Getting Workshopped

NEW ORLEANS — For several years (see the Grapevine, Boston and Philadelphia categories at right), Brick has had write-ups of the sessions of the annual confab of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I’m not sure if many besides the fellow conferees will be interested, but it’s for the record. I am secretary, after all.

My usual journalistic disclaimer: Full reports would be ridiculous. If you were there, you heard and later retained what was interesting or worthwhile. If you weren’t with us in New Orleans you wouldn’t even be … hello? hello?

Louisiana Lt. Gov.Mitch Landrieu was not there for his 8:35 a.m. Friday official welcome to the NSNC so the Katrina panel of Times-Picayune staff started early: “Covering the End of the World.” Photographer Ted Jackson’s slide show made many of us teary. He said he changed his approach to shooting: Helping people became within the first hours more important than getting the best and most timely pictures. He said he was the first-responder (that’s cop-speak) way too often. He still feels that, people first, but simultaneously that pictures is what he does best and what he does that best helps people in the long run. Jarvis DeBerry had from his editorial writer’s view his work as it developed, combined with the loss of his own home and neighborhood. The Editor, Jim Amoss, didn’t or maybe couldn’t add much to these eyewitness accounts. Whenever I meet a corner-office occupant I wonder, could I work for them? At the risk of burning unseen bridges, that man seemed on autopilot. He said the right things with polished pacing, looked no NSNC member in the eye, then he left.

Landrieu arrived in the middle of the above panel, so the newspaperpeople let him in, resuming after his 15 minutes. The dignitary was one smooth politician — in a good way. He had passion and he had statistics.

“The Storm Less Visible, the Tempest Less Covered: Mental Illness,” was the panel I was asked to moderate. Times-Picayune health and higher-ed reporter John Pope gave some background on covering the suicides and related calamities. James Mazza of the University of Washington, Seattle, a professor who trains school psychologists, revealed a lot of dramatic stats on the incidences of mental illness among the young: There’s a lot more of it than lay people think there is, and it actually is pretty easy to find and tally if the official knows what to look for. Fordham (NYC) professor Elizabeth Stone teaches journalism, memoir writing and literature — and also advises the student newspaper. The New York Times occasionally publishes her, most recently in April on the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech, an incident of possibly preventable violence by a known unstable person. While journalists may think they’re stubborn about wanting facts in the open, these two academics were adamant about not letting shame hide the prevalence of mental illness and their attendant details.

Mayor Ray Nagin, speaking at lunch, was about like you’ve seen on TV. He wants to do good, and he had done a lot, and he sometimes can’t resist being a smart-mouth, even at the cost of his political career. He did notl, however, give us any colorful quotes.

Getting winded? All these sessions were under an hour. For 90 minutes in the afternoon, we heard “The American Way of Dissent: Whistle-Blowers and Investigative Reporters.” The emphasis was on the former. The latter was Deepa Fernandes, who works for the Pacifica radio station in New York City. If you know about Pacifica, that should explain the grain of salt. But she believes in what she’s doing, and with her youth and intelligence, we should expect to hear from her or about her for many years. Randy Fertel and Hamilton Fish V — well, stick them separately in a search engine. Sigh, they wore us out with 20-minute presentations each. The world likely is a better place for Daniel Ellsberg and James Wilson (Valerie Plame’s husband), but Fertel’s and Fish’s self-congratulatory attitude did not sit well. Newspapers have a hard time with people trying to be whistle-blowers. One hears, often years after the fact, that so-and-so was a hero for doing so. Too much of the time, in the moment, the journalist gets the person’s information and finds ulterior motives or a loony with too much time on their hands.

“Why the Wetlands Matter to You” with R. King Milling was very important. So I went to my room to nap.

A very good idea now, too.

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