Alas, Richard

Copyright 2007 Ben S. Pollock

Humorist Richard Allin died Thursday in Little Rock. He was 77. The following is why he’s important. It’s from the acknowledgments page of my journalism master’s thesis, spring 2003.

At the family breakfast table in Fort Smith, 30 to 35 years ago, Dad laughing would read aloud paragraphs from the Arkansas Gazette’s ‘Our Town’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler.’ Mom would announce what sensible thing Senator Bill Fulbright said about Vietnam, quoted in ‘In the News.’ Richard Allin created and still writes the humor column ‘Our Town.’ The humor column ‘Arkansas Traveler’ has had a series of stewards. Charles Allbright was writing it then and continues today. Decades of uncredited wire editors compressed nine to a dozen articles, both serious and humorous, into the front-page items column ‘In the News.’ I wrote ‘newsers’ myself from 1986 to 1997 for the Arkansas Democrat then Democrat-Gazette. My state newspapers proved the value of columns a long time ago.”

I give away the conclusion of my research in the title, “Declines in American Newspaper Humor and Humorous Columns, 1982-2002.” For a 100-plus-page project, though, it’s not a bad read. I put in lots of jokes.

As it happens, Richard and Charlie were put to pasture later in 2003. In their heyday, though humor columnists, they alternated on holding the metro column spot in the Gaz, Page 1B Column 1. The Demzette initially put them in the features section, 1E Column 1, but, my thesis notes, soon tucked them inside near the TV grids about 1993, so that’s where they spent their last decade.

They were buggy-whipped.

I was asked last night about Richard, but where to begin? I barely knew him. He and Charlie worked from their homes. Their newsroom office was so small it was a formality, but each dropped by occasionally. Richard was quiet, formal, maybe shy; he remembered my name. Charlie still remembers me, on our very rare emails, and I feel like I know Charlie better, for his ready conversation and amiable cheer. I had brief dialogues with each while preparing my thesis, and I sent each a bound copy.

C-SPAN’s BookTV last weekend broadcast a September memorial for Molly Ivins, several months after the columnist’s passing. Essentially all of the writers and editors who spoke quoted her. Were hers clever phrases about soon-to-be-forgotten politicians, etched with a stick on sand at low tide? Let’s not forget Art Buchwald, either.

Like Buchwald, and the late Mike Royko, Richard had stock fictional characters. The villages of Wad and Gudge Creek resembled Little Rock and North Little Rock. Today’s Demzette also mentioned Radiance Wuppertal, a city official dedicated to making all vehicles stop at all traffic signals. I recall the Rev. Oswald Chubb, municipal theologian, who justified all civic decisions on the highest authority.

This type of writing is nearly extinct in newspapers. As the Arkansas Times noted, Allin and Allbright had a sizable, steady readership. No publisher ever lost a libel suit over humor — the First Amendment protects all opinions, parody in particular covered under “fair use.”

In the last month I’ve been hearing that an area newspaper with which I am not affiliated has been dropping its feature columnists. Their pay is in the low to mid two figures. The stated reason is the free-lance budget would be better spent on part-time reporters for news assignments that staff writers are unable to do. One dropped columnist wrote chiefly about family. Another columnist was in the food section, uncovering old regional recipes and the stories behind them. A columnist told me she had tried to tell the editors that columns like these often are the only positive segments in otherwise dour news. These are experienced writers, not frittery wannabes.

I appreciate that, but it’s not quite my take. All the wide sorts of columns that have proved popular over the decades comprise the personality otherwise missing in an “objective” newspaper. Newspapers may be losing readers to the Internet because of convenience, but it’s nearly as obvious that the disappearance of spunk, verve, approachability, humor and humanity leaves little that entices. You can’t replace this with allegedly narrative journalism. It’s not just the wall of journalistic impartiality, it’s convenience: When readers seek facts they don’t want to be distracted by styling. They want desserts on separate dishes.

Look at radio: All the call-in shows profiting from personality and opinion. Look at cable: CNN, Fox News and CNBC/MSNBC spend the majority of their ad-filled cycles in opinions of personalities. Look at the Internet: millions of blogs of personal opinion. Do we bloggers want only to yak, more than we want to read the blogs of others? The proof of this is that nearly all blogs have one- to two-digit readerships? No: Tally those blog-hit scores, and those dozens of clicks impress. Last look at newspapers: On the Most-Read Articles on the Web sites of the top dailies, a solid proportion is commentary.

That’s evidence. We Americans isolated in our homes with our electronic boxes are desperate for conversation. We drift toward those who provide, well, their side, complemented by our responses, chortles of agreement or clicks to something else. It proves a need exists, and needs will be met.


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