June 30 2010 11:18 AM

Can the three-dot columnist revive the Union-Tribune's fortunes?

Tom Blair

“Personal columnists are jackals and no jackal has been known to live on grass once he had learned about meat—no matter who killed the meat for him.”

—Ernest Hemingway

First off, Tom Blair seems like a perfectly nice guy. And Spin Cycle holds no grudge over a cork-gun incident at a Del Mar Fair media party decades ago involving his wildly aiming, young namesake son, Tom Jr.


But come on, Tommy. Did you have to break the two-month mystery of your disappearance as editor of San Diego Magazine by announcing your return as “city columnist” just days after even more of the Union-Tribune's most-experienced veteran reporters were shown the door?

Talk about a shot to the head. Having worked side-by-side with some of these men and women as a far-more-youthful reporter at the pre-merged San Diego Tribune during the '80s and early '90s, it's hard for me to fathom how the venerable old lady of local papers plans to spark the kind of interest and dialogue this financially floundering city begs for with— again, pardon my ornery age—a bunch of fresh-out-of-diapers “junior” journalists new to San Diego's quirky past and dark hallways.

Maybe a sexagenarian of Blair's ilk can instill some oldschool hrrumphh into the wide-eyed newbies while eliciting memories of former joy in those newsprint vets who remain. Maybe the halcyon days of Herb Caen (Google him, kids) and the three-dot column—a bygone-era technique in which brief snippets of newsy bits are strung together with staccato-like ellipses—will gain rebirth in this 140-character, Twitterengrossed world.

Who knows? Now, before accusing yours truly of Column Envy (I'm very happy here, thanks), Spin Cycle is not alone in such ponderings.

And it comes from yet another local institution—none other than George Mitrovich, president of the dialogue-promoting City Club of San Diego. In his July column for the Presidio Sentinel, Mitrovich expressed serious doubts that the return of Blair, when coupled with the exorcism of so many experienced scribes, bodes well for the slenderizing daily.

“The chance that the paper will rebound, even to its ‘middling' status, is unlikely—and the return of Tom Blair will hardly offset the losses,” the usually jovial Mitrovich ventured.

So, when Blair last Sunday ended a 15-year hiatus from the newsprint city column that made him a local household name among, as Mitrovich put it, the “chattering classes,” did it change his mind?

“As his ‘Here I am again' column,” Mitrovich told Spin Cycle, “I thought it was off-point. He might have done better to tell us his highs and lows at San Diego Magazine. Around-town columns are fine. They can be informative—if, that is, you are among the chattering classes, which, obviously, most people aren't. Herb Caen was the master of this genre, [but] columns like that simply can't have the impact they once did.”

In his inaugural-return column, Blair took readers back to 1995, when he last penned a U-T column before resigning to take the editing helm at the glossy city mag. The column was, in essence, a retelling of days gone by, with references to former Chargers head coach Bobby Ross, diet queen Jenny Craig (a frequent Blair subject, second perhaps only to local crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh) and dead TV personality Tom Snyder.

He ended the column by appealing to readers to help him fill his Sunday-Wednesday-Friday newsy needs. “Help me tell you what's going on in your city today,” Blair pleaded somewhat awkwardly.

To his credit, Blair was kind enough to respond to Spin Cycle's curiosity about whether he thought he was rejoining a sinking ship.

“No, not at all concerned,” Blair wrote in an e-mail. “I'm thinking the ship is being righted with a strong captain and exec officer and a talented, eager crew. … I've received dozens of emails and calls from readers who say they're happy about my return and plan to re-up or extend their U-T subscriptions.”

That would be good news to Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, the investment firm that bought the paper last year and has been busy slashing staff and reconfiguring the publication for a 21st-century, web-oriented existence—to much local consternation.

And indeed, many appear glad that Blair is back. Even the curmudgeonly Don Bauder—a former Union business columnist now holding court at the San Diego Reader—grumbled in an online comment, “Yes, Tom is very good,” calling him a “facile and entertaining writer.”

But later, Bauder noted in more typical snarly form, “As I have said before, three-dot columnists should kick some ass, instead of constantly kissing it. Don't expect much kicking.”

Blair said Monday he'd received roughly 80 e-mails about his return to the daily. “Two weren't happy with the idea,” he said. “But I'll get 'em.”

Blair will be sharing the B-1 column space through the week with chipper columnist Diane Bell, which raises the question of duplication of duties at the slimmed-down U-T. Blair tried to dash that idea.

“We'll both tell stories and write items about San Diego, but we're individuals with different interests, different writing styles and sources, and we'll do it from unique perspectives,” he told Spin Cycle, before adding, “I hope CityBeat isn't sinking. I thoroughly enjoy reading it.”

Thanks, Tom! So, in honor of Blair's return, allow Spin Cycle to conclude by donning the three-dot hat:

Spin dots: To the well-groomed backers of a new library Downtown who appeared before the City Council Monday touting the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Main Library as a “good model” of “best practices”: Bet you didn't know that it was built using a project labor agreement. Oops! Rewrite! ... Mayor Jerry Sanders, meanwhile, made perhaps the cleverest pitch for a new main library by reading his remarks to the council. You go, Hizzoner! Words straight from the heart are sooo overrated! … A die-hard Yankees fan at a local watering hole had some news for ear-piercing World Cup fans: Bringing a vuvuzela into their glitzy, overpriced new stadium in the Bronx will get you “banned for life.” Yer out! ...

Hmm, kinda fun, but not Spin's style. Time to put a cork in it.

Wanna pop off with a tip not involving Jenny Craig, Joseph Wambaugh or dead TV talkers? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com.


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