A newspaper columnist walks away

Jon Tevlin, shown in 1999. Photo: Chuck Olsen, via Flickr.

I’ve never met Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin, although I recall he took issue a time (maybe two) with something I wrote reacting to something he wrote.

I would have liked to have known him because he wears his heart on his sleeve and that’s a good thing for a newspaper columnist. It’s also what will get you killed on social media.

People in the business like to talk about having a thick skin, but a thick skin is the armor of the cynical in journalism and it doesn’t help the telling of stories that need to be told. We don’t presently have too many stories about people who live an existence deserving of some comfort.

In announcing his retirement in Sunday’s Star Tribune, Tevlin appears to say he doesn’t like the job much anymore, mostly because of the social media pushback.

In the past couple of years, however, I’ve gotten worn down by the weekly screeds and wishes that I lead a short, uncomfortable life. I began to dread the 3 a.m. calls and anonymous notes. After many weekends got ruined by hostile chatter on social media, my wife, Ellen, wisely suggested I either kill my column or Twitter. I survived the past few years, in fact, by removing social media from my phone.

I fear we are becoming a mean, arrogant country. In fact, at 6 a.m. the day after voters elected a bigoted, narcissistic megalomaniac, I wrote to my financial planner the following words: “I feel like I’ve wasted 30 years of my life. Get me out of here.”

I was despondent. The reason I’m leaving, however, is exactly the opposite of despair. Over the past year I’ve seen my newspaper and my profession rise to the challenge of people who are aiming to destroy the First Amendment.

As I write this, I’m surrounded by veterans and young reporters who are smarter and more skilled than I am. They are also as committed and tenacious as any journalists I’ve ever known. I’ve come to believe truth and decency will win out. It feels like a perfect time to step away and let them have at it.

No matter how tough your skin, nobody wants a constant harangue of criticism, even if the point of a newspaper columnist is to shove things down the throat of readers who don’t want anything but their view of the world.

With a few exceptions, the reaction to Tevlin’s announcement on social media was typically classless.

Those exceptions were tweets from the best writers among us. That should be a clue to adjust our thinking accordingly.

Tevlin’s exit, of course, opens the way to a younger columnist to take over if, as he says, they’re waiting for their chance.

Ideally, the Strib would hang out a “white men need not apply” shingle since the newspaper’s lineup of voices is almost exclusively male, white, and comfortable.

Good luck in your retirement, Jon Tevlin! And good luck to whomever gets the gig.

Bring your own armor. And a long sleeve.

Photo from Chuck Olsen via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.