I Thought We Were in Trouble

VENTURA, Calif. — We themed (why not?) the 2009 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists “Survive and Thrive,” and the speakers returned working titles that showed they understood, what with the now daily frosts at the beginning of the Newspaper Ice Age. So why are they so upbeat?

It’s grim humor, gallows or M-A-S-H, in the face of adversity. It’s the finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Newman-Redford quips (“For a moment there I thought we were in trouble”).

Or maybe it’s just plain old glass half-full. Rick Newcombe, CEO of Creators Syndicate, was asked point-blank. “I am totally optimistic about the columnist profession,” he said. “There are so many outlets now. Years ago there were only so many places you could be published. Now with Google [Analytics], you can get feedback instantly, and can use that, and that’s better.”

Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, currently best known for The Soloist, might feel lucky, or might feel invulnerable given his success. But he doesn’t. He just isn’t glamorous. If he sat down at an empty desk in any newsroom — and all newsrooms (no need to hedge with most) have empty desks — not only would he fit in, he might be invisible. He’s got a goatee and thinning gray hair, and was wearing the right clothes. a denim-looking gimme cap, rumpled plaid workshirt, worn and loose blue jeans and scuffed brown shoes. He’s taller and thinner than he seemed on 60 Minutes.

Lopez noted the huge layoffs at his own paper. His own popularity at the paper won’t save it. He too could be laid off. But he does not intend to ship out early, find another career or go it on his own — though he of all columnists obviously could at this point of his career. As he said, “I look for where to fall, [such as] a teaching job, then I write a column that gets a really great response, then I see it’s worthwhile.*

He chose to quote a friend of his, New York Times business columnist David Carr.

We keep shooting until we run out of bullets.”

Does that need explanation? Deal with the future when it happens is how I take it, because it’s what I’m feeling about my newspaper job, which is not as a columnist but an editor and page designer. For myself I cannot plan now because the more obvious career choices are in as bad a shape as mine. The choice I make in three weeks or six months, if I have to make it, likely will be different at those points. It’ll be different in two years, if it comes up then.

The Brick entries from this conference thus come under the heading, “Few Bullets More.”

* This paragraph was updated after I re-examined my notes.

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