The Room in the Elephant

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the September 2011 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists has been cleaning up after the party in Detroit. While washing glasses and emptying the trash, we share the usual mix of gleeful recollection of anecdotes and recriminations about disasters that could’ve been worse, just like any reunion or New Year’s shindig.

This conversation has continued longer than usual, out of necessity. Yet for feeling like the NSNC world is crashing in a bit, our data are looking pretty good. What color is the elephant in the room?

See over there, by the filing cabinet? That’s the national recession; if it’s a double-dip, where was the boomlet in the middle? Look here, on my desk, the print media are imploding (as are video media). Journalism will continue in some form, as will our leg of the profession — commentary and reflection — but individually we may not be able to wait for the toner to dry on what forms it will take.

Our numbers are stored in a trunk that we open in our bimonthly online board meetings. Also, our executive director hauls it to every conference: Each conferee gets the financial reports stapled to the agenda of the annual general membership meeting.

Those who studied them — especially our new officers (Vice President Larry Cohen, Treasurer Jim Casto and Membership Chair Rose Valenta in two-year posts and Social Media Chair Tracy Beckerman as a one-year member) — were struck by the numbers for the conference, membership, contest and financial.

We are asking if the conference is an endangered species. Can we afford to hold one in 2012? What aspects would have to change to avoid canceling our annual education and advocacy party?

If we lost money in Detroit, we’d have a simple solution to a simple problem, but its host Brian O’Connor (now Conference Committee chair) reports we’ll net a few thousand dollars. Both our problems and any solutions are so complex as to resemble blind men touching … an 800-pound gorilla.

Conference. The Detroit session got 59 members and guests. That it’s just 25 percent of our membership is sad. But in the last six years, three conferences saw about 60, and the other three had over 100. With one variable, a stats idiot like me could find a solution. Any conference host in any year, though, can point to dozens of variables: overall cost, location, the seminar topics, the weekend chosen, overall economy, the media’s economic health, your kid’s graduation or wedding, food poisoning the day before the flight, being named a column contest finalist, your newspaper deciding not to pay your expenses and so on.

Membership. It’s hovering between 225-250 paid-up members. We had double, over 450, in 2006. But that was when the nation had it good, too. When many years are examined, though, 200-250 is stable for the NSNC. But it’s pitiable when there are many thousands of columnists as well as bloggers who write column-like posts (who are welcome both to join NSNC and enter our contest).

Contest. Most years in the past decade have seen more than 300 entries, but this year we got 228. That was despite more marketing than usual, including buying an ad for about five weeks in Facebook. Finding no explanation, I asked about it three weeks ago in St. Louis at the annual meeting of the Council of National Journalism Organizations. My peers assured me our down year was a fluke, their contests fluctuate widely year to year.

Financial. Membership dues has been roughly stable for three years, and Detroit’s modest net gain more than makes up for the isolated decline in entries to the column contest. Facts are facts, though, and 2012 might be a bad year all round.

No journalism or writing group, large or small, has it figured out. The CNJO until this year met semiannually, and in St. Louis we tentatively decided to not convene in 2012) In late August, the American Society of News Editors cut four of its eight staff positions, Jim Romenesko reported at, and the ASNE also was inquiring about office space at a journalism school. (Our administrator, Luenna Kim, works part-time for us.)

There’s no denying the room in the elephant can hold a lot.

Here’s the point when a good president asks for fresh ideas for the board to consider. Write them via our Contact Form.

Now I’m going to be something of a jerk and ask you not to not waste our time, with soft suggestions.

Being both information addicts and writers, we officers have argued about nearly every new suggestion we come across. We’ve ruled out many through debate, and tried then abandoned others (from now on we will use the free aspects of Facebook, but no more ads, to name one of my follies).

We can’t afford advertising. We can’t afford consultants. We won’t change our name for now: Every indication is that websites of news and comment will continue to be called magazine websites and newspaper websites. The topical short essay that we espouse has a 300-year history as a column of type running down a page of newsprint.

Thus we want your ideas but weigh them on three levels: We desire ideas that have proven success. We might be seduced by proven ideas successful in groups similar to the NSNC. We are aroused by proven ideas — which work in proximate situations — and which have done so in the last two years.

When I was little, next-door neighbor Charlie Hubbard every spring would rake the eaves and gable vents of his house with a bamboo pole, sweeping out cobwebs, wasp nests and bird nests. I asked what he was doing.

“I’m shooing away elephants,” Mr. Hubbard said. That I believed him was a joke between our families for years.

With its long tail the newspaper columnists society has quite a future. Blogs have proven to endure. A number of web log posts are like newspaper columns — political punditry, extended humor, sports rants, family reflections, gardening advice.

Are they really columns? They do pass the “duck test”: If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, swims like a duck, then it’s an elephant.

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