Down to the Wire

PHILADELPHIA — The final sessions of the 2007 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists were the most traditional. In panel discussion format, largely avoided until this morning, perennial subjects were again addressed: techniques, ethics, books and technology.

This will be brief, a note or two on each. After all, three panelists and a moderator turn into transcription summary mush. And to what end. These are trade secrets. Want to know more? See you in New Orleans in June 2007.

Columnists turned authors emphasized considering the Publication on Demand format, except for when they didn’t.Dave Lieber said look for better price points with overseas printers, then market yourself online and in person with the confidence you want to project. Jennifer Weiner and Lisa Scottoline have New York publishers; the vanity press need not wait for their checks, yet they put in their years first and still work diligently.

Ethics turns into a not-black, not-white, but gray area again, where each incident is judged separately. In part this was today due to having as one panelist Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross, where his beat keeps him in nightclubs while the rest of us debate accepting a cup of coffee. Suzette Martinez Standring quoted Winnipeg’s Lindor Reynolds: “My credibility is my currency.”

Techniques this year was called this year Research Methods. After no more than four minutes on good Web sites for public information, the discussion turned to sound gumshoe reporting. People magazine’s Nicole Egan advised, “Be quietly persistent and be nice,” emphasizing the last with notable sincerity and several famous examples, proving courtesy always especially to people in pain. Crimes and natural disasters put people in grief and the highest stress. Egan noted many national-level reporters are the rudest, and how compassion not only is right but often gives an ethical reporter more access.

Closing the workshops was the high-tech panel, where video columns were explained. Indiana’s Mike Leonard explained and showed the essential monologue. California’s Jason Love created barely two-minute documentaries with very little narration. Lieber, of Texas, fit between the two. Wisconsin’s Rick Horowitz performed skits — song parodies and fake commercials. Thus the blooming field is wide open. I left with an old hunch: This one may be a fad, not the future of commentary. Or just a sideline.

My crystal ball has not been right yet. But the sense of limited audience still seems self-evident.

The conference closed Saturday night with the keynote speech by the 2007 lifetime achievement winner, Clarence Page. In just 10 or 15 minutes, Page considered his beginnings, honored predecessors and contemporaries from Ernie Pyle to Ellen Goodman, and also considered the future and how the medium may never have been the message: “The audience [for columns] is still out there. The media may change, but our challenge [for relevance and impact] does not.”


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