, Carol Marin reminisced about growing up with Royko. Growing up with a writer means accepting his sensibility, his version of reality, as a cornerstone of your own. How many people read today's papers with this level of involvement? Dilbert, yes. But a writer? A columnist might capture a devoted slice of the market, but can anyone speak to the community? And is there even a community any longer?

Royko's own impact on Chicago can be overstated. His first paper, the Daily News, folded despite him. When Murdoch took over the Sun-Times and Royko jumped to the Tribune, the circulation of the Sun-Times dropped 26,000 in the next year to 628,000, while the Tribune's rose 6,000 to 763,000. The Tribune's gain is probably the more accurate measure of Royko's influence; losing him was far from the only thing Murdoch's Sun-Times did to alienate readers.

As journalists' dowries go, a swing of 12,000 to 30,000 readers is an enormous gift to the bottom line. Compared to the historical forces at work on newspapers, it's chump change. By this spring, daily circulation at the Sun-Times had eroded to 491,000 and daily circulation at the Tribune to 665,000. As the mass media became less massive, all that could be said was that the Tribune, with Royko and many assets besides him, managed a gentler decline that the Sun-Times without Royko.

"He certainly reflected a noninstitutional view of the city which was hugely popular," said Tyner, thinking back on Royko's long career. "But I think there were large parts of the city that were simply amused by him or disliked him intensely when he was at his height. He was a unique character in the city who understood the city and could describe the city unlike anybody else, but I wouldn't say he was the voice of the city."

In the 60s and early 70s two voices stood out. One belonged to Mayor Daley, who offered the institutional view of Chicago. The single contrarian view hardy enough to stand against it was Royko's. "On the surface it was pretty homogeneous," Tyner remembered. "The mayor represented things, and there were many people who didn't count in that view. And now they do. The idea of anyone in print or otherwise getting their arms around all this seems pretty hard to imagine."

"There won't be another Royko," the Tribune's Mary Schmich was telling me, "not just because we won't see someone of his talent but because the role of newspapers in the community has changed. They're not the dominant force they used to be. But that said, a lot of people maintain a very intense relationship with columnists. I don't think you'll see the single columnist who mobilizes the city the way Royko could. But you know, I'm sure every columnist in the city hears from an astonishing number of people."

"The modern reader thinks they can reach out and touch their favorite love-to-hate-'em columnist," the Sun-Times's Richard Roeper told me. "Because of E-mail, faxes, voice mail, they can leave you these long reactions. I hear from everybody, from high school kids writing on home computers to retirees scribbling stuff."

Roeper thinks young readers still exist who grow up with favorite writers. "I hear from college students who say, 'It's so great I can get you on the Internet,'" Roeper told me. "'I've been reading you since I was 9 years old, and now I'm 18 at Cornell, and it's so cool I can still read you. It's like hearing from home.' Or they'll say, 'My dad passed away. We weren't getting along, but we could always talk about the Roeper column.' I think that still exists."

Whether or not a mass audience still exists for a great city columnist, journalism continues to produce the type. As painful as writing a column might be, what's worse is not writing one. Four columns a week are better than three, and five are better than four. "I noticed a major jump in reader response and identification when I went to four columns a week for the year that Mary Schmich was at Harvard," Zorn told me. Schmich is back, and at the moment Zorn's doing three a week for the Tribune. "I have long pushed to write more columns. With the proper staff help, I'd write four or five a week."

Roeper writes off the top of his head a lot more than Zorn does, and he manages five a week without a legman. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he told me. "In fact, I occasionally do a sixth column. I signed a deal with the New York Times Syndicate, and if something happens on Thursday I write it straight for them."

Or for the Sun-Times. "That's happened too," Roeper said. "If I wait for Monday the topic will have mold on it. Let's get this thing in."

He went on, "In a way I've always thought it takes some of the pressure off to do it every day. [Otherwise] you have two and a half days to overthink, and if you don't hit a home run you stew about it. Now you step in the box again the next day."

He said, "The reader reaction I get indicates a lot of people do read the column on a regular basis because they've come to enjoy my view of things. It's like, 'I read Royko.' 'I read Greene.' 'I read Roeper.' It's where you become a franchise, a little bit of a brand name."

Roeper was putting his finger on that stage in a columnist's career that offers great danger and great opportunity. It's the stage at which the columnist's persona goes its own way. It's when columnists can find themselves writing things they don't exactly believe and not writing things they do believe that don't comport with whoever they think they're supposed to be in print.

"When you have an intense relationship with readers, the potential for disappointing them is vast," Mary Schmich said. "I'm extremely aware that someday I will disappoint them and they will turn on me. I think it's possible to disappoint in a variety of ways. By taking a position once or twice over a period of time that is contrary to who they think you are. I think that happened to Royko. You can disappoint your readers by getting lazy. That's the ultimate trap. And I also think that on some level you disappoint them by being you. Because anyone in the long haul begins to sound repetitive. One reason I went away last year is because I was beginning not to sound fresh to myself. I thought if I went away the well would fill up again."

Roeper, however, regards brand-name status as "exactly the opposite" of a burden. He said, "You're free to write whatever you want to, because you don't have to finesse the subject. You have a certain comfort level. You know you have an audience that'll stick with you through the whole column. I find it liberating."

A great columnist is valued ultimately not for what he says but for whatever he says. His appeal is his sensibility. Columns that go far toward defining him are the ones written on days when he has nothing to say--those days when he isn't dutifully weighing in, delivering the "take" expected of him, and when he doesn't even have a story to tell. On those days, when he's forced to live by his wits, he reveals what he's made of. Royko, in his years at the Daily News, was the conscience of that paper; to him rather than to the editorial page the reader turned for moral judgment. He was never the conscience of the Tribune--Eric Zorn plays the role of truth teller much more confidently--but Royko offered the liveliest company.

He also made the best homeboy. "Another element in why there won't be another Royko," Schmich said. "It's like people in newspapers aren't from places as deeply as Royko was from Chicago. When I look around at the columnists at the top ten papers, a few of them are really from where they're writing, but most are not. I don't think you have to be from somewhere to write well about it. But in terms of being the voice of a place, I think maybe you do."

At some point Royko stopped being definitive about Chicago, but once he'd become what Howard Tyner called the "600-pound gorilla" no one dared to compete with him on that turf. Other columnists bent over backward to avoid affecting a city voice sure to be compared unfavorably with Royko's. "You might want to write about the city, but that gorilla is out there," said Tyner. But now "the possibility of someone at this paper or some other one, after a period of time, emerging--not in the Royko sense but in a gritty way--I can imagine that."

Tyner said he has no intention of throwing somebody new into the spotlight. He'll go slow. "You have to provide some opportunities and give people some chances and see how it develops."

How are you going to do that? I asked.

"There are ways."

News Bites

To anyone as fascinated and appalled as I've been by Frontline's periodic reports on the Little Rascals day-care case in Edenton, North Carolina, producer Ofra Bikel presents another two-hour segment, "Innocence Lost: The Plea," Tuesday evening at 9 PM on Channel 11. Highlights: Two defendants pleading guilty to child-abuse charges they're almost certainly innocent of in order to avoid spending the rest of their lives in prison; charges being dropped against three other defendants seven years after they were filed; the husband of the owner of Little Rascals, who'd been sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms, going free after seven years behind bars when all 12 sentences were overturned--only to be threatened with a retrial.

Department of Things That Just Emerged After a Month on My Desk Buried in Papers:

Sun-Times, April 13: "'I was still in the game, but I made sure I asked the trainers how he was,' Brown said afterward. 'He didn't lose consciousness, and that was a good sign. I feel real bad. He's Ryne Sandberg, for Christ's sake.'"

Tribune, April 13: "'I felt really bad,' Brown said. 'Heck, he's Ryne Sandberg.'"

New York Times (attributed to the Associated Press), April 13: "'To see Ryno get hit in the head like that diminishes your day,' Brown said. 'I feel really bad. He's Ryne Sandberg, for heaven's sake.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration of Mike Royko by Kurt Mitchell.

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