This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the April 2012 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists
It must have been this time of year in 1999, I was on the phone with my mom about soon flying to Louisville, Ky., for that year’s NSNC conference.
“You go there and ‘network’ your heart out. That’s what they call it now, right? Chat people up and see if any of them will hire you.”
“Mom, that’s not how it works.”
“You always say that. Get over your shyness.”
“No, Mom. They’re all people like me, new columnists or seasoned columnists. None of them do hiring.”
“Maybe they can put in a good word for you.”
This was to be my second conference. I had a vision of Mike Leonard. We met at the 1991 conference and in early 1992 I interviewed at his newspaper in Bloomington, when my then-fiance was considering a master’s at Indiana University in the fall. We talked copy editing and reporting jobs. I liked the editors, but my beloved decided to go to grad school in a few years, and elsewhere.
“Look at your paper, Mom. Most dailies already have their columnists settled, and they tend not to leave plum jobs like that. Then I’m just a jerk to these great people.”
“I’m sure you know best.”
We repeated that conversation every spring until she passed in 2004.
So my advice to new and seasoned conference goers?
Don’t network, party.
I don’t think I’m tempering that when I elaborate: Party like a nerd, party like a geek, party like a writer: Observe, take lots of notes, get to know interesting people in the same or similar professions, share meals, hang out afterward in the hospitality suite.
If you are by nature a traveler you’ll love how every year the NSNC ends up in a new place, and usually not a conventional convention site. Conversely, if getting out means just crossing the country to see relatives, let the NSNC spur you to a new locale. You may not write directly about Macon, Ga. — no one is holding a cotton boll to your head — but the place, its people and your fellow conferees will increase the quality of your writing and widen your readership.
With the recession, we’re expecting a somewhat lower turnout this May 3-6. But even if the NSNC’s promotions and this newsletter convince 15 percent of you to sign up for that weekend, it still will be an intimate gathering.
It’s like the investment advice of “buy low, sell high.” You buy low, 100 shares of NSNC at a dollar each, then when they’re $10 a share, sell some.
Large conferences are a blast. We NSNC long-timers have story upon story about Philly and Boston and Grapevine, Texas. But you could get a little lost in a crowd. Lecture class versus seminar course. A smaller conference — and it’ll stay small even if a few dozen of you sign up this week! — allows for deeper conversations with colleagues and more opportunities to howdy the speakers outside their podium time.
This isn’t networking. It’s hanging out with bright people in the same gig.
I like to think of myself as having great empathy. Plagiarism, however, I fail to understand. I know jerks do it; the evidence was overwhelming in March. Two NSNC members, Charley Memminger and George Waters, found columns of theirs and other writers were published, nearly word for word, by two serial plagiarists.
When I write, the sustaining pleasure is the satisfying sense I’m working from scratch, that it’s something original. However, no creative work is unique. After I finish a draft, “Googling” themes or phrases shows somebody’s always gotten there first. But substantially I own my stuff, and it’s obvious.
This is why my writing is inconsistent and serious. I’d rather risk embarrassment with foggy prose for the reward of pride when I score. Creating humor is so tough that when I’m dry I’ll pen the idea straight.
Is the easy way to write well or funny to steal it?
With some pity, note that when Jon Flatland of Minnesota and Steve Jeffrey of Alberta now apply for jobs, they’ll be hung from the same Google noose: They’ll be interviewed by people who’ve checked them out online and found their “miscreantivity,” thanks to our colleagues.
Also, today’s definition of intellectual property lines is only a bit over a century old. William Shakespeare and Bram Stoker now might be considered copy pirates. They’re saved by the genius of enriching old tales with storytelling prowess, colored with hard-won perspective.
Jeffrey’s favorite writer was NSNC Web Editor Sheila Moss, putting his name on 23 of her columns in one year, Waters found. I can’t imagine what she is feeling. Years ago, my apartment was broken into — lost a TV etc. — and the guy drank from a carton of milk then sat it on the kitchen floor. Is it like that?
And what’s the crook feel?
Not that I care.