#nsnc14dc: Crafting Columns, Getting Them Known

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Why were we here, besides for our writer friends and some sight­see­ing? To get bet­ter. Speak­ers at the 2014 con­fer­ence of the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Colum­nists dis­cussed pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment and his­tory, but the focus was on devel­op­ment of our skills. Hence, two wrap-up pieces.

John Avlon, Eric Heyl, Alexandra Petri and Ben Pollock after the morning session of the NSNC conference Saturday, June 28, 2014.

John Avlon (from left), Eric Heyl, Alexan­dra Petri and Ben Pol­lock after the morn­ing ses­sion of the NSNC con­fer­ence Sat­ur­day, June 28, 2014. Suzette Mar­tinez Stan­dring photo

I tried to live-tweet a lot except when called away on con­fer­ence busi­ness. (Nature called at times, too.) Rather than para­graph­ing these notes, the fol­low­ing com­prises head­ings then the top quotes of speak­ers, anno­tated as needed. Other con­fer­ees posted live as well, and I bor­row from them. For var­i­ous rea­sons, some sec­tions are longer.

“Indus­try Changes and Strate­gies for Suc­cess” — Con­nie Schultz, Cre­ators Syn­di­cate colum­nist and win­ner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary

There is a skill and a craft to col­umn writ­ing that is abet­ted by age and expe­ri­ence.” “I don’t know a colum­nist who doesn’t spend a lot of time talk­ing. Use some of that time on Face­book.” “Being on social media as a colum­nist helps you con­trol what is said about you in other media.” “We are the gate­keep­ers for our own image.” “Don’t cre­ate envy in peo­ple,” so down­play or avoid ref­er­ences to your rel­a­tive afflu­ence. “If I were any more trans­par­ent I’d be plas­tic wrap,” on dis­clos­ing her mar­riage to Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D-Ohio.  “They will always accuse you of bias. That doesn’t mean it exists.”

Besides advice on writ­ing and mar­ket­ing, Schultz focused on how we make our read­ers, and inter­view sub­jects vul­ner­a­ble, and reduc­ing that.

Face­book is “a safe forum for your read­ers.” Do not sub­ject peo­ple to attacks” that they were not expect­ing, where they can­not defend them­selves. “Make it clear that you have guide­lines [on com­ments] and you will enforce them.” “Don’t just be about your­self, on Face­book. Build a safe forum for your read­ers.” “Make it clear that you’ll enforce guide­lines, and you can facil­i­tate a com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tion on Face­book. “Make Face­book [set­tings] all pub­lic. So read­ers can find you and edi­tors can find you.” “I want us to be cut­ting edge on all this, to build rela­tion­ships with read­ers” because we should not rely on pub­li­ca­tions and edi­tors to do it for us.

“Easy Social Media Brand­ing for Colum­nists” panel — Nikki Schwab, “Wash­ing­ton Whis­pers” colum­nist for U.S. News & World Report; and Michele Woj­ciechowski, author and standup come­dian who writes a weekly col­umn for Parade.com and the syn­di­cated “Wojo’s World” column

Schwab: “Short tweets are bet­ter tweets. Fewer than 100 char­ac­ters get 17 per­cent more engage­ment,” reports Twit­ter (spo­ken, and also from slides). “Tweets with pho­tos aver­age 35 per­cent boost in retweets,” accord­ing to Twit­ter. “Direct quotes get retweeted 17 per­cent more,” say Twit­ter. “Use hash­tags but known hash­tags. One-two hash­tags per tweet max. [Rec­om­mends] www.hashtags.org.”

Woj­ciechowski: “Be mind­ful of what you’re post­ing. Sit back and think, ‘Can this get me in trou­ble?’” When “pub­lish­ers now ask, ‘What is your online pres­ence?’ They are ask­ing about fol­low­ers on Face­book and Twit­ter.” Order of social spread: “Get­ting things for free on Face­book: First [link to your] busi­ness page, then share that to per­sonal page, then ask friends to repost.” “There is not enough time to do all social media. Pick what you enjoy doing and do it well.” “The key with Face­book is that you need to be seen but you don’t need to post all the time. Use Hoot­suite, Tweet­Deck or a sim­i­lar app for auto­matic post­ing.” “Be there often but not con­stantly. And know the dif­fer­ence.” Rec­om­mends emailed newslet­ters: “Make it as easy as pos­si­ble for read­ers — peo­ple are lazy — [by using] good sub­ject lines. Note your fre­quency, [don’t send out] too often.” Make the newslet­ter “some­thing they’ll enjoy, some­thing they’ll come back to, some­thing that will keep them on your list.”

“How to Have a Totally Novel and Unique Opin­ion About Break­ing News on Demand While Cul­ti­vat­ing Rock-Hard Abs With This One Weird Pun­ditry Trick” — Alexan­dra Petri, “Com­Post” blog­ger for The Wash­ing­ton Post

I’m glad to share my youth and inex­pe­ri­ence.” On dead­lines: “Hav­ing a hun­gry mas­ter at all times is good.” Offers a para­phrase of P.G. Wode­house: “Writ­ing a col­umn is like drop­ping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and wait­ing for the echo.” “The more main­stream the blog, the worse the com­ments can be. The more per­sonal the blog the more per­sonal the bad com­ments but also the stronger the good com­ments.” “It’s not Andy Warhol’s [’In the future every­one will be world-famous for 15 min­utes,’ but] ‘Every­one is going to have 15 read­ers who fol­low you around and will buy your book.’ So how do you get them?” “The essay is com­ing back because writ­ing to length is less a fac­tor” online.” Unan­swer­able is whether one should blog fre­quently or occa­sion­ally, com­par­ing it to biology’s r/K selec­tion the­ory of many fast-growing or few slow-growing off­spring. Petri’s favorite blog cur­rently is Hyper­bole and a Half.

Petri’s com­mand­ments: “First and sec­ond rules of blog­ging: Don’t read the com­ments. And don’t read the com­ments.” “Next rule. ‘Don’t worry about get­ting by a bus.’ Which is where you’re hop­ing that the last col­umn you write is NOT about Justin Bieber” but some­thing pro­found — “just write.” “Next rule: There’s a dif­fer­ence between get­ting traf­fic and get­ting readers.”

“How to Suc­ceed as a Colum­nist in a Social Media World” — John Avlon, edi­tor in chief of The Daily Beast and a co-editor of the two Dead­line Artists col­umn anthologies

On the news media industry’s “cre­ative destruc­tion”: “The old model of colum­niz­ing that peo­ple may have fallen in love with is dead.” “Humor columns are how columns began in Amer­ica. But today they don’t move or sell well.” “The Erma Bombeck model of writ­ing a humor col­umn for the local paper and hav­ing it go national is done. “Homog­e­niza­tion killed the local news­pa­per.” “Being involved in social media is not optional for being a colum­nist. It is manda­tory.” “Pick a niche that you care about, and not just write about but report about.” “Two rules at The Daily Beast: ‘Don’t be bor­ing. Don’t be stupid.’”

Infor­ma­tion is every­where. It is com­modi­tized. Opin­ion is every­where. It is com­modi­tized. Putting them together, that can be unique,” by way of the reported col­umn, the for­mat Avlon strongly rec­om­mends. “The diver­sity of colum­nists may out­pace the diver­sity of news sites.”

Some quotes were taken from the live tweets and Face­book posts of Tracy Beck­er­man, Lisa Smith Moli­nari, Richard Prince, Bill Tam­meus and Michele Woj­ciechowski. Thanks, friends.

• • •

Pre­vi­ously pub­lished, in slightly dif­fer­ent form, in the July 2014 issue of The Colum­nist, the mem­ber­ship newslet­ter of the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Colum­nists.

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