What’s NEXT for Pittsburgh's Tony Norman? | Pittsburgh City Paper

What’s NEXT for Pittsburgh's Tony Norman?

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Tony Norman

A two-page spread in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, made up of adieu missives to former columnist Tony Norman, reinforces his complex profile.

In his serenade, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey hails Norman, who's leaving the paper for another local publication, as a voice for unity, while, in an adjacent column, retired P-G columnist Brian O’Neil casts his former colleague as a necessary disruptor. Each of the four other tributes highlights, in some way, Norman’s ability to embody both roles simultaneously.

“A newspaper can’t lose its heart and soul without choking a little, and you were the heart and soul of the Post-Gazette,” writes Jeff Gerritt, P-G editorial page editor. “Not that the readers always loved you - of course they didn’t.”

Meanwhile, “Tony was transformatively important to the product and its place in the community,” per columnist Gene Collier. “...And, oh yeah, he pissed people off.”

Norman’s own response to the suggestion of contradiction in this is to basically treat it as a stupid formulation, although he’s a gracious man and tries not to show it during our interview.

“We are legion as that demoniac in the gospel says, you know, we embody all sorts of personas and aspects,” Norman tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “So, yeah, I'm sure that I certainly happen to voice for unity over a lot of issues. But, obviously, I've been angry and disappointed, and I stir things up. Because that's what I saw, as all part of my job, as every columnist does.”

Over a 34-year career at the city’s paper of record, Norman has etched himself into Pittsburgh’s civic consciousness as a loud leftward voice, and as the politically fraught publication's lone Black commentator. These facets, as his peers note, haven’t always won him friends.

To some, they've been life-changing.

“He opened the doors of the Post-Gazette to emerging writers, who heretofore would have no access to this paper but now can add a byline of a book review or essay, as he has done for me,” writes Tereneh Idia, a freelance writer and regular CP contributor. “...Thank you Brotha Tony for showing the way and more importantly, for sharing the way.”

Others look at Norman’s (until now) unstinted devotion to the paper as a scourge on his liberal bona fides. Here, just like the man and his columns, Norman’s relationship with the Post-Gazette is complex.

When, a few years ago, the once-liberal editorial board was jolted rightward by top-down meddling, Norman stopped writing editorials to focus solely on his commentary.

“Once it was clear that we were going to be compelled to be a pro-Trump editorial board, I just said, 'I'm out of here,'” Norman says. “I'm not gonna write pro-Trump editorials under any circumstances.”

After this initial Trumpian embrace, the paper continued to assail its readership and general standing by first trivializing racism and then, as if to show it really meant it, by pulling a Black writer from covering racial injustice protests over alleged fears of impartiality. Meanwhile, decades-long demands from the union remain unmet, and legacy writers like Norman continue to find work elsewhere.

But Norman happily rejoined the board last fall, when Gerritt took over the editorial page as part of a larger realignment following the departure of Keith Burris, a one-time executive editor and chief pilot of its Trumpian misadventure.

Since then, Norman says, “the page has been improving dramatically, both in terms of the columnists that are offered to our readers and the page range.”

Acknowledging imperfections, Norman says he’s ultimately leaving the P-G on good terms and vowed in his farewell column to “defend [the paper] against its naysayers.”

He's moving on to local media publication NEXT Pittsburgh, he says, not to escape a bad employer, but to rehydrate a career in danger of growing stale. Once again, the disgraced former president played an unwitting role.

“I was typing Trump's name into a column and I was just like, 'God damn, I'm so tired of this guy, I can't do it. I can't do it,'” he says. “And, all of a sudden, all of my output just felt like it was forced.”

As a remedy, Norman began to think about how he could apply his journalistic talents to uncovering ordinary stories from Pittsburgh’s Black community, which he notes is one of the most “undervoiced” in the country.

He had tried to make this shift at the P-G in recent months, but says he ultimately realized he would need a clean break to free him from decades of public expectation.

“There's, like, a certain Tony Norman legacy, you know,” he adds.

Gerrit did not respond to an inquiry about plans to replace Norman. In a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper, Executive Editor Stan Wischnowski said the former columnist will be “sorely missed.”

“As a columnist, Tony has been a Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh treasure — a journalist whose writing evoked emotions ranging from anger to admiration, indignation to inspiration,” Wischnowski says. “We can’t thank him enough for his three decades of truly difference-making journalism and the enormous impact he’s had on our newsroom.”

Norman says he won’t be entirely dropping his voice from future columns, but he expects they’ll be leaner on analysis.

“I'll be doing a Tony Norman column, but it won't be the Tony Norman column that people are familiar with.”

NEXT Pittsburgh Publisher John Rhoades reiterates this in a statement to City Paper, saying Norman’s forthcoming work will “tell the stories that often are not told — in innovative ways.”

“We are excited to welcome Tony Norman to our team to start a new chapter with NEXT,” Rhoades writes. “Tony has been an award-winning journalist for over 30 years, from beginnings as an Arts & Entertainment writer to a syndicated columnist.”

On top of the new column, Norman has some freelance work lined up at Vanity Fair and is working out the details of a podcast he will co-host with Natalie Bencivenga, another former P-G columnist and a current contributor to City Paper. He’s firm at this point not to share further details yet.

He’s more forthcoming, though, about the shortcomings in local media that prompted his career shift.

“I’d like to see the local media just devote more time to the Black community, to the growing Hispanic community, to the Asian community here, and just find stories that are not catastrophes that just sort of highlight the humanity of people," he says.

In one of Norman’s final P-G columns, he reflects on his major career mistakes, taking his cue from a curation of journalistic “mea culpas” recently published by the New York Times.

Rather than remedying specific factual misses, Norman more broadly critiques his earlier analysis for lacking a robust framework for situating injustice and oppression.

“I often veered from issue-to-issue like a drunken sailor, reacting or overreacting to events, without a thought of connecting the dots to the region’s systemic and structural realities,” he writes.

This doesn’t mean his tone has become consistently sharper; perhaps, just more deliberate. He wants, after all, to leave behind the vituperative world of tweets and hot takes to tell uplifting stories sourced from the real world.

A former P-G colleague, John Allison, who also resigned from the editorial board during the Trump years, says Norman's scathing words have, to some extent, always come laced with kindness.

“He’ll write a laceration of some moral failing of someone in power or some horrible situation ... and it sounds like he’s your friend sitting with you over a cup of coffee.”

According to Allison, this largesse of spirit is matched by, and perhaps informed by, a comparative breadth of interests.

“Tony is so widely read and he takes in everything — it's music, art, poetry, religion, pop culture, high culture — and he filters it through his completely decent sensibility,” Allison says.

“He likes John Cougar Mellencamp and Nas,” Allison adds with emphasis, insisting this irregular pairing of tastes extends a key insight into Norman’s writing.

Before taking on his general interest column, Norman began writing for the P-G as a pop critic after a brief stint as the paper’s “worst ever clerk” (his words).

Although he left that world in the '90s, Norman's roots as a music critic surface throughout his work — including his penultimate P-G column, where he effortlessly drops piercing musical insights while recounting a visit to a local book store.

“Shortly after stepping into Bottom Feeder Books," he writes, "I’m greeted by the distinctive opening notes of 'Sunday Morning' by the Velvet Underground & Nico, arguably an even more effective use of the celesta/glockenspiel vibe than the one heard on Jimi Hendrix’s haunting 'Little Wing.'”

Norman says his goal as a columnist has been to constantly evolve through learning. But even while finding ways to inject musical criticism into book store reviews, he says his tenure at the P-G was giving him fewer and fewer opportunities to stumble into unknown territory.

“It was no longer a fun column to do because there were no real surprises and I wasn't surprising myself,” Norman says. “And I really need that.”

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