The best job in journalism? Sorry, it’s already filled by Jim Dwyer

Illustration: AP

The title “newspaper columnist” once carried a certain brassy prestige. For much of the past century, columnists—from marquee sportswriters and political commentators to cultural critics and regional, all-purpose powerhouses like Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, and Pete Dexter—were newspaper royalty. But as bloggers, tweeters, and other idiosyncratic, unmediated voices began flooding the commons, the collective understanding of what a columnist is, and what a column is for, has splintered beyond recognition.

Still, one venue remains where old-school columnists thrive. Ironically, perhaps, it’s also the place where the role was born: the metro desk of city papers. And over the past several decades, few people in the business have managed to delineate the personalities and inner workings of the modern metropolis, 800 words at a time, as ably as The New York Times’ Jim Dwyer.

Dwyer, 59, has covered his native New York since the 1980s, writing for Newsday—where he won a Pulitzer for “his compelling and compassionate columns about New York City”—The Daily News, and, for the past 15 years, the Times. In 2007 he took over that paper’s long-running biweekly About New York column, a role previously filled by celebrated figures like Meyer Berger, David Gonzalez, and Dan Barry. Throughout, Dwyer has navigated epochal shifts in the journalistic terrain, from the absolute primacy of print to the ascendance of digital, while remaining, at heart, what he was when he began: a reporter’s reporter.

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Jim Dwyer holds his daughter Catherine as he celebrates winning the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, after the 79th Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism were announced April 18, 1995. (Reuters)

Dwyer’s chops, it turns out, were evident in the first piece he ever wrote for his college paper, The Fordham Ram, back in 1976—a vivid slice of life captured with time-honored intent: He wanted to impress a girl.

“I was driving along Fordham Road,” he recalls during an interview at The New York Times Building in Midtown Manhattan, “and this rough-looking guy was having a seizure on the sidewalk. People passing by were muttering disapproval, fucking junkie, scumbag, that sort of thing. The seizures subsided, and those of us who had stayed with him while he recovered learned he was a veteran and had been having seizures since coming back from Vietnam. He pulled up his shirt and showed us this incredible line of shrapnel scars along his abdomen. A few minutes later, off he went. But that moment stayed with me.

“Not long after, I met a girl in a bar. We hit it off over some beers. I was smitten. The next day I passed her on campus, but she didn’t say hello. How could I get her attention? I figured I’d write an article about the scene on Fordham Road. Maybe she’d read it and think I was a great guy. I wrote it up, and I don’t often say this about my own work, but it was pretty damn good.”

And the young woman he hoped to impress?

“She never read it,” Dwyer says. Then, with a storyteller’s timing, he adds, “but she married me, anyway.” Dwyer and his wife, Cathy, the department chair at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, have lived in the same northern Manhattan neighborhood, where they raised two daughters, for the last 35 years.

What’s startling about an encounter with that first Ram article all these years later is how assured the 19-year-old Dwyer’s writing sounds: The lede, for instance, is pitch-perfect. “Charlie Martinez, whoever he was, lay on the cold sidewalk in front of Dick Gidron’s used Cadillac place on Fordham Road. He had picked a fine afternoon to go into convulsions: the sky was sharp and cool, a fall day that made even Fordham Road look good.”

He is a master at finding the one person who exemplifies a larger issue and bringing that person to life. That’s the classic model of the tabloid column, and it also happens to be what resonates online.

Dwyer has lent that voice—conversational, authentic, knowing—to stories great and small ever since, from his pioneering Newsday gig writing about the subways to pretty much any About New York piece written in the past nine years. (In a stinging column about a Port Authority executive, Patrick J. Foye, who acted with notable integrity during the Bridgegate scandal, Dwyer wrote that “the mind could not boggle fast enough to keep up with the bridge episode”—a wry turn of phrase that, characteristically, stops just short of finger-wagging. “I have opinions,” Dwyer says, “but I’m not too fond of expressing them.”)

“I started writing columns in June 1986,” Dwyer notes. “The other day, I came to the shocked realization that in a few months I’ll have been at this for 30 years.”

Sustaining quality in any multi-decade endeavor is difficult. In column-writing, it’s close to impossible.

“There’s a tendency for all columnists to become parodies of themselves,” Laura Berman told CJR in December 2015, after nearly 40 years as a stellar metro columnist at The Detroit News. “Keeping it fresh and alive is a big challenge.”

For Dwyer, paradoxically, keeping his work “fresh and alive” means working within a format that is essentially unchanging. “The image I often return to,” he says, “is the pommel horse. It’s a fixed object. It’s always in the same spot. It’s always the same height. But with that one piece of equipment, an experienced gymnast can perform any number of maneuvers. A columnist has to work in that same, fixed space, over and over again. But if you have the right editors, you can do any kind of stupid trick. You can certainly fall on your face once in a while. But you can occasionally do something that feels new, too.” 

For Wendell Jamieson—the Times’ metro editor and, from the time he was an intern at Newsday in the late 1980s, an off-and-on colleague of Dwyer’s—About New York is a kind of chimera: a production firmly rooted in its own legacy, and wholly of its own time.

 

“What Dwyer does so well is a mix of old and new,” Jamieson says. “About New York is a classic, big-city column with a modern voice. Sometimes Jim is in the story, sometimes he’s writing off of the news, and sometimes he breaks news. But he has a digital sensibility—a way of reporting and writing in a human, personal way that taps into what people are talking about right now. He is a master at finding the one person who exemplifies a larger issue and bringing that person to life. That’s the classic model of the tabloid column, and it also happens to be what resonates online.”

Take a column Dwyer wrote in January 2016 on Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money, about the brothers David and Charles Koch. The book made waves both nationally and overseas with its formidable reporting on the Koch brothers’ ceaseless efforts to shape opposition to Democratic policies and remake American conservatism in their own Libertarian image. But it was Dwyer who caught one particular thread of the narrative and, like any good columnist, gave it a yank. That thread involved a private investigation of Mayer, funded by the Kochs and conducted by a firm called Vigilant Resources International. Vigilant’s founder and chairman is none other than Howard Safir, who served as both the police commissioner and the fire commissioner of New York under Rudy Giuliani. Safir’s son, Adam, and daughter, Jennifer, also work at Vigilant. 

“The former commissioner,” Dwyer wrote in his column, “could not be reached on Tuesday to discuss his role in the investigation into Ms. Mayer. Adam Safir, however, did speak cordially, briefly and unilluminatingly.” The point, of course, is that for a while there, an awful lot of people were talking and writing about Mayer’s book. It was Dwyer who saw the aspect of the story that would matter to readers of a column like About New York—and then got on the phone, digging for quotes, pursuing context.

But classic journalism tropes like shoe-leather reporting and urgently ringing phones aside, Dwyer is well aware that he and his fellow columnists work in a far different atmosphere than they did just five or 10 years ago. After all, even in the perpetually harried world of journalism, today’s expectations—of speed, timeliness, connectivity—are staggering.

“What’s changed the most since I started writing columns,” he says, “is that you can’t wait even a day on anything anymore. Nothing will sit still. People often say to me, Oh, you must have some backup columns in your pocket. Well, no, I don’t. As soon as I have a column in my pocket, I put it out there. Twenty years ago, something ready on Monday might hold until Wednesday. That’s not the case now. The velocity has increased beyond measure.”

Not all of Dwyer’s digital ventures, it’s worth noting, have been columns cranked out twice-weekly under pressure. For example, with colleagues at the Times—fellow reporters, graphic designers, programmers, text and audio editors—Dwyer helped craft what remains an early, essential, and, a decade and a half later, still-gripping example of what digital journalism can do.

You can’t wait even a day on anything anymore. Nothing will sit still.

The deeply reported, deeply felt May 2002 interactive feature, “102 Minutes,” provided the first comprehensive account of what went on inside the Twin Towers on 9/11: the last phone calls to loved ones, where people were when the planes hit, how some escaped when so many others perished. It was personal reporting on a vast canvas, and it’s something that Dwyer still does, in About New York, as deftly as anyone. 

“I’ll always be grateful that I was able to work with Jim on that project,” Jon Landman says. A longtime editor at the Times and now editor of columnists for Bloomberg View, Landman was instrumental in hiring Dwyer in 2001, just four months before the 9/11 attacks. “I’ve never been involved with a better piece of journalism, ever.”

Throughout it all, Dwyer has kept in mind lessons from some of the greatest, most colorful columnists to ever don the mantle: Jimmy Breslin (“a kind of genius who has managed at various times to convince people he’s not,” says Dwyer), Pete Hamill (“a prince”), and Murray Kempton (“I loved Kempton. He had a voice unlike any other”).

“From all of those guys, and so many more, I learned that you have to report. It might sound obvious, but that doesn’t make it less true. You have to report the hell out of a story. Then, maybe, you can write it.” 

Of course, even talented, diligent reporters can sometimes blow it, as Dwyer readily—in fact, cheerily—admits. Early in his career at Newsday, he tried to print out a handful of his own columns from the previous year. The result was chastening.

“I somehow ended up printing out everything,” he says. “A whole year’s worth of columns. I took them with me on the train, read them on the way home, and was horrified. They were too long, they were pedantic. They had all kinds of flaws. To this day, there are many columns where I wish I had done something a little different.”

The conversation comes back around to About New York, and Dwyer—a New Yorker born in an earlier, grittier Manhattan to Irish immigrant parents and educated in the city’s parochial schools and its universities (Fordham, Columbia)—grows less circumspect. When asked if, all things considered, he might have the best job in journalism, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I believe I do. A big part of my job is to talk with brilliant scientists, great artists, the amazing people you meet just walking around the streets of New York. What could be more fun than that?”

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Ben Cosgrove has worked as a writer and editor, online and off, since the mid-1990s. A contributor to Salon, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, and other outlets, he served as editor of the award-winning website, Life.com, and managing editor of the early, influential e-zine, FEED. He lives in Brooklyn.