Post-Standard columnist is the voice of the community

Weekly columnist Sean Kirst talks about his approach to storytelling and his love of writing.

As a columnist for The Post-Standard for the past 11 years, Sean Kirst has acted as government watchdog, a community advocate, a local historian and more. 

But he’s not acting.

“I think this is one of those rare jobs where there’s not a lot of separation between who I am here and who I am at home,” Kirst said in an interview in the cafeteria of The Post-Standard building in downtown Syracuse. What you see is what you get, he said.

He’s wearing a short-sleeved, green, plaid, button-up shirt with black jeans and brown sandals. Pretty typical, he said. His Post-Standard ID badge hangs around his neck on a blue Onondaga Community College lanyard, and his glasses are layered on top, hanging by a separate blue lanyard. 

“It’s not like I come here and write about it and then go home and it’s not part of my circle,” Kirst said. He lives in the city, sent all three of his kids to city schools and is heavily involved in his community. “If I write about it effectively, it’s because it is a part of my life.”

He sips vanilla caramel cream coffee out of a white Styrofoam cup between stories – and there are a lot of stories. He starts with his childhood.

He grew up in Dunkirk, a “beat up little factory town near Buffalo.” He remembered his parents talking about all the problems in the city: garbage, city planning, jobs and schools. He wanted to make a difference.

“I found a real therapy in being able to write, and I also found that you could have some effectiveness,” he said. He studied English, with a professional writing concentration, when he attended State University of New York at Fredonia. After graduation, he found his way into a newsroom.

He started as a reporter, but after some time at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls,  he was looking for a change. Both he and his wife, Nora, had ailing parents then, he said, so they wanted to stay in Upstate New York. He set his sights on Syracuse and The Post-Standard. After an application and a written inquiry to the publisher, he was in.

“I’ve made this kind of commitment to the city because I think it’s valuable,” he said.

His job is not to critique everything that he thinks is wrong in a community, he said. He doesn’t want to be “one of those slash-and-burn” columnists that aim to attack or divide people.

His job, as he sees it, is to identify what is important to the people living in a community. Once he knows that, he said, he can both highlight examples of those things and call out the things that go “against the grain of the communal.” With the right balance, he said, you can really get at the essence of a community.

“You know how I look at it as a columnist? I look at it as, you’re an archer, and you’ve got all these different arrows in your quiver,” he said, reaching toward his back to choose an invisible arrow, setting it on his bow and releasing it across the cafeteria. 

“It’s really important to mix up the arrows that you use,” he said, with a shrug. 

So he covers crime, social injustice and policy issues, he said, but he also enjoys lighter columns, too. For example, he said, he recently wrote a piece about adoption rates of black cats in shelters, an idea inspired because of his family's three black cats.

“It’s important to me to bring a variety of stuff to the forum so that when I go out in the community, people trust me,” he said. “Even if they disagree with me, they can still trust me.” 

There will always be people who disagree, he said. When he recalled a reader who labeled him as a “do-gooder Boy Scout” — an anonymous comment on The Post-Standard's website, — Kirst let out a loud and breathy laugh, throwing his head back and smacking his right hand down on the pink cafeteria table. He doesn’t let the “unbridled malice” of online comments get to him, he said. He’s more worried about what his community thinks, because those thoughts are what fuel his columns.

“The best columns are when you get at something that everybody feels, but nobody articulates,” he said, “and you just put it out there.”

This unique ability to get in the heads of the people in the community and to tell the story without taking ownership of their thoughts, is what has made Kirst such a mainstay in Syracuse. 

“He has a knack of knowing issues that are on the average person’s mind,” said Rich Sullivan, a managing editor at The Post-Standard who works closely with Kirst. The two meet regularly to talk about ideas for upcoming columns, and Sullivan said that he’s constantly amazed by Kirst’s ability to connect with people in a unique way.

“He always finds a different place to stand, to change the perspective,” Sullivan said.  You’d never find him in the line of onlookers at a parade, Sullivan explained. “He’d be off over there, next to the old veteran waving a little flag.”

But the magic doesn’t stop when Kirst finishes reporting. 

“My column is on my mind right now,” he said around 10:45 a.m., taking another sip of his coffee, “and it won’t be off my mind until 1 a.m.”

When he finishes writing a story, he said, he reads and rereads the copy, looking for mistakes, typos or anything that’s unclear. It’s probably not healthy, he admits, but it comes from a good place. He doesn’t want to make a mistake that could hurt anyone, he said.

“If he could catch the truck as it was rolling out, he would,” Sullivan said with a laugh. 

This could mean that Kirst is working all the time, but it’s more like the opposite, his youngest son, Liam, said.

“It’s kind of nice because he writes about the stuff that he likes in life, so it’s not even like he’s working,” Liam said. 

Liam, who graduated from Corcoran High School earlier this year and is heading to Syracuse University, says he hopes to study journalism. He imagines he’ll end up doing online work rather than print. He says his father's work inspires him to write.

“He loves what he does,” Liam said. “He just does what he loves and he’s good at it.”

Though Kirst is quick to talk about how and why he loves his job, you won’t find him bragging. For him, it’s not about recognition.

“It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter if his byline appears, not to him,” said The Post-Standard Executive Editor Mike Connor. “There’s no pride. There’s no ego.”

He’s always thinking about others, whether it’s through his columns or through community involvement, Nora said. He often comes in to visit the kids at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School, where Nora teaches, to speak with them, encourage them to get involved in community sports or to bring treats around the holidays.

“He just cares about people and gives everyone respect,” she said. “He can empathize with them. He’s just a really good guy, and I think a lot of people see that.” 

But it’s Kirst’s own eye for detail, Connor said, that really sets him apart.

“Sean is able to get inside people’s stories and lives in a way that I’ve never seen other reporter’s achieve,” Connor said. 

“He elevates unremarkable or un-remarked upon lives,” Connor said, “And he brings something that nobody else in this journalistic community brings.”

“The joy of it is still to be able to do something like that and get paid for it,” Kirst said. “But my absolute favorite part of the job…” he trials off, and lets out half of a laugh. 

 “My absolute favorite thing is when I write something, and I sit back and say ‘whoa.’ And I just feel it, and I know other people are going to feel it. It’s like the words are a conduit to a feeling, and it just feels so right that I don’t know what to do with it.

"It’s just this unbelievable feeling in the bottom of your gut that you just — you know — you just got it.”


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