Fare Thee Well Address

This column first was published as the “President’s Message” in the May 2012 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Dear Larry,

[NSNC Vice President Laurence D. Cohen is on the slate of nominees for the May 6 election, for 2012-14 president.]

This, the columnists presidency, has been a humbling experience. I’ve had plenty of humbling experiences in my life, so I should know.

When you were nominated for vice president, you asked me for tips so I suggested you consider U.S. vice presidents such as Alben Barkley and Charles W. Fairbanks.

Now I offer:

Hoist your opinions as the leader’s consideration counts.
Avoid saying anything, it’ll upset someone.

The board is a single entity, proved by many unanimous votes.
The board is a hydra of personalities, proved by many flurries of emails.

The NSNC is trending down like the rest of the print media.
The NSNC remains solvent with a consistent number of members, if you weigh 15 years not the last six.

While I have held several mid-level newsroom management jobs, a nonprofit’s presidency proved surprisingly different.

In business, workers accept pay in return for labor. That doesn’t mean the boss has much direct authority — that’s why bookstores have dozens of shelves of advice. In nonprofits, people offer to be officers and other positions for no or modest remuneration, so a president has little clout.

Persuasion is overrated.

What presidents do is make scores of decisions. Even with an able executive director — and Luenna Kim is a peach — there’s a zillion choices that fall below troubling the board for a vote yet demand direction.

Some of these decisions are important enough to seek input from the board. Yet many decisions come to a president because they are too minor or too broad to be handled by anyone else. (This is also true in business management.)

Over time, I realized directing a thumb up or down, along with an explanation, was so creative that it resembled writing columns!

Being the pivot of a writers group (maybe other nonprofits) takes the skills of a columnist. You find or are assigned a topic, then there’s research (maybe mining your memory) and imagination. A column must be framed — satire or serious, story or exposition. Not least is weighing the impact of all these choices on the audience.

When I didn’t feel like writing my blog, I’d recall that I’d spent 10-90 minutes several times that week answering NSNC e-mails.

Lesson: Impatience or exhaustion pushes clarity to be inversely proportional to tact.

Unless you’re an extrovert or believe yourself called to leadership, then you spend most of life trying not to be noticed. Exposure was just as vulnerable as I feared: I have pissed people off. I regret accidentally angering people in these two years.

Every time there’s been a misstep, it was mine — I could tell you stories, but that would spoil everyone else’s fun. Every time something right happened, another officer or member deserved the credit.

Because I was not seeking a leadership job, when nominated my first goal was to think up some goals. I announced them at the 2010 Bloomington conference:

I. Consider NSNC a triad: Education, support and advocacy. Everything we do provides all of these but in varying ratios. Greater success, fewer wasted moves, can be had by awareness of this.

II. Respect all Three Waves of membership: Our first members were staff columnists. The second set comprised novices and free-lancers. The current, third wave are online columnists, bloggers.

III. Use Points I and II to continue to ride out the Good Depression in general and in particular the media’s thrashing carnivorous evolution.

Today, the NSNC is in the black, has great members and is days away from what promises to be a spectacular conference.

What will success be for you, Larry? Your call. As for me, this Boy Scout dropout tried to leave the campsite just a little cleaner than I found it.

[Note: Ben joined the NSNC board as archivist in 2005. He has been nominated to be 2012-14 NSNC Director of Online Media.]

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