Q&A with NSNC Prez as Columnists Prepare to Meet This Month in Texas

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By: Dave Astor

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists will meet this month in Grapevine, Texas. With that conference coming up, E&P took the opportunity to interview NSNC President Suzette Martinez Standring about the June 23-26 gathering, about her 2004-6 term leading the organization, and about her career as a self-syndicated columnist.

E&P: What are some of the biggest issues for columnists that will or might come up at the meeting?

Standring: The big issues are honesty, accuracy, and independent opinion. Questionable ethics sparked firestorms over Armstrong Williams, Mitch Albom, Maggie Gallagher, and, recently, Diana Griego Erwin. All our conference programs aim to help columnists avoid such pitfalls and to hold to a high standard for quality work and ethics, which the vast majority of columnists already practice.

Metro columnist Bob Ray Sanders of the Fort-Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram will speak on “Dealing with Critics.” Another Star-Telegram columnist, Dave Lieber, pens a thrice-weekly metro column, and will talk about conducting “Quickie Column Investigations.” Bill Tammeus of The Kansas City Star [and Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service] and Stu Bykofsky of The Philadelphia Daily News will talk about why columnists cannot have “friends.” Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute will talk about “Walking the Tightrope of Columnists Ethics,” and I bet his program will be mobbed.

E&P: What will be some of the other highlights of the Grapevine conference?

Standring: Don’t miss legendary columnist Pete Hamill. Keith Woods from Poynter never disappoints. Who could be better to share writing insights than a Pulitzer Prize juror for commentary? A hugely talented humorist, W. Bruce Cameron (“8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and “How to Remodel a Man”) will address columnists as public speakers. [Cameron’s column is distributed by Creators Syndicate.]

Pulitzer finalist Wil Haygood of the Washington Post will speak on “Writing with Quiet Fire.” Columnists making a community difference must hear Lindor Reynolds of the Winnipeg Free Press; Sheila Stroup, the 2004 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award Winner [from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans]; and Keven Ann Willey, [editorial page editor] of The Dallas Morning News.

There are programs geared toward humor writing, fledgling columnists, creating a Web page, and syndication. All programs will be taped, so you don’t have to miss any of the breakouts.

Do you recall that famous picture of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby? Former Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle is the man handcuffed to Harvey in the picture. Leavelle will be present along with Bert Shipp, author of “JFK: Breaking the News,” when conference-goers visit The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas for one of our field trips.

Columnists can also play hard. Name one other professional group that has a Lifetime Director of Fun. Well, we do — Diane Ketcham, formerly of The New York Times.

E&P: What do you think of the simultaneous breakout workshops? Why is that being tried?

Standring: I applaud the idea. Breakout sessions will give attendees a more focused, personal session with an expert on a special-interest subject, like how to self-publish a book, or starting out in self-syndication. Attendees appreciate the more personal attention from an expert.

E&P: What do you hope the conference will accomplish? Why should columnists attend?

Standring: We take the trust of our readership seriously. It’s a privilege to have readers turn the page, looking for us. We want to be better at it. We want to do the right thing. The NSNC has been the only national organization devoted solely to newspaper columnists since 1977. Whether newly aspiring, or a longtime columnist, you need to stay updated and to refresh your perspective. You need to be reminded by peers why you love this job so much.

E&P: What do you think of the job Dave Lieber has done organizing the conference? (I know other people have been involved, too)

Standring: Chairman Dave Lieber is the “Multitasker Extraordinaire.” There are not enough great words or gold stars for what he has accomplished. His “Strike Force” members Monty Snow, Maggie Van Ostrand, Bob Haught, Laurie Orloff, Cathy Gillentine, Danny Gallagher, Louise Parsley, and Kathy Floyd have worked hard toward this conference’s success.

E&P: What has it been like being president of the NSNC?

Standring: A state of wonderment. My acute wonder at being the NSNC president and a lot of wondering of what can, should, and must I do now?

E&P: What have been some of the most memorable moments of your first year at the helm?

Standring: The NSNC Conference in New Orleans was incredible, as was meeting Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, our 2004 lifetime-achievement award winner. Recently, I spoke to Art Buchwald — what a highlight. [Buchwald is syndicated by Tribune Media Services.] Best of all is when NSNC members become friends. It’s memorably disconcerting to be asked for quotes from the press!

E&P: Could you mention some of your accomplishments during the past year?

Standring: They are not “my” accomplishments, but the result of long hours put in by the entire board and other members. It takes time to make things happen. We’re mainly volunteers, you know.

I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far. Dave Lieber has put together our best conference yet. This year in Grapevine, the speaker roster is packed with Pulitzer Prize and other award-winning columnists and experts.

Our redesigned newsletter, The Columnist, contains more how-to information specific to column writing. It’s still playful but offers an improved platform for our members to shout about who’s doing what, where, and how.

A first-ever demographic columnists’ survey form is almost ready for circulation — hopefully at the Grapevine conference. The project is a collaboration between the NSNC and the University of San Francisco and will track trends in our industry.

Our Web site (http://www.columnists.com) has been redesigned. One of the best features will allow publishers or media outlets to search our members’ database for specific columnists by name or topic or geographic area. It’s still in the tweaking stage, but it will greatly enhance our members’
ability to promote their work. For example, do you need an Op-Ed columnist in California, or a humor columnist in Ohio?
Our Web site as a source for timely news and information is our goal.

E&P: What do you have planned for your second year as president?

Standring: Avoiding public humiliation is a good plan for any president.

Aside from that, I’m really jazzed about our 2006 annual meeting coming to Boston, where I live. It’s a city studded with newspapers and talented columnists, and we’re going to mine that vein. The historic Omni Parker House downtown will offer a $135/night rate, and the meeting will be held the weekend before July 4 — a phenomenal opportunity for the family to celebrate Independence Day at the source.

E&P: What’s it like juggling being a columnist and NSNC president?

Standring: My dishes are falling off the twirling poles. With NSNC duties and writing assignments, I’m a contortionist. Some days I’m stuck in one position, but aren’t we all?

E&P: When did you join NSNC?

Standring: I joined the NSNC around 1999 as a fledgling columnist when I decided it was time to “get serious.” I joined to meet people who could help me understand this strange occupation and get better at being strange.

I also had a background in event planning and running a 1,100-member legal organization. Bob Haught scooped me right up for NSNC duty at my very first meeting. And here I am.

E&P: Why is NSNC a good group for a columnist to join?

Standring: Columnists are a breed apart. We’re tasked with educating or entertaining or provoking thought in a signature voice, under deadline, often in 500 words or less, anywhere from 1-7 times a week. It calls for ethics and research, requiring daily originality and fresh treatment. It’s much more difficult than people realize. You need the kindred spirits you find in the NSNC.

E&P: How long have you been a columnist?

Standring: In 1998, I wrote humor columns for the Hunterdon County (N.J.) Democrat. It was a form of personal therapy from being the county reporter, and they proved to be a popular feature. I continued as a humorist when I moved to Boston in 2000.

E&P: How would you describe your column? What topics do you like to address?

Standring: My column, “A Slice of Sudden Laughter,” offers insights in the form of funny fluff. For example, it was hilarious to watch a pompous auctioneer berate low bidders as cheap nincompoops. The crowd was upscale, but to him, we were strumming out “Deliverance” on banjos. To me, the lesson was even the rarest of treasures must someday find a new home, so enjoy yours now while you have them. In other words, use the good china.

I post weekly columns at http://www.readsuzette.com and I don’t fit into a niche because my subjects are unpredictable. I write about anything that I’ve found comical — like my being short, or witnessing birth, or being barked at by Andy Rooney. I avoid politics and people-bashing — I know, what else is left? But a strong readership on my Web site says many embrace a respite from that. The Milton (Mass.) Times voted me Best Columnist in one of its annual reader surveys.

E&P: What’s it like to self-syndicate?

Standring: The commute is great. I go from my kitchen to my office in seconds flat.

My column runs regularly in the Milton Times. I’m a frequent features contributor to The Patriot Ledger [in Quincy, Mass.], which has also run a few of my columns. Recently, a humor piece of mine ran in The Boston Globe, with another scheduled for June. My work has also appeared in the Boston Metro, other publications, Web sites, and magazines.

Newspapers don’t seem as open to comical columnists, so I’ve come through the back door with “humor essays” submitted as an “accompanying piece” to features written by me or others. What a thrill when that works!

I love what I’ve done so far, though I should be more of a pitbull marketer. Other self-syndicating columnists seem to find more time in the day for marketing, but those hours elude me. Maybe it’s because I keep looking for them in the park when I’m not under deadline.

E&P: Any other comments about being a columnist?

Standring: Being a columnist is not a luxury ride, but it’s the greatest ride.

In my mind, I’m the least likely candidate to be “Madame President,” but the profession owns my heart and soul, and I do give it my best.

E&P: What did you do before becoming a columnist?

Standring: Before reinventing myself as a writer in 1996, I was the executive director for three legal associations: the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern California, (1,100 members); the Edward J. McFetridge American Inn
of Court (66 members); and the American Board of Trial Advocates (250 members).

I moved to the East Coast and thought, “No more lawyers.”
Then I attended my first NSNC conference and got involved. And guess what? Columnists are as opinionated and stubborn as attorneys! They are just as adversarial, but without the expensive suits.

E&P: How long have you lived in Massachusetts?

Standring: We’ve lived in Massachusetts since 1999. Before that, we were in Connecticut, then New Jersey. My husband, a virologist, was recruited to work for pharmaceutical companies on the East Coast.

E&P: Where were you born and raised?

Standring: San Francisco. I’m 50 years old and a first-generation American born to parents from the Philippines.

E&P: College and major?

Standring: I never went to college. After graduating from an all-girls Catholic high school, my father said, “I’m sick of paying tuition for you. Go out and get a job.” Somehow, I’ve had the most amazing career, helped by people who saw past my lack of a college degree.

A famous San Francisco lawyer, George T. Davis, got me started in the legal field when I was only 20 years old. That eventually led to a career in directing legal associations. I stumbled into newspaper writing in New Jersey. Can you believe it — through an evening class in journalism. The
instructor was Jay Langley, the Hunterdon County Democrat’s editor. He thought I had a natural talent and hired me.

I was assigned to the county seat, and I remember wailing, “But I don’t know anything about New Jersey politics. What’s a board of freeholders?” It all worked out. I received an award for my coverage of the deer-overpopulation crisis. Now there’s an irony for a completely urban gal!

Then I waded into waters with humor columns, joined the NSNC and now I’m doing an interview with E&P. I tell you, serendipity works for me.

E&P: Any other biographical information you’d like to mention?

Standring: Currently, I’m working on a book based on my grandmother whose nine children were fathered by a Spanish Catholic priest in the Philippines, who never left the priesthood. By all accounts, I shouldn’t even be sitting here!

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