Rickert with dog and bike

Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert at Elmside Circle Park, 2015.

JOHN HART -- State Journal

As near as I can tell, this is the 1,291st metro column I’ve written for the Wisconsin State Journal. I picked an old one at random last week — about the controversy over a liquor license for a former Downtown Madison restaurant — and timed myself reading it. It took 1 minute, 58 seconds.

Just one stranger taking the same amount of time to read each of my other 1,290 columns amounts to about 40 hours. I know there have been at least a few more readers than that, though, and that they’ve collectively devoted years of time to my takes on events in Madison, Wisconsin and occasionally the nation.

For this, I am eternally grateful.

Today marks the public launch of my third career at the State Journal. I started with the paper in 2007 as a night-shift, general assignment reporter and soon took over the reader-help “SOS” column. In 2010, three months after I turned 40, I became a metro columnist.

Now the newspaper is looking to further dedicate itself to local news, and I’ll be the urban affairs reporter covering city and police policy, changing demographics, social disparities and other city-centric topics in the Madison area — as well as, to quote my editor, “efforts by policymakers, residents and nonprofits to improve their community — or thwart it.”

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it was nice being less tethered to breaking news and the other daily surprises that for journalists are the job’s greatest rush and the thing that drives them to drink.

On the other hand, it hasn’t been all beer and Skittles: The coming up with ideas, making the case for those ideas, the more-or-less permanent anxiety that you might have just reached some kind of tipping point of angry readers.

But ultimately, the straight, striving-for-objectivity reporting is always more important than the opinion. Everyone’s got an opinion, after all. And in a day when it seems like 90 percent of media have a product, an agenda, a shill or a powerful interest to promote, straight reporting is as important as it is endangered.

While I won’t be offering an opinion anymore, my approach to journalism isn’t changing.

As a columnist, I’ve occasionally been accused of wishy-washy-ness, and many are the times I’ve been called a raging liberal or a knee-jerk conservative — sometimes on the same day, in the very same minute.

I never saw it that way. The journalist’s first responsibility is to the truth, which in human affairs is rarely clear cut. But a close second is challenging those who have the power, whether that means the Republican Legislature or the liberal Madison City Council, the influence-peddling corporations or the influence-peddling unions.

Good journalism is about more than just getting quotes from all sides of an issue, or even about the accurate understanding and explaining of various competing perspectives. It’s also about being the kind of person who makes an effort to feel, as much as possible and on a gut level, what other people feel, even if you think they’re wrong.

That’s what will save this country. That and more news, which by definition, is the exact opposite of fake.

The journalist’s
first responsibility
is to the truth, which
in human affairs is rarely clear cut. But a close second is challenging those
who have the power …

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.