It can be hard to appreciate the present, because we have no perspective on it. But year-end “best of” lists help create a sense our times, even if it requires some instant nostalgia. And because I’ve always enjoyed annual lists of best albums, books, and movies, I decided to compile a list of the 12 best columns of 2012, crowdsourcing the suggestions to cut the inevitable subjectivity.
After editing Deadline Artists with Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis, we often have been asked whether this American art form is still alive and well. The good news is that there are still deadline artists working today, turning out reported columns. And even though we are living in a time when obituaries are being written for newspapers every day, opinion writing is proliferating online like never before.
There were many great columns written this election year. But you’ll find that this list is, if anything, underrepresentative of the political debates in 2012. That’s because the best columns sidestep the rapid-fire opinions and ideological jousting between members of warring tribes.
The essential quality for a great column is storytelling, the ability to entertain as well as educate. The classic reported column isn’t as widespread yet online as in the newspapers, where memories of that tradition still infuse the newsroom. This list skews toward the stylists who combine the urgency of news with the precision of poetry, writing history in the present tense. But there are humor columnists represented here as well.
It’s fair to say that the distinctions among newspaper columns, blogs, and first- person online journalism are beginning to blur. In the near future, focusing on print publications will be an irrelevant distinction. But to keep the category clear and clutter-free, this list focuses only on columns originally published in newspapers, which also avoids competition between colleagues at The Daily Beast and elsewhere.
So take it with a grain of salt, as an appreciation, the start of a conversation. Below, listed in alphabetical order by author, are 12 of the best columns from 2012. Read and enjoy.
Mitch Albom: “From Bank Job to Trimming Bushes, Man Keeps His Faith”
—The Detroit Free Press
Albom is mostly known as a bestselling author these days, but he still churns out columns for the Detroit Free Press. This offering from August tells the story of one man’s struggle with the Great Recession and a stark reversal of fortune.
Dan Barry: “At the Corner of Hope and Worry” —The New York Times
Dan Barry writes The New York Times’s “This Land” column, and his series on life in small-town Ohio—ground zero of the election—was pure literary journalism, deserving Pulitzer attention. Recommended by Mike Barnicle, this selection is much longer than a typical column, but it has the sweep of a short story, capturing the struggles behind one woman’s dream of keeping her own diner open in the town of Elyria.
Dave Barry: “The First Olympic Scandal Rears Its Ugly Head” —The Miami Herald
It was good to have Dave Barry publishing his column more regularly again in 2012. The Pulitzer Prize–winning humorist agreed to cover the London Olympics and the two political conventions. The results showed that he’s lost nothing off his fastball. His exposé of the sinister badminton scandal was an instant classic. Also worth reading is his rumination on Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” address, which he pronounces greater than Lincoln at Gettysburg.
David Brooks: “Thurston Howell Romney” —The New York Times
When David Brooks took aim at Mitt Romney’s self-stereotyping superrich candidacy, the result drove the debate at a pivotal moment during the campaign, while also giving Gilligan’s Island a well-deserved pop-culture resurgence. A runner-up for me was his column on Rules for Craftsmen—a should-be classic on the essential qualities of centrist statesmen that pinpoints the source of many of our problems in Washington.
Gail Collins: “Where the Jobs Are” —The New York Times
Traveling to the boomtown of Williston, N.D., to see what life is like with 1 percent unemployment, Collins was wry without being unkind. This was the favorite of National Society of Newspaper Columnists director of online media Ben Pollock, who explained: “It caught my eye when listed in The Atlantic’s ‘50 Worst Columns of 2012,’ where it obviously had been misread. Gail reports on the scene, she keeps her perspective and uses it, with both quotes and direct observations. It’s a lot of material, compressed into 830 words or so. This presidential election again was ‘The Economy, Stupid,’ and Gail took a telling snapshot in words.”
Dennis Hamill: “Firefighter residents in Rockaways did what they could amid Hurricane Sandy’s devastation” —New York Daily News
Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal communities across New York and New Jersey. The Daily News’s Dennis Hamill rose to the challenge of telling their stories in a series of columns, which Errol Louis of NY1, a co-editor of Deadline Artists, proclaimed “a damn fine piece of work.”
Carl Hiaasen: “Nude Face Eating Cannibal? Must Be Miami” —The Miami Herald
The Mark Twain of Florida, Carl Hiaasen does columns for The Miami Herald that stand alongside his novels as classics of modern American humor. His take on the surreal spate of “bath salt” cannibalism managed to combine moral clarity with a gonzo stride.
John Kass: “A Suicide, an Angry Protest and a Nation in Agony” —Chicago Tribune
The riots in Greece didn’t capture as much attention as the protests in Egypt or the slaughter in Syria, but Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass covered them with a seasoned storyteller’s eye that recalled the classic foreign correspondents of the 1930s and ’40s. This dispatch on the suicide of an elderly man in protest of austerity cuts brings the urgency home to readers on this side of the Atlantic.
Colbert King: “The Give and Take of America” —The Washington Post
The “makers versus takers” narrative drove much of Mitt Romney’s campaign and led directly to his disastrous “47 percent” comments, but here, Colbert King distils the debate to the story of an elderly woman in line for groceries. He humanizes the bumper-sticker politics and exposes the ignorance behind them with a reality check rooted in personal history.
Steve Lopez: “To Tony Lopez, With Love” —The Los Angeles Times
Steve Lopez might be best known as the columnist who inspired the movie The Soloist—and was played by Robert Downey Jr. in the process. But he is one of the best deadline artists in the business, and his series on the dying of his father was unflinching and elegiac. It spurred an extended reflection of how we die in America today.
Lindor Reynolds: “Love Wins in Newtown” —Winnipeg Free Press
The slaughter of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown spurred heartfelt columns and a national debate about gun violence. But members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists recommended this effort by Canadian Lindor Reynolds on the funeral of 6-year-old Ana Márquez-Greene. It is both harrowing and heartening.
Mary Schmich: “Generous Man Gets Ring Back in Roundabout Manner” —Chicago Tribune
The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary was in rare form all year, but this close-focus story of a small urban kindness resonated in an otherwise rough and cynical news cycle.
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