Former Baltimore Sun columnist shares experience covering interstate, urban development boom

The infamous highway to nowhere.

“We were all hot shits at the Sun at that time and we were going to tell everybody about it.”

Those were the words of former Baltimore Sun columnist James Dilts, who wrote a reoccurring column titled, “The Changing City” in the late ‘60s.

Dilts is now retired from the journalism industry but vividly remembers the impact he made on theBaltimorescene through his opinionated column writing on the urban landscape.

In 1967 he attended theUrbanJournalismCenteratNorthwesternUniversityand it was there where he received fuel for his fire. The rise of the Interstate system and urban development were both very hot issues at the time, according to Dilts, and so a lot of newspapers and members of the media were reporting on such issues.

Dilts said he felt that there was so much propaganda and one-sided remarks on the creation of new highways and roadways that there needed to be a voice on the other side. And so “The Changing City” column was created. Through his column he conducted local interviews, looked into public policy and highway planning, and began writing about the negative impact the interstate system would have onBaltimore. In addition, he lived in Fells Point, a town that was to be affected by a new highway system. That situation was not in direct relation to the column writing but only heightened his personal stance on the issue.

“I was fired up about what these highways were doing to cities likeBaltimore,” Dilts said.

His column ran with the Sun into the ‘70s when he had explored not just the interstate system and its impacts, but also the state of city dwelling and the continued development ofBaltimore.

“I think I’m a person who has opinions and likes to ventilate them in various ways. I had these ideas and I had an avenue to express them. That’s a pretty good combination,” he said.

During my interview with Dilts, he did say his column and the writings of others on the staff did receive some criticism and backlash. He referred to times when former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Shaefer would march right into the Sun newsroom with a concern.

“There was conflict. At that time, if Mayor Schaefer didn’t like something, he came write up to the 5th floor [of the Sun building] and complained about it. Sometimes he would call out reporters by name,” he said.

Dilts also said that in writing for a newspaper, it’s very difficult to keep one’s opinion completely out of a situation. And so column writing and editorial writing provides that vice for reporters. Column writing gives the reporter the ability to gather facts and different sides and present them along with their own analysis and opinion on the situation.

The tricky part is when you are covering a topical story as straight news and then going and writing an opinionated column about the same issue. We’ve all been trained to remain objective in news coverage no matter what journalism program you hail from. So it seems as if there are times when you need to turn off your strong opinions and turn them back on, depending upon what you’re writing.

“It can be the same person doing the opinion writing and the news reporting. Sometimes there are things where you can put a zinger in your column that can slop over into the news writing,” he said.

Nevertheless, Dilts says we are not machines, we are humans and we all have opinions, which makes column writing so important and effective if a writer has a purpose.

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  1. […] neighborhoods and historic areas throughout the city. Sources that are still in the city include Baltimore Sun columnist James D. Dilts, 1968-1969 MAD president Art Cohen, 1967-1968 MAD president Stuart Wechsler, among […]

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