I'm no John Brummett. Max Brantley, Ernie Dumas, Bob Lancaster, Paul Greenberg, Doug Smith or Gene Lyons either. All have strong voices and deep institutional knowledge. I have neither. This isn't false modesty. Maybe one day I'll be able to write with same authority they do, but being a political columnist isn't something I aspire towards (reporter, editor, webmaster and media columnist seems like enough hats). Few others among my generation have made moves in that direction either. Aside from Jason Tolbert, the conservative political blogger who writes a weekly column for Stephens Media and is in his mid-30s, no young political columnist or opinion blogger has developed much of a following in recent years.
Though, to be fair, few have had a chance. Kane Webb wrote political columns for the Democrat-Gazette in his 40s. Oxford American publisher Warwick Sabin was in his 20s when he wrote a column and contributed to the Arkansas Blog during his stint at the Times. Ditto for Katherine Whitworth, now editor of Arkansas Life, who had a column in the Times briefly in 2007 before calling it quits.
"It happens that a few of us have become entrenched," said Brummett, who's penned columns for the Gazette, the Democrat, Stephens Media, the Arkansas Times and the Democrat-Gazette, to which he now contributes. "We get perpetuated by the natural following of the readership. No one has stepped up in the generation behind us partially because the world has changed and partially because we're not going anywhere."
At 57, Brummett is the youngest among name columnists in Arkansas. Brantley, Dumas, Greenberg and Lyons are all 60 or older. Most of the current Democrat-Gazette columnists — Bradley Gitz, Dana Kelley, Mike Masterson and Rex Nelson — are baby boomers. Ditto for Arkansas Business editor Gwen Moritz, whose column often drifts into politics. (When Meredith Oakley quit the Democrat-Gazette earlier this year after more than 30 years as a columnist for the Democrat and the D-G, Moritz became the token female news opinion columnist in Central Arkansas. Since Deborath Mathis wrote a column for the Times in the '90s, best I can tell, no black political columnists have regularly appeared in Central Arkansas outlets).
What happens when this aging coterie of white men decide to hang it up?
"I retain the faith that great talent will always emerge, whether in this inky business or any other," e-mailed Paul Greenberg, who started writing editorials in 1962, in response to my question about his and his ilk's persistence. "We're always interested in talent and our Voices Page is always open to guest submissions. But I'm not sure if many of the contributors are interested in becoming columnists. I can't say I blame them. Some of us wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if we didn't have to feed the beast daily; others doubtless prefer a more civilized life."
Of course "feeding the beast" daily has become the mantra of any digital journalist or opinion writer worth his salt. That no — or at least few — young political writers have made names for themselves in Arkansas through web work the way that Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and other national political commentators have owes to several factors, I suspect: The biggest news outlet in the state, the Democrat-Gazette, largely employs a retrograde web philosophy that hasn't encouraged anything akin to political blogging. Brantley so thoroughly reports and opines that he doesn't leave much room for anyone else online (particularly those who are progressive-minded). And Arkansas isn't a place that bright, young, politically minded reporters usually stay for very long.
Eventually, some of those factors will change, though I'm counting on Max continuing at his current pace until he's 100. Opinion commentators will always exist of course. I'm less convinced about the future of the opinion column in print.
"If the printed newspaper is fading due to economic change and digital change and demographics, that is to say, its readership is fading, then it would stand to reason that the newspaper columnist would fade too," Brummett offered. "But we're not nearly there yet, hopefully."