President’s Message: Litmus Flavored Columns

Ben PollockBy Ben S. Pollock
President, National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Your president is looking out for your welfare. Thank me later.

Tracy Beckerman, chairman of the Social Media Committee, although an NSNC member for several years, still is trying to figure us out.

Just before Labor Day, the new board member e-mailed me: “I would like to have a better understanding of the place bloggers have in the NSNC and what distinctions we are making, if any, in terms of their roles in the organization. I get that there is some cross pollination between blogs and columns, but I think it is a slippery slope and there needs to be a way to differentiate between the personal blogs and the professional ones. Let me know if this is something you guys have already sorted out.”

We have.

“I don’t think bloggers have a different position whatsoever in NSNC. No distinction is made,” I wrote, noting we’ve had online columns as a contest category since 2000. Plus, here is Article III, Paragraph 3 of our by-laws:

“Regular Members shall be columnists in the United States and other countries, to include those employed by newspapers and other periodicals; those who are freelance, self-syndicated or otherwise independent writers; writers whose work is published on the Internet in any medium as online columns or journalism-oriented Web logs (blogs); and writers actively aspiring to be columnists.”

Tracy wasn’t quite satisfied with this answer and replied:

“I wondered about the blogger question for several reasons:

“A) I know a lot of bloggers from having attended blog conferences, and most of them had no knowledge of the NSNC. I informed them that they were able to join but was not sure if there were any restrictions based on the nature of their blogs.

“B) Having met so many bloggers and later having visited their blogs, I was stunned by the lack of grammatical attention paid to the writing. Although I know that many of these are meant as personal blogs, we are a professional organization and to that end, I thought there would be some criteria made, or some standards to be upheld for works that are published. I don’t know. Maybe I’m a grammar snob. I guess that would be a hard policy to create and enforce. The blog that put me over the top was (web page deleted, out of mercy).

“Having come from a journalism background, it pains me to see writing that is so carelessly edited, especially when I know the author is selling advertising on the site and putting themselves out there as a professional.

“I am a TV news writer turned journalist turned columnist who came into blogging as a way to increase my following. I think this makes me a very different animal than most bloggers, and I probably need to broaden my tolerance of other bloggers. That said, I guess I do feel that as a professional organization, it would behoove us to have certain expectations from those who want to belong with regard to grammar and spelling. However, I do understand the need to increase our membership and be inclusive of newbies.”

It was Sunday afternoon before Labor Day, and I should have been out lighting the grill, perhaps without setting the yard on fire. But I checked my e-mail and found the above. The charcoal could wait. I responded:

“1) NSNC does not have standards like that, and it shouldn’t. The typos stand out because they’re bloggers and don’t have editors. You and I do a fair job of editing ourselves. But consider, for example, the first 25 years of NSNC comprising newspaper-employed columnists who had copy desks that corrected their stuff. (And most syndicated columnists had a ‘home’ newspaper as well as editors at their agencies.)

“It’s not that we are so desperate for members that we will accept grammar slobs. It’s simply not appropriate for a litmus test. Our contest, now there’s a litmus test. Typos help separate losers from winners.

“Maybe you’re especially hard on semi-literacy because you don’t edit 40 hours a week like me. I’ve had no choice but to become more tolerant. I either accept the status quo or go nuts.

“2) Louis C.K. is an exception. Seen him? I had never watched the comedian’s fictional sitcom ‘Louie’ until salon.com previewed his Aug. 25, 2011, episode, about him on a USO tour. The real Louis had performed in Afghanistan and Iraq in December 2008 and blogged about the trip. The nine entries have blatant typos, even though he uploaded them three months after his trip. He based the posts on a daily journal he e-mailed in real time to family and friends.

“The guy is an accomplished performer, still and video photographer, video editor, director and writer, all of which he does on his show. Why didn’t he clean up the blog? He must think the sloppiness conveys immediacy and passion, not to mention his famous raw humor.”

* * *

In fact, I have taken my own advice and cleaned up my e-mails here. Tracy’s paragraphs were clean.

As we inksters migrate to the Web, consider variations of the old advice on self-editing: Look at your copy the next day. Write your drafts in Word (or a similar processor), and not directly in your blog, to take advantage of its correction functions. Edit again on the website to make errors visible from the different format. Print the piece and mark up the hard copy.

I accept typos. You’re welcome. Maybe that’s why an editor was elected NSNC president. If a member wants to deliberately experiment away from common usage, volunteer to explain in a newsletter article or conference talk.

Check out the comic’s blog. Go to www.louisck.net, click on Archives then open the nine entries with “USO” in the title. For contrast, watch the “Duckling” episode of the FX cable series “Louie” online, perhaps at hulu.com.

Still, Louie’s blog may be confusing in a few years. Take a tip from the new anthology “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” Its three centuries of essays were written and edited to ensure most people understand what the columnists are trying to convey.

I offered Tracy anonymity for this column.

“You can use my name. No problem. I stand behind my grammatical beliefs!”

Ben S. Pollock writes Brick, Muse on News http://benpollock.com/brick

Editor’s note: Will Rogers, who has two columns in “Deadline Artists”, had no regard for grammar and made no effort to “clean up” his copy (and ordered editors to keep their hands off). “When I write ’em, I’m through with ’em,” he said. “I’m not being paid reading wages.”

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1 comment for “President’s Message: Litmus Flavored Columns

  1. October 4, 2011 at 9:17 am

    On a bulletin board where I teach I have hung a poster which says the following: Let’s eat Bob! Let’s eat, Bob! Punctuation saves lives. If you write, why not write right?

    BWM

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