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.

I’m Your Vehicle, Detroit

DETROIT — Six days after returning home, two of the June 23-26 columnist conference’s field trips burn in me, tours of the Motown Historical Museum and the new heart-of-downtown home office of Quicken Loans.

Hitsville U.S.A.

The museum, informally called “Hitsville,” is in the two original houses in which Berry Gordy created the Motown recording label. Poverty, youth and convenience apparently led Gordy to set up in a residential block, eventually buying most houses there, each with a different business function. This also was a Malcolm Gladwell Outliers sort of monument: Its original stars (and writers and producers) were born within a few years of one another and many grew up in this neighborhood.

The one negative is this museum is it’s like a presidential library. You get only the good stuff about Gordy. He was no monster but neither was he a saint. The exuberance of the exhibits and most of all, the staff, overwhelm that predictable flaw. Museum visitors are organized into groups, guided to see a mini-documentary film then led through the rooms by guides who, besides lecture, sing and dance. By the end of the 30-40 minutes all visitors will have been persuaded to sing and dance a bit.

How else besides participating can one understand the genius of the analog sound effects Gordy used? (No one was recorded.) The most interesting is a 4×4-foot square hole in an upstairs ceiling exposing an unfinished attic. Singing or clapping under it created an echo — scratch that, created reverb, which would be recorded and used as a track. “Hey, young lady,” the tour guide said to a columnist, and he got her to sing the chorus of “My Girl” in the well. Little had we known that Tracy Beckerman could not only fill the room but sing on pitch. In the studio itself, he led the men in a Temptations-style clap and kick, and the women in a Supremes-like clap and shimmy.

Unlike most museums, we were not herded at the end to the gift shop, which I resent. But this is one time I might have bought a souvenir if I had had the time.The private museum allows no photography; there’s few photos online. But here is an AP picture of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee doing the guys’ step in the studio.

Quicken Loans

Quicken Loans hosted a lunch of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in its new headquarters, the top floors of the CompuServe building in downtown Detroit. Its executives want a lively urban atmosphere to enliven their young staff. They want to do right by Detroit and help revitalize its center, hit so hard this past decade. And the real estate there, plus government incentives, on this scale, is very affordable. Click here for a Detroit News report and a Detroit Free Press article. Quicken Loans had been in a suburb, overlooking a parking lot and a Costco, we were told. Now, staff had a view of the city skyline, the Detroit River and beyond.

It’s reminiscent of the high-tech campuses of Silicon Valley and Austin, but instead of sprawling horizontally, it’s vertical, several stories (20th through 23rd floors?). “We” are supposed to want to work in such environments. They’re said to be designed for creative people like us. My Beloved loved her Alltel Financial Services in west Little Rock and in other years IBM Global Services offices around the country.

When I am downsized from newspapers, this is what I am supposed to covet.

Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo
Door off hallway at Quicken Loans headquarters, downtown Detroit -- Rick Horowitz photo

I was creeped out.

Give me dirty carpets and crumbs Continue reading

Paneling for the Benchley Den

This column also was published in the July 2011 newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Once again, an NSNC columnist conference astounded its audience with information and fun. The June 23-26 session in Detroit catered to would-be and published book writers, gave fresh tips to free-lancers (and in “custom content” not just columns), took on humor and twisted its elbow, and even looked ahead to political coverage next spring.

Here are the overall lessons learned from “Rebound in Motown.”

  1. Branding is real, and it works. We’re writers so find a synonym — style, specialty, etc. — if you don’t like the artifice of brand.
  2. Straight columns need research, even humor and personal columns are enriched by research as well.
  3. Humor columns require jokes. Many nice people on the panels danced around the popularity of anecdotal columns to write, mention they don’t read well and rarely sell well. Jokes require punch lines, and punch lines require meticulous crafting.

Mirror: How did you find Detroit, Mr. Pollock?

Myself: The city of Detroit was about as I expected, yet better. It had its decline later than other Rust Belt cities and so its renaissance began later. It’s not quite fair to compare it to a place like Pittsburgh — yet. Businesses and residents are returning to the heart of Detroit, and we saw that.

The “better” part was how solid the street planning and old buildings are. The architecture of the high-rises is from many of the best decades of American design, built by people with the money to not blame budget overruns for any short-cuts. The streets are wide. There’s a lot of outdoor sculpture. Grand statues of great leaders. It’s like Kansas City, another Midwestern city famous for its public art.

Mirror: But what about its reputation?

Myself: I lived in Little Rock for many years. Just last May, Arkansas’ capital continued its surprising reputation by continuing to stay apace with Detroit Continue reading

Roger and Me

Roger Ebert receives the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

version of this Brick is published at columnists.com.

Roger Ebert accepts NSNC Lifetime Achievement Award 25 June 2011
Roger Ebert accepts the 2011 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award 06-25-11. Photo, by Cynthia Borris, of Ebert’s projection on a screen. He spoke via Skype from Chicago to NSNC meeting in Detroit.

DETROIT, Saturday, June 25, 2011 — Following is the acceptance speech of Roger Ebert for the NSNC’s Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award. Ebert’s physical condition prevented him from accepting in person, but he “spoke” live via Skype from his home in Chicago, using an electronic voice from his Macintosh. He then answered three questions submitted beforehand.

Ebert provided this transcript:

“By appearing this way on new media, I feel, in a way, I am letting down the team. But [conference host] Brian O’Connor and I have spent some time rehearsing with Skype, and I hope this will be an acceptable substitute for the glory of print. So anyway, hello in Detroit!

“It is my great honor to accept this award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I grew up regarding newspaper columnists as the most noble and brilliant of human beings, and nothing I have seen since, has caused that opinion to change. It is our job to take the events of our time and consider them with intelligence, and wit. In these days of  trashy celebrity, gossip which threatens to overwhelm the media, our job is more important than ever. So on this day when you meet in Detroit, I thank you. And I salute you.”

“Question. Has the Internet and the explosion of online movie and review sites diluted or enhanced the influence and stature of film critics?

“My answer: I think this Continue reading

Folio the Leader

“Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
— Attributed to Tom Lehrer

DETROIT, 8:47 a.m. EDT, Friday, June 24, 2011 — Hear ye, hear ye, (swat newspaper) I am Ben Pollock, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I hereby call the 35th annual NSNC conference to order!

[Swat paper? The NSNC doesn’t have a gavel, and I thought it would be fun to use a rolled-up newspaper in its stead. I had hoped to roll together the Friday Detroit News and Free Press, but inspiration struck at the elevator bank. On a table there as now usual were about four USA Todays. Gone are the days when a USA Today was slipped under every hotel room door.]

Take that, Gannett. I’m using USA Today as a gavel. Gannett, USA Today’s publisher, laid off 700 news employees on June 21 from among its many newspapers, so this is for them! (Whack! Whack!)

Your conference host, Brian O’Connor, will welcome you to Detroit in two minutes. I am welcoming you to the conference. I am glad to see you all here!

First, let me assure you that Brian has created an incredible schedule. You will be educated in writing and how to move your writing out. You will rock to Motown and be inspired by its art and decades of fomenting culture that has spread coast to coast and indeed the world. If you blink, you may miss something. If you go to bed before midnight tonight and tomorrow night, and sleep in just a little, you may miss value. You sure might miss some fun.

As the Ford slogan might go for us, “Have you written a column, lately?”

[It might seem self-serving Continue reading

Uphold, or Hold Up, Standards

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Sunday, July 11, 2010 — Indiana University feels bigger than my hometown’s University of Arkansas. Yep, 1,933 acres versus 345 acres. It has a journalism school not a department, a music school not a department. It is a handsome forested campus, full of sculptures (even a huge Calder) and fountains. Come October it must be something.

The 2010 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists ended with the annual general membership meeting. It had the usual agenda — the executive director reviews numbers from the budget (holding the course), of members (only slightly down), of contest entries (up a bit) — plus committee reports and (drum roll) election of officers.

Views and details on the conference are linked at a special page in Columnists.com. No one probably will write up the business session. Still, the page is being updated as new blogs and columns come in, and will be archived indefinitely.

NSNC Oath of Office
NSNC Oath of Office, Sunday, July 11, 2010. Photo by Bonnie Squires

With no nominations from the floor, we elect a slate, conference chair, secretary, vice president and president. The last job on that list now is mine through summer 2012. I claimed all weekend that I’d vote for any write-in candidate, serious if they were, but none offered.

Now I start pleading for impeachment. The self-deprecation is getting old, but I did not seek this job. Helping the NSNC as a board member for five years has been a blast. But it has had a few resignations, due directly and indirectly to the Good Depression, so here I was Sunday, neither “acting” nor “interim” but letterhead-official.

What’s unexpected is how confident I feel.

The membership meeting aims for 90 minutes because people always start leaving for the airport, and President Samantha Bennett wrapped it up in 60, including a non-agenda discussion on the society’s advocacy role. I had ready an inaugural address, about what I said at the Thursday board meeting, but I scuttled that in favor of writing it up for the NSNC newsletter. I’ll post it as a Brick, too. But I did organize a mock Oath of Office, perhaps to join the Sitting Duck and Mystic Tie traditions.

NSNC Education Foundation Secretary Dave Lieber administered the oath. First lady Christy Pollock held an Ernie Pyle volume, on which I placed my left hand. In my right I hoisted a fountain pen. It was loaded.

I, (name), do soberly swear,
To advocate for the craft of columns, in the field of journalism,
To abide by the Code of Conduct of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists,
To represent the National Society of Newspaper Columnists as (title).
How great Art —
— Buchwald.
Thy Will —
— Rogers.
So help me, Erma and Ernie.

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