Fort Worth Star Telegram Columnist
Secretary, NSNC Education Foundation
I feared the worst.
Of the 110 columnists whom I hosted in Grapevine, Texas three years ago for the 2005 NSNC conference, how many still have columnist jobs?
I decided to find out. Sent an e-mail survey to all e-mail addresses listed in the original conference program. Heard back from almost half – not bad considering that few people keep an e-mail address that long.
Was able to track down a few others by checking the Internet. Total responses: 47.
Of those 47, 39 still write a column. The other eight no longer write columns, but several of them retired.
That’s good news. At the very least, most likely half remain columnists.
First, let’s look at those eight who no longer write:
NSNC Newsletter Editor Bob Haught retired his Washington-based column for The Oklahoman and now writes books, freelances and does some public speaking.
Ken Ellsworth of the Abilene (TX) Reporter-News didn’t respond to an e-mail because he also retired. But I found a March 2008 report that shows he went out with a bang: winning an award for column writing from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors convention.
Gerald Plessner lost his column at the Pasadena (CA) Star News “very early in the cutback season,” he writes. “Twenty dollars per column was just too much money for them.” He continued writing weekly on his Web site. Last year, though, his wife Carole died and he stopped writing. But now he’s started writing again on his site.
Some Columnists Just Quit
Laurie Orloff of Dallas not only quit writing for Happy Times Monthly, she quit writing. “Too much time to invest in a career that doesn’t have a lot of potential,” she explains. “Need to make money to raise my children.” She works as a symphony musician and teacher.
Carolyn Scarborough of Austin stopped writing because “a new owner took over at the paper where my columns were sold and wanted me to give them all the rights to my columns – not only future columns, but all the ones I had ever written! They were not willing to negotiate, so I backed out and instead compiled them in a book which I now sell and own the rights to.” She works as a “life and writing coach” and writes a blog and e-zine articles, too.
Sureva Towler was laid off in January from the Denver Post. “Newspapers are over, man,” she writes. “I outlasted five editors in six years and watched the Lifestyle section turn into news notes. Finally, last week, even I stopped buying the paper because watching it die makes me so sad.” She’s writing her seventh book.
NSNC Secretary Ben Pollock works at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as an editor. He continues to blog.
And Big Bob Hill, legendary co-founder of the NSNC, retired this summer from the Louisville Courier-Journal to tend to his family-owned nursery. “My column length was chopped from 800 words to 565 over the years, and my growing sense was that I had said it all before,” he writes. “Plus, newspapers are now lost in the high-tech weeds, need to reinvent themselves and I am perfectly happy with who/what I am.” He still writes gardening columns.
Among those who kept their jobs, one left but recently returned. Tony Gabriele, who hosted an NSNC convention in 1997 when he was a columnist at the Newport News (VA) Daily Press, retired in 2007. But on the very day my survey went out, he returned with a weekly column. On his return he wrote, “Why did this column leave the newspaper? Because I had a dream: a dream of expanding my horizons, of becoming a pillar of the community, a champion of culture and art, a force for good in the world. And, yes, I admit it, a dream of glory and wealth. Unfortunately, the job at the video rental store didn’t pan out.”
Many Take On New Tasks
Former NSNC President Pete Rowe of the San Diego Union-Tribune was a close call. He originally wrote me: “By this Thursday, I have to decide whether to take the newspaper’s latest buy-out offer. I’m tempted, especially with our paper up for sale.”
Days later, he sent this update: “At the last minute, actually 149 minutes before the last minute, I chickened out. I’m staying here and taking my chances with our beleaguered industry.”
A number of columnists now have added duties:
NSNC President Samantha Bennett/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes her humor column but also works on Web site production.
Wally Spiers of the Belleville (IL) News-Democrat does double duty as backup city reporter.
Former NSNC President Mike Leonard of the Bloomington (IN) Herald Times writes lengthy features, too.
Several complained about space cutbacks.
Former NSNC President and 2008 Conference Co-Chair Sheila Stroup/New Orleans Times-Picayune writes, “They just keep getting shorter. I started out writing 16.4 inches. Now it’s 13.6 including a headline and two subheads. Shorter is harder.”
Gibbens Robichaux says his column for the local chamber newspaper, part of the Daily Comet in Thibodeaux, La. started out at 1,000 words, but is now half that.
Suzanna Havala Hobbs of The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer, both in North Carolina, writes: “I was asked several months ago to trim from 600 words to 400 words.”
Career Building Beyond Print
Others have advanced in their careers, although not necessarily through their print columns, which they continue to produce.
Maggie Van Ostrand writes several different columns for well-read Web sites. Recently, she began posting columns on the highly-read Huffington Post, too.
Former NSNC President Suzette Standring also writes on Huffington Post. Her new book, The Art of Column Writing, received positive reviews, and it launched a new career as a public speaker and writing teacher.
And Tony Messenger left his metro column job at the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune to become editorial page editor for the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, where he wrote a weekly column. Now he’s a Capitol correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he writes “a floating column, meaning it runs whenever I find one or whenever the editors assign one; or whenever I can convince them that a column is the best way to handle a particular story.”
What of the other 60 or so who did not respond? Maybe they lost their jobs and that’s why their e-mail addresses were no good. Or maybe – and I can only hope this is the case – they have different e-mail addresses.
Final note: Former Newport News Daily Press columnist Wil Laveist did not respond to the survey because he is no longer with the paper. But Richard Prince’s Journal-isms at the Maynard Institute Web site reports that Laveist has authored a new book called Fired Up: How to Win When You Lose Your Job. Laveist moved his family from Newport to Chicago to work for Johnson Publishing Co., which publishes Ebony and Jet. He was fired not once, but twice. His book is a journey showing “how to cope and climb back after you’ve been knocked down.”
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Dave Lieber, a former NSNC board member, writes you, the columnist for the society’s e-newsletter and also for www.columnists.com. His Web site is www.yankeecowboy.com.