WASHINGTON, D.C. — Speakers at the 38th annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists could be separated into two general topics, with overlap: Some focused on Washington and capital news, and others on developing of crafting and marketing columns. Hence, two stories.
I took a lot of notes and live-tweeted, except when I was called away. The following will comprise headings then top quotes, annotated. Colleagues posted to social media as well, and some of those are included.
“As Current As Current Affairs Get” — Dana Milbank, Washington Post columnist, author, and frequent MSNBC and CNN commentator
Politics and journalism: “Speaker John Boehner has said do not measure a Congress by how many laws they pass but how many laws they repeal. The number of the latter is zero.” “Wouldn’t Will Rogers be terrific on Twitter?” “Sourcing is overrated. This town is saturated with journalists, but what’s amazing is how many just follow the pack.” “There’s a lot less editing by necessity. There’s fewer editors” due to layoffs. Where does Milbank get topics? “A lot is in plain view. A lot is in documents. There is a tremendous supply of malice. I let the event drive the column.” “We storytellers don’t need ‘Deep Throats.’ We just need our eyes.”
Advice to columnists: “‘Editor bait’ [for breaking in new editors, is to] put in a line that’s completely over the top. They can cut that and leave the line you want alone.” “In this environment, what is a newspaper columnist to do? I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as columnist. I am not identified as a columnist, but as an opinion writer.” “We’ve sort of reached the point where everyone’s a columnist and no one is a columnist.” “Old-fashioned shoeleather journalism is what will distinguish us [as columnists]. I think we can stick to our knitting and things will work out.”
“The Unique Joy of Being a Columnist” — Lewellyn King, writer of a weekly syndicated column and executive producer and host of White House Chronicles on PBS
“What the Internet has taught us: The reading public didn’t want” so many filters on information from professional media. “The Internet tends to be people trying to say everything at once.” “We are allowing ourselves to be licensed. Those press passes” are an example. “The first ratcheting down of our freedom [by both parties] was during the Carter administration. When they started having a third person present during interviews.” “The institutional memory is failing not just in government, it’s failing in journalism.” “We’re down to the molecular level,” about the amount of political coverage in Washington. “Every line that is written and read is worth writing.”
“Politics, Prose and Career Longevity” — Suzette Martinez Standring, syndicated columnist, 2004-06 NSNC president and author of the recently published The Art of Opinion Writing
“The art of persuasion — what opinion, humor and lifestyle columns have in common.” “One goal of opinion writing is to offer a perspective not offered elsewhere.” Clarence Page said, “In print, the lead counts, in broadcasting, it’s how you end. Because that’s what people remember.” Connie Schultz said, “Believe in your vision. Do not let others define you.”
“Writing a Column: The Agony and the Ecstasy” — Craig Wilson, writer of the popular “The Final Word” column for USA Today until spring 2013
“The best columns come in 15 minutes. The worst come in three days. And the readers always know it.” “All of you know that writing a column is an ego thing. And the fact that people are paying you is really quite amazing.” “The whole thing about a column is relating to other people. … And you never know what is going to get a reader going.” “What happens when you don’t have an idea for a column? You don’t have that luxury.” “The last refuge of a columnist is to write about their dog.”
“How to Write Convincingly About Race with 21st Century Technology” panel — Richard Prince, columnist on news media diversity issues for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education; Rhonda Graham, columnist, editor and editorial writer for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.; Mary C. Curtis, award-winning multimedia journalist and contributor to The Washington Post; and Professor Yanick Rice Lamb of the Howard University Department of Media, Journalism and Film. (Prince took great notes.)
Prince: “Know what you’re talking about.” “Some phrases are dynamite. Language is a weapon. People try very hard to make us use their language.” “There’s no such thing as reverse discrimination. It’s just discrimination.”
Curtis: “Don’t have lunch at the same place with the same people every day. Go to a movie in a different neighborhood — to help you be on top of stories. Live a diverse life as well.” “Many of you will have different challenges than we have. You may feel awkward about entering the debate — anxious not to say something you shouldn’t. But if you write and report with sincerity, complexity and nuance, that should be enough.” “Don’t just parachute into a community when something’s happened. Sources will be more open if you consistently cover these communities. Your columns will have more depth as well.” “Don’t just parachute into a community when something’s happened. Sources will be more open if you consistently cover these communities. Your columns will have more depth as well.” “Know what you don’t know — don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s what we do. You can break new stories and make some new contacts.” On political correctness: “You want to be true to yourself and the story but you also want to be clear. Potential readers put off or offended by language may miss the point you are trying to make.”
Graham: “For a full perspective, know the black politician, as well as the black barber or mechanic.” “Don’t show up only during public tragedies.” “Keep tabs on the valuable community events — beyond Black History Month.” “Constantly, we must make decisions that keep us authentic about our own point of view, when we are right, as well as when it turns out that our view is in error and is challenged. This is the best way to approach and gain entry into unfamiliar worlds and culture.” “I defend the right to use a word that is comfortable for me. If I use such words, then you have to be comfortable with my response.” “It’s more important to be heard than to win.”
Some quotes above were taken from the live tweets and Facebook posts of Tracy Beckerman, Richard Prince, Teri Rizvi, Nikki Schwab and Bill Tammeus. Thanks, friends.
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Previously published, in slightly different form, in the July 2014 issue of The Columnist, the membership newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.