On Thursday, January 7, longtime and much-admired columnist Diana Nelson Jones announced her resignation from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was the day after the deadly Capitol riot, incited by President Trump, that rocked the world, and it followed a now infamous tweet by Susan Allan Block, the wife of the publisher.
“I feel like we’re living in ‘Opposite World,’” Jones says when we catch up with her. “Everything is the opposite of what it should be.”
Her many followers on social media know that Jones has been struggling with the big decision for some time now. You could almost hear The Clash tune playing in the background of her Facebook posts as she weighed her choice: should I stay or should I go?
“It started with Keith Burris’ editorial on Martin Luther King Day in 2018 — Reason as Racism,” says the North Side resident, referring to the editorial that went viral and angered so many. “I came into work that day just in despair. So, it’s been three years almost to the day.
“My interest in the Post-Gazette was eroded by many things — by the paper not looking like the paper I loved for so long,” says Jones. “It wasn’t the paper of Bill Block, Sr. or John Craig or David Shribman. I always said I was going down with the ship, but I didn’t know the ship would be hijacked.”
The pandemic didn’t help matters. “I don’t like getting stories on the phone,” says the writer whose Walkabout column was named for her explorations into neighborhoods. Her trademark story is about quirky and interesting places in town and the sometimes unusual and always compelling people, from movers and shakers to unsung heroes. She writes with a sense of poetry, with just the right notes of grace and whimsy.
I had taken a foray from my densely populated neighborhood into a scene from nowheresville, a world of profound silence. I was reminded of the inexplicable transitions that are common in dream sequences.
When you walk the same route every day, the experience becomes etched. Emotionally, you move like a phonograph needle on the groove of an old record, hearing the same song.
When you wander off somewhere different, no matter how close to home you might be, you get a small emotional high, a triumphant feeling of finding your way from being lost.
That sense of discovery she relished wasn’t as frequent once the pandemic hit. “Getting out to interview people was like a party,” she exclaims. “But didn’t happen often enough.”
And another thing, she points out: “I’m 63. I’ve been doing this for 40 years! I got kind of tired of it. It just started to feel like a struggle to care.”
When the D.C. riot erupted last Wednesday, and a tweet lit up social media in western PA and Ohio and beyond, her decision was made.
“It all came together with the Susan Block tweet the other day. I said that’s it. It was death by a thousand cuts.”
Jones has been with the PG since October 1989, starting out part-time as a “fill-in kind of thing” on the news desk. A few months later, they assigned her to features, her preferred writing style. “I was never a news junkie,” she says. After the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press merged in ’93, she started her column.
She’s at peace with her decision to leave and is now working on a novel that she started in March about the “tenuous business of newspapers.” It features a reporter – not her but based on her experiences — in a fictional version of her hometown of Shinnston, W.Va., two hours south of Pittsburgh.
So many heroes
In four decades of writing about neighborhoods and the many people shaping them, Jones has a long list of people she has admired along the way.
“So many!” she says. “The 2900 block of Webster Avenue in the Hill District who came together to work as a unified block to support each other with help from the Neighborhood Resilience Project and its trauma therapists. Rev. Paul Abernathy and his organization is doing amazing work in the Hill.
“Rob Stephany at The Heinz Endowments, who worked at East Liberty Development Inc. and was the source of numerous stories, Jim Richter in Hazelwood, Reverend Tim Smith with the Center of Life in Hazelwood, Elly Fisher and Wanda Wilson in Oakland, Rick Belloli on the Southside.
“All those people in community development who worked so hard with so much advocacy,” she says. “I was taken by their professionalism and devotion. And just regular folks,” she adds, “people in neighborhoods.”
Along the way, she built up her own tribe of fans and supporters. At last count, Jones had 244 Facebook comments on her post announcing her resignation, heaped with praise and thanks for her notable work over the years which touched the lives of many.
One column that stands out for her is about a veterinarian. “I always had a hankering for doing a story about a large animal vet,” she says. She found one in Rick Fondrk and asked him if she could go on his rounds one day.
As they started out in his truck, he dropped a bombshell, telling the reporter he was diagnosed with ALS and this was his farewell tour to his clients.
She was struck “with profound sorrow,” along with a realization that the story would take on a different dimension.
On his rounds, people slip him cards, touch his arm. A client in Clairton wrote a letter that started ‘Well done thy good and faithful servant!!’ underlining each word.
‘One client asked if she could give me a hug,’ he said. ‘She gave me the biggest hug.’ He goes silent and dabs at his eyes. ‘It’s been an emotional time.’