Folio the Leader

“Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
— Attributed to Tom Lehrer

DETROIT, 8:47 a.m. EDT, Friday, June 24, 2011 — Hear ye, hear ye, (swat newspaper) I am Ben Pollock, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I hereby call the 35th annual NSNC conference to order!

[Swat paper? The NSNC doesn’t have a gavel, and I thought it would be fun to use a rolled-up newspaper in its stead. I had hoped to roll together the Friday Detroit News and Free Press, but inspiration struck at the elevator bank. On a table there as now usual were about four USA Todays. Gone are the days when a USA Today was slipped under every hotel room door.]

Take that, Gannett. I’m using USA Today as a gavel. Gannett, USA Today’s publisher, laid off 700 news employees on June 21 from among its many newspapers, so this is for them! (Whack! Whack!)

Your conference host, Brian O’Connor, will welcome you to Detroit in two minutes. I am welcoming you to the conference. I am glad to see you all here!

First, let me assure you that Brian has created an incredible schedule. You will be educated in writing and how to move your writing out. You will rock to Motown and be inspired by its art and decades of fomenting culture that has spread coast to coast and indeed the world. If you blink, you may miss something. If you go to bed before midnight tonight and tomorrow night, and sleep in just a little, you may miss value. You sure might miss some fun.

As the Ford slogan might go for us, “Have you written a column, lately?”

[It might seem self-serving to quote myself, to reprint my speech, “President’s Welcome to NSNC’s 35th Annual Conference.” It might seem convenient, to adapt something written June 23 and post it a few days later. But what was advised during the freelancing tips panel, “Happiness Is a Positive Cash Flow,” when you write something for one market, revise it as needed and send it elsewhere.

[The second point, convenience, is true enough; was anyone awake yet when I spoke this? The first, on self-serving, is wrong. My 2.5-minute opener was the first official act of the weekend. As my attempt to frame what was to come, the words were a guess and a gamble. I’m amazed I got close.]

As you look through all the bios in your conference booklet, you will see that we comprise all sorts of short-form journal and journalism writers here. This is as good a time as any to point out how broad we are. I may be a scratched CD here, because I keep skipping back to this point.

We are columnists. “Blogger” just is the format. The “Web log” just is that posting date in the corner of your piece. (Unroll the wrinkled, torn USA Today and point at the folio line with the paper’s name, page number and date.) When you have a blog, you post another entry and it has a more recent day and time. Huh, folks, I just realized how similar the format is between essentially any blog and every newspaper and magazine’s folio line (pointing), with its page, pub title and date of issue.

In ink or in pixel or just in the planning stages, we are:

  • Commentators
  • Short-form memoirists
  • Humorists
  • Essayists
  • Hard news reporters with added color or a personal touch
  • Hobbyists and specialists such as cooks and gardeners, gamers and gadgeteers
  • Family bloggers
  • Critics
  • You get the idea

We write on paper, and we write in blogs. We show up on video and audio. They’re all columns. From the opening scene to the closing credits, movie reviewers are columnists. I point that out with an eye toward our 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Recipient, Roger Ebert.

When we were on broadsheets and pamphlets in the 18th century, we were columnists; that fellow Ben Franklin is a prime example, The Daily Beast’s John Avlon will tell you tomorrow. In these days of calamities when journalists in Japan earlier this year wrote their stories and commentaries with markers on poster board mounting them on walls at the epicenter of the earthquake and tsunami, those were newspapers.

We are in a time when what we write can be called anything. Yet saying blog is too amorphous, way muddier than all the sorts of short-form essays that are clearly evident as columns.

I say to all of you, call them columns, and keep calling them columns.

Shout them out as columns.

The business school concept of “branding” strikes many of us here as artificial and manipulative. But, you know, we need to proclaim our brand, columnist. If we don’t tell people what we are, they won’t be able to find any of us, choose the good ones. They won’t be able to read us.

We. Are. Columnists.

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