SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
By Bill Plaschke
Like most of us, I became a journalist because I wanted to touch people. I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to make them cry. I wanted to leave them angry. I wanted to make them think.
In some professions, one might not elicit that range of human emotions from a customer in 20 years. In column writing, it can all happen in the same 20 inches. Such is the beauty of our craft. One can not just examine and report on a landscape but, however slightly, change it. One can not just touch readers, but embrace them and shake them.
The front-page reporter grabs the reader every morning at the end of the driveway or stoop or wherever the paper is delivered. The feature writer follows the reader into the house with promises of a later encounter. But it is the columnist who sits down with the reader at the breakfast table, the first real visitor of the day, prodding and provoking during coffee and juice.
When it works, it's wonderful. Once learning that our NBA Lakers were on the verge of hiring Kurt Rambis as a permanent coach, I made a 25-inch plea for Phil Jackson. The community joined in, and Laker owner Jerry Buss said the chorus convinced him to hire the man who immediately brought them a world championship.
When it fails, however, it fails spectacularly. I was once so excited by the Dodger fans' angry reaction to a late-inning appearance by the Atlanta Braves' John Rocker that I praised them for throwing bottles at him and, in one case, running on to the field and mooning him. Ten minutes after sending that story, I realized my mistake, and phoned the office to change several awful paragraphs. However, the presses were already running, and I was only able to make the change for about half our readers. The other half, including our national readership, appropriately bombarded me the next day with criticism of my insensitivity. Yes, I later wrote another column explaining how I had blown it.
Either way, good or bad, hugs or heckles, this is the best thing about being a columnist. With your actions, there is a corresponding reaction. It is a constant, ever-changing public report card that slowly teaches the columnist not just about his community, but about himself. It is evidence that people are being touched. It is the feedback that us crazy journalists seek most, from the people who matter most.
Bill Plaschke is a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He won the SDX Award for sports column writing last year.
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Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Text from this entry
Eugene Kane tells it like it is.
In his thrice-weekly columns in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kane often addresses racial issues that affect his community. Whether he's talking about poverty, murder or taxes, his columns offer insightful views on issues that his readers face every day.
"In a community where issues of race, class and poverty often influence the news of the day, Eugene Kane's column plays a unique role: No other journalist speaks so directly to those influences, and no other journalist so consistently challenges readers to rethink the norm," wrote Martin Kaiser, editor and senior vice president of the Journal Sentinel, in his nomination letter.
In one column, he discusses a conversation he had with a waiter at a local restaurant. Knowing that Kane often writes about race issues, the waiter took the opportunity to ask a question that had been plaguing him: "Why don't black people tip?" Kane explored possible answers in his column:
Any time you ask a question that begins: "Why do such and such kind of people do this?" you run the risk of painting an entire population with a broad stroke.
White folks never seem to realize that (Oops! See, I just did it!).
But I can't deny not having heard this one before. Usually from people in the service economy. "Blacks don't tip."
Years ago, I had a black male friend who never tipped at restaurants. Frankly, it was embarrassing, so one day I called him on it.
His answer: "Heck, they get a paycheck, don't they?"
His surliness surprised me, until I remembered his upbringing. This guy grew up dirt-poor, in a fractured family with no adults to teach him about social graces.
Many poor black children never get to eat in a restaurant -- you'd be surprised at the number who view fast-food places as their version of "eating out."
If you reach adulthood without ever being told about things like salad forks, bread plates or tipping, it can be intimidating not knowing what to do.
For six years, Kane has written his column for the Journal Sentinel. Before that, he worked for the paper as a general assignment reporter, federal courts reporter and entertainment critic.
Judges were impressed with Kane's straightforwardness.
"Here's a writer who has something to say, and he says it simply and eloquently," they wrote. "He hit us on a lot of emotional levels. He enrages. He enthralls. He has a lot of heart."
Despite the strong opinions that Kane works into his columns, he is careful to consider other viewpoints.
"Perhaps most admirably, at a time when pundits deliver with absolute certainty spur-of-the-moment opinions on all manner of subjects, Kane is willing to acknowledge that he hasn't made up his mind on any number of issues," wrote Kaiser. "And what he is able to eloquently remind readers is that perhaps they should not have made up their minds either."
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Michael Wilbon, The Washington Post
Sports columnists write regularly about professional and collegiate sports teams. They share a love of those sports, and their columns attract readers who also share that love.
But a truly gifted columnist is able to reach beyond the obvious readers and gain the attention of non-traditional readers.
The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon reaches those non-traditional readers on a regular basis. His columns provide meaningful insight into issues involving mainstream sports, but he also strays outside that sphere to cover sports issues often ignored by other columnists.
"Michael's exceptional writing skills and strong messages continue to reach out to a diverse group of readers that likely have little else in common but their shared interest in Wilbon's work," said George Solomon, assistant managing editor of sports for The Post.
Judges also noted the range of Wilbon's columns.
"His status as the conscience of the NCAA alone makes him deserving of this award, but the columns submitted cover topics from across the sporting world in a serious way," wrote the judges. "He is the thinking man's sports columnist."
In one column, Wilbon wrote about a communitys controversial new sports and learning complex. Wayne Curry, the county executive who oversaw the development of the complex, was under attack for including two swimming pools, a six-lane indoor track, gymnastics equipment, a 20,000 square-foot fitness center, classrooms and computers for people to learn to use the Internet. It was an excellent facility, but for all its attributes, the complex included only two basketball courts. Local residents claimed that basketball was important to the people who lived in the urban area where the center was located. Some called it a "slap in the face" to devote such little space to the sport.
Wilbon used his column to defend the complex and also point out a dangerous message that the community was sending to the urban youth:
... I think I understand Curry's mission. He told The Post's Paul Schwartzman that the complex "is not designed to replicate a surfeit of basketball opportunities. Our kids are capable of lots more. They need opportunities to do lots more."
And, of course, Curry's right. Emphasis is on the word "opportunities." We and by we I mean folks of color pay lip service to wanting to see more kids like Tiger Woods and Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Dominique Dawes. But what do we do? We build more basketball courts. We look at a child who wants to play hockey as if he's a Martian. We shortchange kids who might want to explore any sporting talents not deemed mainstream.
There are plenty of places in and around Landover to play basketball.
There are precious few facilities, like this new sports complex, where a kid who wants to follow in the footsteps of Renaldo Nehemiah can hone his skills.
Addressing this need is wrong?
Judges said that, by going outside the generally accepted sphere of sports reporting and commentary, Wilbon's work stood out from other entries.
"Michael Wilbon's columns transcend sports writing. Part sociologist, part cultural critic, Wilbon is always making us think about the very topics we want to avoid," wrote the judges.