This is the 12th in a series of articles about recipients of the NSNC’s annual Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.
By Dave Astor
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Twelve years before columnist Steve Lopez gave a memorably seriocomic speech at our 2016 conference in Los Angeles, he was at our 2004 conference in New Orleans to receive the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. And Lopez was both earnest and funny back then, too.
On the serious side, the Los Angeles Times writer advised (certain types of) columnists twelve years ago to “get out of the office. If you’re not reporting, you’re not going to be relevant for long.”
Lopez certainly gets out of the office — and not just to pick up prizes. For instance, he visited Mexico just before his 2004 NSNC appearance to look into the background of a Los Angeles woman whose life was very difficult — living with six kids in a one-bedroom apartment. After seeing firsthand the poverty of the Mexican locale she was from, Lopez was able to give readers a visceral sense of why so many of her former country’s residents were coming to America back then.
Before coming to the Times, Lopez was employed by various other publications. And that’s the subject he got jokey about in New Orleans: “I’m now working for my seventh newspaper,” he told the NSNC audience. “The reason I move around a lot is because I only have 40 or 50 columns in my entire bag of tricks.” (Not true!)
Turning serious again, Lopez said columnists should never get complacent — noting that he was still learning about being a columnist and still developing his writing voice. “If a column doesn’t have your voice, you’re doing it wrong,” he said. Which can also apply to bloggers, of course.
Lopez — who couldn’t be reached for comment for this article — was born the son of Spanish and Italian immigrants in Pittsburg, Calif., in 1953. He attended San Jose State University, and went on to write for the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, and other publications. Lopez also became a novelist and nonfiction author.
His series of Los Angeles Times columns about his unlikely relationship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers — a Julliard-trained, schizophrenic classical bassist on the skids — became the subject of a best-selling book by Lopez that inspired the 2009 film The Soloist starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Steve and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel. The Lopez-Ayers relationship was also highlighted in a 2009 episode of 60 Minutes (the show for which 2003 Pyle winner Andy Rooney worked).
In addition to the Pyle award, Lopez’s many honors include twice being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist — in 2012 and 2016.
Dave Astor writes the “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The Montclair (N.J.) Times, blogs at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of the memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional.