The "Action Line" Column Moves into the 21st Century
Among my destination reads on Sundays -- at least when it's in the paper -- is "The Haggler" column by David Segal in the business section of The New York Times.
Ostensibly, the column is a distant cousin of those "Action Line" and "On Your Side" columns of yore, where readers would write in seeking help when a utility company screwed them over, or the TV repairman ripped them off.
Segal performs that service, in a way, but uses the space to showcase his witty, gifted writing in the process. Sure, he takes his mission seriously, but too much so. And he merrily skewers the screw-ups who have wronged those who've written for help.
It's a fun read. Too bad, it only appears every two weeks. That's because Segal's real job is to write longform features for the Sunday business section, which are off the beaten path from the usual fare.
Times editors have given him the license to write with a little more abandon, almost as if he's writing for a magazine. Indeed, these are the kinds of pieces that would fit in nicely in a place like Fortune or the late, lamented Portfolio.
At times he'll use the first person or the "this reporter" to show he's a little further invested in the story and its outcome. It might not be how they normally do it at the Gray Lady, but it keeps you reading, no small feat when confronted with 2,500-3,000 words on a Sunday when you have football, kids and laundry to otherwise distract you.
At times, Segal stretches a little too far, as he did in an otherwise-admirable Sept. 27 piece that focused on how the recession hit close to home in Columbus, Nebraska when a wind-tower plant had layoffs.
You can see management’s unfettered hand in the vaguely Dickensian hours that many here work, and you sense an emphasis on unfettered growth in the just-build-it ethos that governs the stretch of strip malls on the road that bisects the town. It’s fast food, a Wal-Mart, a J. C. Penney, check-cashing outlets and dozens of other stores. The traffic to this generic stretch has come at the apparent expense of a fading but picturesque downtown — a Hopper-esque setting, with a railroad station, some gorgeous early 20th century buildings and a former opera house that is now a minimall.
What does vaguely Dickensian mean, exactly? Segal mentions unions are a non-entity in Nebraska because wages have been pretty good, but Dickensian implies those workers made some kind of Faustian bargain to get that money. If they work more than 40 hours on the floor, they're getting O.T. Nothing Dickensian about that.
Still in all, a great read, and it's does an ink-stained wretch's heart good to see the Times recognizes Segal's talent and lets it run rather than tamp it down because "that's the way we do things around here."
Now if we could just get a few more Haggler columns......