No Taking Ulysses for Granted

 

Ben S. Pollock President
National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Spring — OK, this is winter but I’m an optimist — is busy-time for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

• We’re halfway through gathering entries for the annual Column Contest. Have you sent yours in? Bloggers: You can’t win if you don’t enter. Like previous years, online columns have two of the six categories. Newspaper is a proud part of our name, but newspapers these days take several formats. For the cost of two large supreme pizzas, you have a chance to be judged with your peers. If you’re one of the three finalists or, dare to hope, the winner, you earn bragging rights. Deadline is March 1, so there’s not much time.

Tell you what: For 2012, we’ll throw in an extra day to get your copy in: Feb. 29.

• Plans for the annual Columnists Conference are firming (detailed elsewhere in the newsletter). Like Easter and Passover, the conference is “early” this year, May 3-6.

For the first time in a spell, we’re convening in the South, Macon, Ga. Merle Haggard just left Macon the other day, feeling better than when the music legend arrived.

Expect to learn how practical and current tips to improve your writing and improve the marketing of your work. Expect the informality and hijinks that other journalism and writing groups only wish they had.

• Underlying these is a call to join the NSNC. Annual membership is $50. That earns you discounts to the conference, probably $100 off registration, and the contest, where the $45 fee is cut to $25. The contest fee is just 20 bucks’ different, almost half. That could add up if you enter in several categories. We allow that.

If you publish in different formats and styles, you can, say, enter three columns in a print category and three others as online works (that never were published in ink), as long as they’re all different columns. If you’re a broad-range scribe you might enter three serious pieces in General Interest and three funny ones in Humor (read the rules carefully). Is the NSNC treasury getting more cash from you? Sure, but you ARE upping the odds of intriguing at least one judge.

Intangibles

There’s far more to NSNC membership. You can learn about these coursing through our website, especially the page “What Do I Get from Joining NSNC?” The NSNC is not a Sam’s Club or Costco; the value for your Grant (the president on a $50 bill) comes from the strength of belonging to a group. This is a great club. It’s proved in every article in every eColumnist newsletter and throughout columnists.com.

Another intangible came to the fore, though, during the last month. That’s in the mission statement, that the NSNC “advocates for columnists and free-press issues.”

The NSNC stood up, joined others and opposed some online piracy legislation before Congress. Legislative leaders withdrew the drafts.

The society’s board believed columnists, and all Americans, would see limits to First Amendment rights without substantial revision to the House bill “Stop Online Piracy Act,” H.R. 3261, or SOPA, and the Senate version “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act,” S.968, or PIPA.

(A good summary was created by a staffer at the Poynter Institute, “What Journalists Need to Know about SOPA.”)

We don’t make stances lightly. First, we’re journalists, and the only lobbying I’ve seen the best of us do is on Freedom of Information and Open Meetings issues. Second, we columnists are ornery individualists, taking pride in disagreeing with all comers.

Third, we’re a small-r republican organization, the board by being elected by the general membership — a majority of members who wake up for the Sunday morning annual meeting at the conference. The board considers stances on a few issues as they come up during the year.

Yet, NSNC officers reject more than they accept. Folks, your board has nice people. There’s never a “nay” vote. That’s rude, among friends. The preference I’ve seen over my years as an officer is we’ll talk an issue to death (group emails, actually) until the proponent withdraws the motion.

On rare occasions on my own I’ll just send an e-mail or a blog-comment, making clear I am speaking for myself. A few times, and with board consensus, the NSNC signs on with stands taken by fellow members of the Conference of National Journalism Organizations.

Swashbuckle

On Jan. 18, prominent websites like Google led other organizations and individuals in a 24-hour “Internet Blackout” to notify Washington that SOPA / PIPA would cause serious harm to free speech /free press in this electronic age. Some sites went fully dark and inoperable, except for a notice explaining why, such as wikipedia.org. Others put a black box atop the home page; that’s what was seen at google.com, and that’s what we did, explained at “Freedom of the Seas.”

Checking the analytics for that day, we found that hits were dramatically high at columnists.com. Our shout-out was heard widely. Fighting piracy (on the sea or the web) takes the finesse of a Ulysses.

With membership just under 300 members, the society is just big enough to be noticed and small enough where we can know one another (when you click “like” on Facebook.com/columnists, you’ll see lots of familiar names). But I’d be fooling no one to deny that what we do (write essays of opinion, humor, anecdote, advice and reportage) carries some serious weight when we speak out as an organization.

Did I say 300 members is a good size? I meant 500. Think of high school and how you knew, or knew of, most everyone. Five hundred dues-paying columnists would be a force to reckon with. Huzzah!

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