We have a great Q&A this week with longtime Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams.
Williams talks to us about what he feels his mission as a columnist is, the difference between Richmond and RVA and why he feels compelled to write about it, how a newspaper subscription is the same as a ticket to an athletic event—it gives you the right to boo and more.
Please introduce yourself:
I’m Michael Paul Williams, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the daily newspaper of Virginia’s capital. The columns, which run twice a week, are my take on the doings of local government, matters of social justice and how the unresolved issues of race, poverty and the past continue to inform and afflict Richmond today.
My mission as a columnist – and people can debate the success – is to rouse Richmond from its complacency and give a voice to individuals and communities who feel unseen, unheard and unrepresented. But sometimes, I just like to tell the stories of people who embody the best in all of us, either by their works on behalf of our community or by overcoming significant challenges.
I’m a Richmond native who spent his childhood in the Byrd Park neighborhood and in northern Henrico County. I’m a graduate of Hermitage High School, Virginia Union University and Northwestern University. Since 1982, I’ve been on the staff of the Times-Dispatch and have been writing columns since 1992.
Your columns are really unique–in a way they read like a carefully-balanced hybrid between news and opinion, often adding a human element to a traditional news subject. It’s a style that’s totally your own and one that resonates with a lot of people. What has gone into developing the way you write? Has it been a style you’ve honed over the years, or has it been more of a natural evolution?
I’ve always written off the news, but in recent years the column has become more locally focused. Given the nature of my subject matter, folks are going to come at me. It’s important for me to be able to be able to back up what I’m saying. Although I like my opinions to be supported by facts, I can’t let my column be weighed down by them – if it’s too densely packed with news, there’s not enough space for me to maneuver. And if there’s no human element, why bother?
You’re kind to say my style is totally my own. I tend to be tone deaf when it comes to my writing and can’t say I have any style I’ve sought to cultivate. I wish I had a more distinctive writing voice, like, say, colleagues Jeff Schapiro, Bill Lohmann and Holly Prestidge. I don’t always “hear” my personality in my writing, but other people say they do. Some would probably describe it as angry. Although a healthy sense of outrage makes for a good column, I’d prefer to think I’m guided by a sense of urgency and compassion.
“A newspaper subscription is like an athletic event: The price of the ticket gives you the right to boo. The First Amendment is about dialogue, not monologue. I dish criticism out; it’s only fair that I be able to take it. Any journalist who doesn’t develop a thick skin doesn’t last very long.”
You’ve been writing columns for more than 25 years. What’s been one of your most memorable pieces, personally, and what makes this piece stick out in your memory?
That’s easy: My third column, written around Father’s Day, 1992, three months after my father died. It was a tribute to him.
Another memorable column several years ago was on the Armstrong High School choir, whose members had an opportunity to perform in New York but lacked the money to get there. A trip like that can be life-changing for young people who haven’t seen a great deal beyond their neighborhoods. In the days following the column, readers donated more than $20,000 to help the students realize their dream.
Honorable mention goes to all the columns that made a tangible impact.
As a columnist, what’s it been like to watch Richmond change so much over the last decade? You are a very close observer of the city and I imagine your job as being equal parts infuriating and inspiring.
It’s been gratifying to witness — the idea of RVA stickers would have been unfathomable little more than a decade ago. As a native, part of me brims with pride. But it’s also infuriating because the rebirth is leaving lots of folks further and further behind. And too often, we’re blinded by the light.
I’ve noticed in your columns that you always refer to two identities the city has: RVA and Richmond. What’s the difference between the two and as a columnist why do you feel it necessary to make that point?
RVA is fresh, energetic, youthful and exciting — a suddenly “cool” city on the upswing. It’s the population explosion, the apartment boom, the rediscovery of the joy of urban living. It’s the creative aesthetic as expressed by our food, beer and arts. It’s bike trails, scooters, readapted warehouses and gentrification. It’s one of the most gay-friendly cities in the nation. It’s where dreams come to life.
Richmond is the same as it ever was: racially, economically and geographically divided. It’s a place whose values are reflected in its clinging to Confederate monuments. It’s substandard and decaying schools, resistance to meaningful change and the stunted mobility and opportunity of the impoverished. Richmond is weary resignation. It’s where dreams wither and die.
It’s necessary to make the point because it’s too easy for RVA to ignore Richmond. Our ignorance will doom us to repeat past mistakes. The city cannot realize its potential until its most vulnerable residents are acknowledged and uplifted. RVA will remain an illusion if we pretend Richmond does not exist.
Despite writing about weighty subjects and having to deal with critics, do you consider it a privilege of your job to be able to write it as you see it?
A newspaper subscription is like an athletic event: The price of the ticket gives you the right to boo. The First Amendment is about dialogue, not monologue. I dish criticism out; it’s only fair that I be able to take it. Any journalist who doesn’t develop a thick skin doesn’t last very long.
The access this job provides and the potential to effect change — while meeting interesting, passionate and committed people — is a privilege. Being paid to express my opinion on issues that matter to me and others is an added bonus.
What do you think newspapers, and the industry in general, could be better at?
Engaging the younger readers and diverse communities so crucial to our future.
What’s one fact about yourself you think would people help better understand you as a columnist?
I’m not terribly sure that one fact will help people understand me in this day and age. People are so dug in behind their positions that it’s a major win when someone says I changed their mind. Saying “I’m not a racist” is not terribly useful, because I think most people understand that, despite the number of detractors who are convinced that I am.
How about three guideposts that I try to follow?: 1. Agitate, agitate, agitate! (Frederick Douglass); 2. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; 3. The Golden Rule.