Parting Shots

VENTURA, Calif. — Following are reflections that don’t fit in the reportage articles from the weekend’s annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

A proud moment came in helping select the year’s scholarship contest winner. Paul Bowers of the University of South Carolina — the other USC, was the running, old joke — looks like a good reporter, in that he does not look like a reporter at all. He’ll be a junior but looks and to some extent acts like a freshman, inquisitive but quiet, trying not to stand out.

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation uses a couple of members to winnow through the submissions of three sample columns each. Then a celebrity (for us) judge chooses third, second and first places among those six. [On the professional level, each of the seven categories’ judges goes through all of their own entries.] Paul’s happened to fall in my pile. I told the coordinator that the overall level of my set of entries was very good. The worst that could be said about them was the writing in some was flat and others were too self-absorbed, but that was true of some professional published columnists.

Third, second and first nominees were obvious, Paul’s being at the top. The central judge’s comments paralleled mine — he was both a good writer, employing wit with accuracy, but he also did original reporting and knew what how to deploy his research. The information on him published after he won noted he already had served an internship of sorts at The New York Times.

I am not gloating that somehow I “can pick ’em.” It’s just that any regular reader or card-carrying editor daily comes across so many examples of poor writing that other people hold up as satisfactory or even good that I’ve begun to doubt my own judgment.

Turns out that I’m OK.

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Conferees spent a fair amount of time listening to the concept of branding and expanding our brand. Even if this is fervently believed and not merely the latest career self-help tool, succeeding or complementing networking, I remain unsure of its viability.

Lots of people in the room, and the stars who addressed us (Bruce Cameron, Steve Lopez, Jeffrey Zaslow and Jon Carroll) have moved past Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour minimum practice of a skill set for proficiency. Separate from that, except for their judgment of what makes a good column, Cameron, Lopez and Zaslow have made their name each on a single column. Each of these three already were famous in their home communities and among fellow journalists as being the top of their genres. But they became household names with just a few hundred words apiece:

This simply is fascinating. My favorite among them is Carroll, for writing five a week and hitting more than missing. Carroll said in Ventura he has been writing the equivalent of two mystery novels each year. After a Jon Carroll column you smile, you might guffaw, your step definitely is lighter. But nothing he has written has been made into a movie, TV show or Continue reading

A Man for All Cats

VENTURA, Calif. — Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle may be an anachronism twice over, writing a humor column five times a week. That makes him a columnist hero. Sure I like some of his pieces better than others, which might mean he’s uneven. But it’s likely more of a matter of whether I’m interested in his topic in a particular day.

Some of Jon’s sagacity:

My favorite: “A question you ask yourself is, ‘Will people understand that?’ The answer is that some of them won’t. I’m not writing for the person who won’t get the joke, I’m writing for the person who will get the joke. Do I know how many people that is? No. Ultimately you write for yourself.”

“If you’re writing five columns a week the single most important factor to longevity is curiosity. … All you have to do, then, is ask questions.” Carroll brought up curiosity again and again. It’s also what drives Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who just a few years ago spotted a homeless man playing a violin with just two strings and without a hat or open case for handouts.

“You always want to be Number 11 on your editor’s list of problems,” Carroll said. “They never get past Number 3.” Continue reading

Branding — Feel the Burn

VENTURA, Calif. — The final day of the columnists’ 2009 conference sought both to expand their possibilities then return them to the glory of old-fashioned reader-beloved essays.

The background on The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow is easy to find online, including Zaslow’s experiences in creating the book. Jeff, of The Wall Street Journal, spoke both Friday evening as keynote then Saturday morning in a feature-writing workshop.

He knows his skills and his limitations. He admitted novel-like narrative is not his strong suit yet is a strong explainer in a journalistic style. “I am not a great writer. I am a hard worker, and I’m a storyteller,” Zaslow said, then turned his summary of negative Amazon reader reviews (of his latest, The Girls from Ames) back to the audience. “It’s most important [for us] to be clear.”

Jeff’s speeches to we columnists over the years have a similar format: He uses example after example of his successes and occasional missteps — he uses the funniest or the worst ones — then sums them up pithily.

“The days of the columnist as a rock star are over.” Rock star? Bob Greene and Mike Royko were rock stars in Chicago, he gave as examples, until scandal broke the career of the former and death took the latter.

“I realize that nothing I do in the rest of my life will come up to The Last Lecture. Continue reading

Honorable, on National Scale

VENTURA, Calif. — Earlier this month, Brick revealed it was a finalist in the annual contest of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

This evening at a banquet, it was announced that the honor was honorable mention, Online Columns category. Here is a list of all winners.

Here is the judge’s comment:

Ben S. Pollock for the sweet personal observations about Northwest Arkansas life”

I accept the award. After all, this is the first national award for me for anything ever. The best part was the applause from the audience. I didn’t expect gasps and boos, but it was truly sweet music from friends and colleagues. I got to shake the hand of one of my idols, Jon Carroll.

But.

Of my three columns, one is a Benchleyesque fantasy not set anywhere in particular, another is a critique of hypocritical local fundraising and the third is, yes, a sweet personal observation. I am grateful the judge was moved by Nick Masullo; that’s him not me.

Pretty cool, though.

Hunting and Gathering … Information

VENTURA, Calif. — The annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists convened in the morning, hewing closely to the announced theme of “Survive and Thrive.” Yes, we heard tips; the fate of newspapers may be out of our control, but columnists both staff and freelance theoretically have a fighting chance to also pursue some similar genre or gambit.

To open, Jody Brannon of Arizona State felt survival would come by columnists being “platform agnostic,” in that writers can publish on paper or pixel. Brannon contributed mainly coinages. Besides “platform agnostic,” she used “technologic” instead of technological and “reality-TV-ization.” I think I know what the last should mean but am unsure what it has to do with personal journalism.

The other panelist was down-to-earth. Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute said that with the layoffs universal among newspapers, columnists must copy-edit themselves rigorously before submitted their work to a desk or posting online themselves. It’s up to us.

Columnists should get extra credit for the more facts and research they use, Prince said, unlike bloggers specifically and non-newspaper-trained commentators in general. Those of us who come up through the ranks know to do reporting for reliability and simply to create original work. Regular bloggers, without criticizing them, he said, react to the reportage and the journalism-based opinions of others.

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Rick Newcombe, 58, is CEO of Creators Syndicate, a major player essentially from its start but now is even bigger through recent purchases of or mergers with other syndicates and their stables of columnists and cartoonists, which for Creators now numbers more than 200. For those who keep up with how to get published, such as studying Suzette Martinez Standring’s book The Art of Column Writing, Newcombe’s advice is familiar: Get thee online with haste. Continue reading

I Thought We Were in Trouble

VENTURA, Calif. — We themed (why not?) the 2009 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists “Survive and Thrive,” and the speakers returned working titles that showed they understood, what with the now daily frosts at the beginning of the Newspaper Ice Age. So why are they so upbeat?

It’s grim humor, gallows or M-A-S-H, in the face of adversity. It’s the finale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Newman-Redford quips (“For a moment there I thought we were in trouble”).

Or maybe it’s just plain old glass half-full. Rick Newcombe, CEO of Creators Syndicate, was asked point-blank. “I am totally optimistic about the columnist profession,” he said. “There are so many outlets now. Years ago there were only so many places you could be published. Now with Google [Analytics], you can get feedback instantly, and can use that, and that’s better.”

Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, currently best known for The Soloist, might feel lucky, or might feel invulnerable given his success. But he doesn’t. He just isn’t glamorous. If he sat down at an empty desk in any newsroom — and all newsrooms (no need to hedge with most) have empty desks — not only would he fit in, he Continue reading