Nancy Barnes: Two great Star Tribune writers become metro columnists

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • February 15, 2009 - 7:07 AM

We discover great writers, sometimes, the way we discover great books -- by pausing to sample their offerings, finding ourselves lured in despite the distractions around us, then coming back for more.

That's how I came to discover the work of Gail Rosenblum and Jon Tevlin, two new metro columnists who start this week. They bring very different writing styles and voices to print, but I think readers will enjoy them both immensely.

When I first arrived at the paper, Gail was editor of the Variety section and we never got to see her prose, but before long, she switched to writing, specializing in that human conundrum we call relationships. Her writing voice was so distinctive that I took note of it the first week her work appeared and wondered where the heck she had been hiding.

In the years since, Gail has written on everything from grief and loss to sexuality to poignant tales of life in the city, such as her memorable "duets" series with photographer Jim Gehrz, featuring ordinary people in surprising relationships. Last year, she partnered with a business reporter on a series we called the Middle-Class Blues, looking at the financial squeeze on people in their everyday lives. She has a knack for getting people to talk to her, for exploring emotions, and for sharing her findings in a warm and charming style that wins over readers. Her work has brought her top honors from the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors.

In her new role on the metro pages, Gail wants to do what she has always done best: tell stories that will surprise and move people. She wants readers to be able to see themselves, and their own humanity, in her stories. She already has a strong relationship with her readers, who have come to trust her through her words. Over the years, she said, "people have told me unbelievable details of their lives because of the stories I have written." Sometimes, she thinks, some might not take her seriously because she uses a touch of humor in dealing with life, even casting herself as the butt of her own jokes. But just because she uses humor as a writing tool doesn't mean she isn't intensely serious about the points she makes.

Jon is a very different type of writer. I worked with him on a few stories when he was (also) in our features department and discovered that he has a critical eye, a dry sense of humor, and a writing range that allows him to master the deep profile, the provocative investigative piece and the compelling first-person narrative. We dragged him out of features, to the chagrin of that staff, and put him on our enterprise team. Last year, his work was featured in a gripping narrative on the farmhouse murders in Waseca, Minn. This year, he has been heavily involved in reporting on the alleged Ponzi scheme of Tom Petters, among other stories. He, too, has won numerous national and regional awards for his work. His life experience is deeply rooted in Minnesota, and he brings that perspective to the forefront in his very first column.

In his new role, Jon wants to explore the stories that are off center stage and give readers a greater sense of why something is happening, "whether it's at a crime scene, the State Capitol or a ballgame." He is a descriptive writer who looks for the telling details that illuminate a larger theme. He has at least one thing in common with Gail, and with almost all great reporters: He listens well, and people like to talk to him, so much so that they start telling him things they might not otherwise.

Jon also brings a certain wisdom to his work that comes with a few decades on the job. He has stopped believing that he is always right, and he knows that we humans are complex people not to be painted in black and white. "I've never met a perfect person, and I don't think I've ever done a story on someone who didn't have some redeeming qualities," Jon said, and it is with that reminder to himself that he tries to frame the characters in his stories.

The role of columnists in news is distinct, but important. We want them to provoke thought, to entertain, to inform, to engage our readers. They alone, on the news pages, have the latitude to express a point of view. Readers may not always agree with what they say, but the intent is to get a conversation going. "Some of my most interesting relationships are with readers who most vehemently disagreed with something I wrote," Rosenblum said. But they keep in touch with her nonetheless. That's the kind of relationship we want our columnists to have with our readers: honest, intelligent and trusting enough to disagree.

The Star Tribune has a long history of fine and distinguished columnists on its metro pages; that tradition continues today with the additions of Jon Tevlin and Gail Rosenblum. Let the conversation begin.

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