Heartin’ Historic Hartford

For most summers, Brick has included reportage from the annual conferences of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. They were long, even when broken into several posts per weekend. Reporting this year’s, in Hartford, Conn., was tricky because I left my seat and note-taking repeatedly  when called away to troubleshoot.

I know I know. Heavy are the crowns of the immediate past president and director of online media. But I missed great lessons. Fortunately, others have written more, better and, gosh, briefer than what’s below, a single Brick this year. Those links are listed at this columnists.com post.

Hanging out with NSNC’s scribes has been a blast in every formal and informal circumstance since I joined in 1991 — in person at our conferences, via the monthly newsletter and email/Facebook/Twitter with those who have become true, close friends despite being hundreds of miles apart. Sure, it inspires my writing, that’s what it’s set up for. But NSNC membership strengthens my morale, and that’s been my near-literal lifeline.

It’s unexpected to have found in NSNC what I rarely got from my newspaper employers and their readers and sporadically from journalism peers and colleagues — camaraderie with heart and empathy with quips. It’s why I’ll stay in the society as my journalism career moves from memory to history (as it appears to be doing).

Besides, with the blog Brick and other avenues I find or create, I’ll always be a columnist.

We commentators soldier on like a M-A-S-H unit. “We are in a time of enormous creative destruction,” John Avlon said of the news media that Saturday (Bill Tammeus tweeted the quote as I missed it on some errand).

The NSNC conference every year feels like what family and school reunions ought to be like, an exuberant return to the bosom of where you belong.

Friday 28 June 2013

Mark Twain historian Steve Courtney takes far less than his allotted 30 minutes, which gives us more time to hear the smoothly delivered, hilarious anecdotes of Dallas Morning News columnist Dave Lieber. Dave’s point is how to deliver a 21st-century speech without slides. That is by telling stories, anecdotes strong enough to keep the audience’s attention. He does use a Sharpie on a jumbo pad stet on an easel, though. Where’s he going with that squiggle? People tend to doze off from PowerPoint slides of bullet points.

Good stories well told keep audiences alert, and Dave illustrates how to do both with his Texas tales. Also, columns should be stories and for the same reason, that they stick in the audience’s heads, a instinctive trait. The journalist in Dave is adamant that these those stories be accurate. This summary on Dave uses present tense, one of his tips.

The conference being three weeks ago compels me to use past tense elsewhere.

New Hampshire radio host and humor columnist Mike Morin used role-playing to show authors and budding authors how to use radio to promote their books. We get a book marketing hour almost every year. Seeing a few audience members in mock radio interviews on stage helped.

“You need to tease me,” Mike said at one point, to compel him to want you on his show, he said. “Make me your very first sale.”

We live in a tease world so pitch with that in mind. No lame jokes. Also, do some research on the station, Mike urged.

Later, Friday night, Mike accepted NSNC’s 2013 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award at historic Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum. He is a fellow who champions many area causes and helps them raise money. In his remarks Mike said, show people that you care about them — as opposed to talking about it, even sincerely. That’s why he volunteers. For him time volunteered equals money donated. “Pay it forward,” in short.

Off-stage, humor writer W. Bruce Cameron, a longtime NSNC member, saw my poncho as we boarded buses during one of our field trips, Billings Forge Community Works. It was intermittently raining:

“Ben, guys have either gear or stuff. Some carry stuff. You are a guy who carries gear.”

Maybe 30 hours later, late on Saturday night, Bruce, Mike and I would have a long conversation in NSNC’s infamously floating Hospitality Suite. We probably solved many of the world’s problems, and our own.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Rick Horowitz opened the day much as Dave did Friday, with a sprightly refresher on the basics of our craft. Rick’s was more about the written word and choices in tone, from conversational to formal.

Family columnists Lisa Smith Molinari and Jerry Zezima spoke of how to turn everyday household events and misadventures into copy, with some cautions.

“The world is full of people who will be offended if you say ‘good morning’ to them,” Zezima said. “If it’s afternoon, they may have a point.”

Details matter, as does overall structure to make stories interesting, suspenseful and funny, they said.

John Avlon, of CNN and The Daily Beast, stayed close to the Deadline Artists anthologies he co-edited by considering what made the greats classic. John’s top three are Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton and Mike Royko, with close runners-up, for personal rather than critical reasons perhaps, Molly Ivins and Westbrook Pegler. Dave Barry, yeah, he is right up there, John said. Molly Ivins could hit them out of the park, consistently.

John wondered about those pundits whose reputations are gold until you slog through their copy. There is, he said, the Mount Olympus column, done by major writers at major papers, often a memo to the president, at least in tone and certainly intent. The best of these have influenced policy. But even if influential, they tend to age badly.

The reason in large part is these gods of the metros’ newsrooms rarely report or do other research, he said. The Daily Beast doesn’t use folks like that. “We don’t do commodity news. We emphasize the reported column. Pure opinion is frankly lazy.”

Lots of columns show age, in terms of now being hard to read — as they’re stuck in their styles of the time — and irrelevant. What defies staleness, he said, is storytelling.

“You can get information anywhere, but what’s hard to find is someone to help you connect the dots,” John said. “That’s where columnists come in. It’s why we have a future.”

Amen, brother John.

Lunch was at City Steam Brewery, where we dined the previous Thursday.

The winner of the Jeff Kramer Mystic Tie award was announced over dessert. It’s a contest to create a parody based on the day’s headlines. The reason these never are archived at columnists.com illustrates John’s point: Today’s news wraps tomorrow’s fish.

Iowan Mike “Doop” Deupree, the Kramer necktie‘s 2012 winner, announced the scenario Friday: Write the top of an article on the National Security Agency recording the phone calls of which two people, the most unlikely to know each other, and what they talked about.

Doop, Kansas City’s Bill Tammeus and I picked Pittsburgh’s Samantha Bennett’s scrap-paper scribble.

Sam envisioned a befuddled Miss USA contestant, Miss Utah Marissa Powell, calling for advice from Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. It got a big lunch laugh, which was the point.

Humorist and University of Connecticut professor Gina Barreca gave the meal’s keynote. Hers was a standup routine shmeared with gravitas, or gravlax:

“Feminism is the last f-word in America. … It is the radical belief that women are human beings.” And a plea to men: “If you could just remember that ‘harass is one word.'” “You want to start an argument with a woman? Compliment her.”

In a hallway, someone recommends Tom Wolfe’s “Eunuchs of the Universe,” Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Jan. 4, 2013. Haven’t read it yet.

The link is noted because there’ve been several mentions of Wolfe’s The New Journalism anthology — by presenter Dave Lieber and separately the collegian columnists Jesse Rifkin and Blake Seitz. It’s now apparently out of print. I have the book and over the years reread it several times.

Veteran comedy writer and scenarist Alan Zweibel explained that he started out as a stiff stand-up comic, an awkward public speaker, so he turned to becoming a good writer. Later he taught himself to be effective on a podium.

Yet, Alan cautioned, be something beyond what you put on the page.

He paraphrased Neil Simon in defining a humor writing as a two-headed monster, where one is the loser who gets into messes while the other is the writer, who observes the first and forms it into material.

Alan was on a panel with Gina and syndicated foreign affairs columnist Joel Brinkley.

She said that she took every free gig to improve her speaking skills. Alan recommends the unpaid talks that are the only option for new speakers, because they’re the best teacher. “Don’t even think about getting paid” — initially. Joel said that public speaking gives you a sense of confidence that you don’t get as a writer, because writing is such a solitary business. Alan agrees.

More advice from Alan: No matter how deep the water is, if you know how to swim you’ll be on top.

I asked what’s the difference between writing a speech and writing for the page. Alan finds speaking on your feet calls for a certain type of ad-libbing, so a lot of material should be prepared beforehand. Joel said that for speeches “you have to write in straight lines, no parentheticals.”

(Nailed me: How I love tangents in brackets.)

The last instructive session was a panel discussion on social media.

New Jersey’s Tracy Beckerman noted that social media in all of its forms is a narcissistic platform — how is what you are saying going to benefit me. Images, she added, increases the audience.

Honored humorist W. Bruce Cameron contrasted the top two networks: “For me, Twitter is an annoying little jab. Facebook is more of a conversation. But Facebook is constantly changing. What I’d say last year [in describing it and how to maximize what it does] would be totally different now. Some good some bad.”

Facebook now is more about “shares” than “likes,” when used to promote your books or other writing or activity, he said. It should not be used as a “traffic re-director.” It is a conversation with already established friends.

Bruce was hard on the Internet. He was asked — maybe it’s my question, I’ve forgotten — about using one’s own website for promoting and marketing. “Web 1.0 is not working so well for me anymore.”

That night, the 2013 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement winner Dave Barry was introduced by Alan Zweibel. Alan is not a columnist, and his intro was more of a standup set than a biographical recitation. Alan pulled out an old Hollywood still photo of Jim Nabors to present Barry the “Gomer Pyle Award” — oops, wrong Pyle — and repeated the gag with a picture of the Stooge with a bowl haircut as the “Moe Howard Award,” because Barry prefers the style himself.

Barry explained how he is undeserving as he has broken most clauses of the NSNC Code of Conduct. To illustrate his confession he used several anecdotes from his usual, perfectly wonderful speech, which I heard two months earlier, when he spoke at my hometown Fayetteville Public Library.

After an impromptu talent show, the party chattered into the night. It continues virtually until the next conference.

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