Brick Bats Reportage

#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 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]”

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.

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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.

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