Who is Tom Ferrick's heir: the best Philadelphia newspaper columnists

Philadelphia was long a breeding ground for some of the most meaningful metro columnists in the country.

Some say the newspaper columnist is dying, but it isn’t dead.

So who’s the next columnist of record in one of the oldest newspaper cities in the world?

Understand that there is a lineage.

Once every American city had a good metro columnist or three, Philadelphia, too. That stopped at least a decade ago. Philadelphia’s last great teller of our stories was Tom Ferrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the region’s paper of record and producer of most of the city’s great columnists. He retired for good last year – while he writes now for WHYY online, something’s lost, no?

If anyone has given more to Philadelphia – the city of self-abhorrence – then I don’t know him. Ferrick is Philly born, Temple educated and who, for now, is the last in this long line of Philadelphia columnist-legends. He was a sensible heir, but who is his?

The last legend before Ferrick was Steve Lopez, author and authority challenger, whose columns were famously and excellently anthologized, just one of his two published works that are among the most influential Philly-based books.

It stings like Hell that Lopez didn’t retire or disappear into a Fairmount-Park night. No, he moved to another city. A bigger city. He’s now a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and we can’t help but think his stories aren’t quite the same without Philadelphia as the backdrop.

Perhaps Lopez’s only challenger to the city’s columnist mantle is Pete Dexter. But, Dexter has put books and left his Philadelphia reputation to smolder.

The others are ghosts of the past for those who know. Larry Fields branded this town’s gossip scene, a role that I do think Dan Gross does well and Michael Klein popularizes still.

Names like Larry McMullen, Chuck Stone, Jimmy French and Rich Aregood. I only know them from the stories others tell me. Whether it’s just nostalgia or if they are more examples of what newspapers are losing I don’t know. (Why aren’t newspapers monetizing this part of their history? Columnists of the past online?)

In sports, the Inquirer’s run with Stephen A. Smith was supposed to be a brand that went global. It didn’t work. David Aldrige is a respected national voice but Philadelphia never seemed to be much more than a paycheck, no? Bill Conlin and Phil Sheridan are writers of note but don’t seem to transcend sport.

Last April, I went to a Q&A session with Lopez who was back in Philly promoting a new book at the Free Library. Someone asked Lopez a question. “Is the Philadelphia columnist dead?” Lopez noted Ferrick as a recent example, but also pointed to current Inqy columnist Dan Rubin. The questioner dismissed him, perhaps unfairly.

Last month I read a heavy-hitting piece by Rubin:

His death made Page B8 on a Sunday. Apparently, I’d talked to police, gone out to the neighborhood, found someone at the hospital. A woman who knew the family told me she feared for her own children, given what was happening on her street.

“The young ones,” she had said, “they are taking over, pretty much.”

In 2008, we can take the qualifier out of that statement.

Clearly he is the best in town today. Trudy Rubin (no relation to Dan so far as I know), who answered questions earlier this month,  is the last semblance of an international presence with her Inquirer Worldview column, John Baer writes with power from the Harrisburg bureau of the Daily News (some of which raise my ire) and former Inquirer Editorial board Editor Chris Satullo is at WHYY, but they don’t quite fit the throne of major urban daily columnist.

Since 1972 Stu Bykofsky has been at the Daily News, one of the country’s last big urban tabloids experienced in trouble. He hosts annual events and has a real following, but I don’t know if he wields power and bends words like the others.

Despite its history as the oldest black newspaper in the country, the Philadelphia Tribune doesn’t seem to regularly break into the broadest conversations, so how can someone like Linn Washington get national recognition?

What’s more, it’s so much more than print. Does the next wave of metro columnists have to be on video and audio, on Facebook and Myspace? The Inquirer brought back Mark Bowden (famed for Blackhawk Down), but in today’s multimedia-age, he seems one-dimensional. There are Daily News-columnist groupies who do like blogger Will Bunch, perhaps part of the future. Rubin is on Twitter, presumably finding new ways to tell stories.

If he doesn’t, who will?

Photo from UConn.

8 thoughts on “Who is Tom Ferrick's heir: the best Philadelphia newspaper columnists”

  1. Well said Dan. Thanks for commenting and thanks reading and thanks for your work. Bush, gosh, I just saw that the link to your column is no longer live. That’s a result of philly.com’s CMS, for sure, but that is so damn frustrating. Newspapers can only monetize they’re archives from reporters and columnists like yourself when they keep links live permanently. …sigh.

  2. I remember Larry Fields well.

    What a creep. Hated any woman who had a mind of her own.
    And his constant slobbering over Frank Sinatra and Frank Rizzo….ugh.

  3. Yo Mike,
    Take a look at the post, Pete Dexter is featured prominently, including: “Perhaps Lopez’s only challenger to the city’s columnist mantle is Pete Dexter.”

    No conversation of this nature would be complete without his mention.
    -cgw

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