Hunting and Gathering … Information

VENTURA, Calif. — The annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convened in the morning, hewing closely to the announced theme of “Survive and Thrive.” Yes, we heard tips; the fate of newspapers may be out of our control, but columnists both staff and freelance theoretically have a fighting chance to also pursue some similar genre or gambit.

To open, Jody Brannon of Arizona State felt survival would come by columnists being “platform agnostic,” in that writers can publish on paper or pixel. Brannon contributed mainly coinages. Besides “platform agnostic,” she used “technologic” instead of technological and “reality-TV-ization.” I think I know what the last should mean but am unsure what it has to do with personal journalism.

The other panelist was down-to-earth. Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute said that with the layoffs universal among newspapers, columnists must copy-edit themselves rigorously before submitted their work to a desk or posting online themselves. It’s up to us.

Columnists should get extra credit for the more facts and research they use, Prince said, unlike bloggers specifically and non-newspaper-trained commentators in general. Those of us who come up through the ranks know to do reporting for reliability and simply to create original work. Regular bloggers, without criticizing them, he said, react to the reportage and the journalism-based opinions of others.

• • •

Rick Newcombe, 58, is CEO of Creators Syndicate, a major player essentially from its start but now is even bigger through recent purchases of or mergers with other syndicates and their stables of columnists and cartoonists, which for Creators now numbers more than 200. For those who keep up with how to get published, such as studying Suzette Martinez Standring’s book The Art of Column Writing, Newcombe’s advice is familiar: Get thee online with haste. A blog or Web site will do fine. It is quite possible, especially with the Internet, writers like us don’t need the services of a syndicate, he said, especially if you are comfortable with bookkeeping and marketing.

A columnist will be more attractive to Creators if he or she is being published in a newspaper already. Sure it means someone earlier in the chain sees potential in the writer, but it also means the columns produced already have been edited. Creators has a staff of editors, but a solid read by a newspaper staff means a decreased chance for a lawsuit over accuracy or false accusation, Newcombe said. Of course, that’s appealing to his staff.

Newcombe said he is confident that his celebrity columnists write their own work. All have submitted handwritten columns on occasion, he noted, from Hillary Rodham Clinton (now secretary of state but wrote a column as first lady), to Andrew Young and now Bill O’Reilly.

I’ve also quoted Newcombe in this Brick.

• • •

A segment of the remarks by Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times (author of The Soloist) is illuminated in this Brick, but as he spoke for more than an hour and had lots to say, well that’s here.

He continues to cover the parallel issues of homelessness and mental health, but that’s not his column’s sole foci. Lopez finds the best long-term solution for a homeless person is “supportive housing,” where clients get shelter, regular meals, medical and vocational help, and supervision. Shelters where the person gets little more than a meal and a cot is too short-term, he said. Even after all he’s seen, Lopez does not give money to panhandlers; instead he gives them a list of five places where they can find free food, shelter and other assistance. “I don’t see where a dollar here and there helps them.”

Lopez has no problem with bloggers per se, but to him what they write comprises opinion, “That is what everyone is doing online.” Even Twitter, which is “opinion in 140 characters or less.” Columnists, every kind that was represented in the room, he said, offer something the casual set doesn’t: “All that we columnists have going for us is stories, unlike bloggers.”

His first column was for the San Jose Mercury News, and his editor there tortured and taught him by reading his column aloud back to him. The process taught him the “necessity of rewriting.” Then his editor at his next paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, taught him what voice is, which for the editor (Bill Marimow) then to Lopez, is the same as mission. Lopez found his mission/voice in Philly, which on the one hand was empathizing and writing about people who reminded him of his working-class family and their neighborhood, and on the other hand was driven by the old saw about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Lopez has given a lot a attention to mental health issues since meeting Nathaniel Ayers the homeless string player, but he was not before and is not now some kind of Advocate Writer. (Yet, Lopez, asked, “Why is there no Saturday morning 10k run for paranoid schizophrenia?”) He’s a reportage-centric columnist, and such subjects — along with others — catch his judgment as being newsworthy.

As Lopez put it, “We have to get out of the chair, pound the pavement, knock on doors and get our stories.” This differentiates us from bloggers and by extension makes us better than they.

Lopez encouraged the columnists to aim for the newspaper audience as it now is, skewing to seniors: “It’s the old people — specifically the ones who go for the early bird special at such and such a restaurant — who are still readers. So write for them.”

• • •

Frequent NSNC presenter — and sheesh what a good guy — W. Bruce Cameron was asked to talk about writing for movies and TV. He still writes a weekly humor column, but 8 Simple Ways moved him to Hollywood in multiple ways.

He recommends the first professional assistance a writer needs to hire is not an agent but a lawyer specializing in entertainment. Agents, publicists and the like will have multiple clients and can have little reason not to burn one client if that helps another, Cameron said. An attorney is bound by the bar to represent the best interests of every client he accepts.

For Cameron, “The keyword in movies [or other broadcast projects] is risk, how much money are you willing to risk, and how much time are you willing to throw into this.” For him, an iffy proposal that will take six solid weeks to develop is an unacceptable allotment of time.

The now low cost of camcorders and video-editing software puts moviemaking in everyone’s reach. He suggests if you don’t have the resources then to shoot an entire movie instead to create the equivalent of a trailer, which he also called a “reel.” The trailer then can be shown to potential investors or directors.

He recommends one book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, by Syd Field, and one word-processing program, Final Draft. On humor columns and humor writing, Cameron sees Twitter and Facebook as great tools to point people to your work, which would in turn be posted at your paper, blog or Web site.

Cameron quote: “A humorist is a real person who lives in a fictional world.”

• • •

Columnist Dave Lieber of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and self-syndicated columnist Suzette Standring pushed columnists to see markets in related fields.

We’re in hard times, Lieber said, and have less time to learn to become better columnists in the dying newspaper field: “Self-preservation trumps self-improvement. We’re talking entrepreneurship.”

Standring noted the related avenues of books (using her Art of Column Writing as an example), public speaking for a fee and even reading your columns on community access cable, either with you on camera or just audio with a slide show as the visual.

“Note the company you keep if you are published in an aggregator Web site,” she cautioned. Publishers and others will judge you by the others posting at the site.

Lieber calls columnists the “hunters and gatherers of information,” and by making that metaphor literal we become “information entrepreneurs.”

The two then engaged audience members to telling the others what non-column endeavors they use to make money.

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