Best New Columnist

Tracee Hamilton
The Washington Post

After Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell sustained a bunch of abuse in a late-December game against Dallas, Washington Post sports columnist Tracee Hamilton decided it was time to protect the passer. Pointing out that Campbell never complained and never turned on his mates, she wrote, “Campbell has spent so much time on the ground this season, gazing up, that he could have a minor in astronomy.”

Not long after that piece hit the streets, Hamilton got a voice mail from former Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser. “That column didn’t work and this is why,” Kornheiser said, before arguing that Hamilton’s heart wasn’t fully behind her tribute to Campbell. The piece came off limp.

Hamilton appreciates the advice from her ex-colleague but says he doesn’t call with rants too often.

And why would he? After all, Hamilton is too busy making subscribers forget about the paper’s glory-days sports columnists—chiefly, Kornheiser himself. Week after week, Hamilton deploys 26 years of sports experience and a roaring sense of humor to the delight of Skins fans, Nats fans, college basketball fans, and Olympics fans.

“She’s a great observer of sports and culture, and she knows TV really well,” says Matthew Vita, the Post’s top sports editor, “and she can really write.”

Especially between parentheses. Here is Hamilton writing about the judging of the figure skating competitions at the Vancouver Olympic games: “The system cuts both ways. It certainly doesn’t reward artistic performers such as American Johnny Weir. Weir is graceful and fluid, his programs are clean and his music complements his choreography instead of serving as background Muzak. (His flamboyance also may work against him, which is ridiculous. Of course rhinestones sparkle a little brighter when Weir wears them. They know they are home.)”

No matter where Hamilton’s riffs wind up, they’re often rooted in some serious sports knowledge—as in the following passage from a recent column on offensive figure-staking outfits at the Olympics: “Even IOC President Jacques Rogge said last month he might have to intervene, and he’s a noted non-intervener, except when Usain Bolt exuberantly celebrates being the fastest man alive. That he can’t tolerate.”

Skills that sharp are well rewarded in sports journalism. A columnist of Hamilton’s stature and age—49—can expect to have bounced among several high-paying gigs by this point. So why didn’t anyone know about Hamilton until last June?

Because she was hiding out at the Post, busy making other people’s copy better. A native of Lincoln, Kansas, and a graduate of the University of Kansas, Hamilton worked for 26 years as an editor, first for the Detroit Free Press, then briefly for a Delaware daily, and then for the Post, where she alighted in 1993.

A turning point came last year, when the new regime of Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli dropped a re-org plan on the newsroom. Ranking sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz moved over to helm Metro, Vita became the new sports guy, and Matthew Rennie rose to serve as the section’s No. 2. Hamilton appeared to be in a holding pattern: “I would have kept doing what I was doing and been content,” she says.

Vita had other ideas. He pulled Hamilton into his office and proposed that she move to columnist. The career-long editor would have to think that one over. “I was in shock and in some ways I still am,” says Hamilton, who accepted the new job the next day.

The seeds of Vita’s power move reside in the Post’s archives. While serving as the paper’s lead Olympics editor over the years, Hamilton had written sidebar columnettes summarizing the day’s events in Athens or Turin or Beijing. They were brilliant, the only must-read in the paper’s then-sprawling array of Olympics coverage. “It was just great, some of the best stuff we wrote,” says Vita.

It helped that the newspaper has an active editor-writer revolving door. And Hamilton’s colleagues are happy that she passed through it: Her work has received plaudits up and down the paper’s hierarchy, including Chairman Donald Graham—“Tracee is a sharp observer and very funny,” writes Graham in an e-mail—as well as Publisher Katharine Weymouth, former Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., and her own editors. No word yet from Brauchli, says Hamilton when asked about the current executive editor.

Hamilton is now amid a migration to washingtonpost.com, where she’s started doing half-hour morning chats with her fans. Minicolumns and perhaps video presentations will also become part of the mix.

The effect may be to chain Hamilton a bit more to her desk—but that may be part of the plan anyhow. Another tidbit of advice the new columnist picked up from Kornheiser was to stay in the office in the interest of keeping the analysis edgy. “He said never to leave the office and go anywhere because if you meet people, you’ll like them,” says Hamilton.

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