Where Have All The Fancy Columnists Gone? On Patrick Goldstein’s Exit from the LA Times

Today marks the end of an era for the ever-dwindling number of readers of the Los Angeles Times‘s once-mighty Calendar section: Patrick Goldstein has written his last “Big Picture” column. Goldstein, a longtime LAT veteran entertainment reporter before being granted columnist stripes and the attendant high-profile soapbox that comes with them in 2000, had a long twelve-year run, but it was a run that coincidentally paralleled the Calendar section’s long, slow decline into irrelevance, not that the two are necessarily related.

By most accounts a nice guy and devoted family man and clearly well-meaning and well-connected, Goldstein played the role of the LAT‘s main “industry critic.” Rather than breaking scoops, along the lines of ex-Variety/current Deadline reporter Michael Fleming, Goldstein’s specialty was the weekly “think piece,” sometimes assuming the role of chief finger-wag to his company town’s studio execs, sometimes playing all-knowing Monday morning quarterback when postulating why certain films succeeded or failed, and, more often than not, attempting with highly varying degrees of prowess to navigate the often bewildering prevailing industry trends du jour and put them in some sort of context. He also liked to write name-droppy recaps of power lunches he had and devoted many column inches to his kid’s schoolmates’ takes on trailers for upcoming Hollywood releases.

Alas, his “insights” were rarely all that insightful, he often seemed too cozy with the studio execs whose feet he was supposedly holding to the fire (last year, he devoted two separate columns to plugging the blink-and-you-missed-it Rob Reiner film Flipped, which just happened to co-star then-Warner Bros. Chairman Alan Horn’s daughter Cody), and, bold attempts in his bittersweet final column to posit himself as the journalistic equivalent of an “innovative” truth-telling “maverick” and “ruckus raiser” like Spike Lee notwithstanding, his writing evoked nothing so much as an entertainment industry version of the New York Times‘s middlebrow marshmallow political columnist David Brooks. Interpret that as you see fit.

Reaction to his departure has been generally respectful but mixed. Nikki Finke, of all people, had only nice things to say and alluded to anonymous sources indicating that Goldstein felt marginalized by the LAT‘s push toward all things internet (could those “anonymous” sources have been Goldstein himself?  Scuttlebutt suggests they have been before…. Is Nikki’s sadness due to losing her last remaining source at the LAT?). She also intimated that he went for a buyout, instead of being fired, and had to sign a non-disparagement clause, which seems an odd and hypocritical thing for a newspaper to demand of a reporter, but, we are told, keeping a lid on dissent in the ranks has been a major priority for the regime of Tribune CEO Eddy Hartenstein.

Variety reporter David S. Cohen, on the other hand, went for the jugular in a series of below-the-belt Tweets:

Wonder if the new LAT leadership offended Patrick Goldstein by asking him not to print demonstrably untrue statements in his column…

In our newsroom, Goldstein’s a laughing stock. La Finke calls his column “deeply sourced and influential.” She must wanna hire him

It’s always sad and angst-inducing for journalists when one of their brethren winds up on the corporate chopping block, particularly one who is well-liked personally (which means there’s no schadenfreude at play). Yet, one still wonders if the colleagues writing post-mortems decrying his departure as “a great loss” ever bothered to actually read any of his columns.

For me, it became achingly clear that Goldstein had “jumped the shark,” so to speak, when, ironically, he recently devoted an entire column to explaining the very term “jump the shark,” replete with numerous historical examples, in the year of our lord 2012. It was more sad than maddening: I walked away with the tragic sense that he really had only just heard the played-out term for the first time a few days earlier and truly thought he was hipping his readers to something new and observant. To be that culturally out-of-touch when you’re an ostensibly high-profile columnist presumably pulling down mid-six-figures to cover culture in the culture industry’s backyard borders on a firing offence.

Which begs the question: whither the very 20th century archetypal role of highly-paid prestige weekly newspaper columnist in the 21st century age of 24/7 internet news cycles when newspapers themselves are under assault?  To survive, you have to have something truly insightful to say every week to maintain your “must read” status. The internet, for those savvy enough to use it for their benefit, can actually expand the reach and influence of some columnists beyond the mere confines of their paper’s actual readership — witness all the David Carr or Paul Krugman columns one often sees linked and retweeted virally across the blogsphere. But even older writers who don’t “get” the internet can still thrive in the internet era, provided their writing delivers the goods. Weekly or bi-weekly columnists rarely “break” news; their job is to react to it and provide perspective. It doesn’t matter if the news is “stale,” but it’s fatal if the perspective is. If you’re phoning it in, particularly when you’re only writing once a week, you might as well be invisible.

It might seem cruel to judge a writer by his Twitter follower count, but Patrick Goldstein’s Twitter feed (@patrickbigpix) has less than 350 followers, despite having been plugged for the last year at the tail end of every single one of his columns for the second largest paper in the United States. That, of course, in itself, says nothing about the relative quality of his output, but everything, sadly, about his sphere of influence. What good is a high-profile soapbox and megaphone if no one is listening?


Jim Gibson, contributing editor, is OG 310.