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Columnist

Updated on January 16, 2010

A Columnist is the writer or editor of a column: a regular newspaper feature, usually with fixed title, style, and format, and with content ranging from Hollywood gossip to political opinion.

The columnist, often nationally syndicated, is independent of, and possibly opposed to, the editorial policies of the newspaper in which he appears.

The practice of including articles of independent opinion in newspapers dates back to the 18th century, to the newspaper publication of such series of essays as the Journal of Occurrences (1768) and the famous Federalist Papers (1787-1788), both dealing with early American affairs. In the 19th century the emphasis turned to wit, and a number of writers, including Artemus Ward (Charles F. Browne) and Mark Twain, wrote journalistic features that evolved into humorous "colyums" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The best of the columns were brilliant miscellanies of quips, anecdotes, and commentary on personal or political affairs. Outstanding "colyumists" were George Ade (Fables in Slang) and Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley); Eugene Field, who wrote the famous Sharps and Flats; Field's successors Bert Leston Taylor, best known as B. L. T. (Line o' Type or Two) and Franklin P. Adams (The Conning Tower), who carried the Field-Taylor style from Chicago to New York City; and Don Marquis, who created the famous cockroach "archie" in his Sun Dial column.

By the 1920's, the age of the political opinion column had been launched by such widely syndicated political "pundits" as Mark Sullivan, David Lawrence, and Walter Lippmann (all of whom continued writing for several decades). A bolder political columnist was the humanitarian Hey-wood Broun, with his It Seems to Me column.

In 1931, Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen started an expose column on Washington politics and political figures that made significant disclosures of graft and scandal, ending what had become too cozy a relationship between the press and politicians, and initiating a new style of sharp, aggressive political reporting. Pearson, one of the most durable and prominent of all columnists, continued writing in this vein, as did Paul Mallon, in his News Behind the News.

However, the main trend of Washington reporting was toward interpretation of events rather than expose. During the Depression, and in the period following, scores of commentators rushed to explain or berate the New Deal. Notable were Raymond Clapper for objective analysis, Eleanor Roosevelt for her liberality, and the vitriolic, anti-New Deal Westbrook Pegler. Later famous political columnists included Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Marquis Childs, Doris Fleeson, Ernest K. Lindley, Dorothy Thompson, and James Reston.

Columnists in other areas included Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane, who established the abbreviated mode of later tabloid editorials in his widely syndicated Today column; such Broadway and Hollywood gossip writers as Leonard Lyons, Dorothy Kilgallen, Louella Parsons, and Hedda Hopper, who wrote in the usually flamboyant style set by Walter Winchell in the 1920's; sports columnists Grantland Rice and Arthur Daley; and the advice-to-the-lovelorn specialists, Dorothy Dix, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren.

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