Columnists to Hear Bill O'Reilly, Dave Barry, Others at Confab

By: Dave Astor What do writing a good column and planning a good columnists conference have in common? Research.

When Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky was considering speakers for this week's Thursday-Sunday National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference, he studied the results of a 2006 survey of NSNC members. Among the findings was that about a third of NSNCers described themselves as humor writers. "And humor writers regard Dave Barry as God, so I reached out to him," said Bykofsky, the organization's 2007 conference chair.

Barry, whose former Miami Herald/ Tribune Media Services (TMS) column ran in about 500 papers, agreed to speak this Friday morning -- and attend a conference-opening dinner reception this Thursday evening.

Bykofsky also realized the NSNC had a number of specialty-columnist members, so he got Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan to also speak on Friday morning.

That was two Pulitzer Prize winners right there. A third Pulitzer recipient, Chicago Tribune/TMS opinion columnist Clarence Page, will speak and receive the NSNC's Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award this Saturday evening.

But meeting in a city like Philadelphia can be a bit pricey for some columnists, so Bykofsky wanted another "really big name" to attract attendees. His wife suggested Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News host who also writes a column for Creators Syndicate.

Bykofsky noted that O'Reilly often lambastes print journalists, so he challenged the commentator to do that in person. "He agreed within 48 hours," recalled the Daily News staffer. "I think he's eager to come here, look us in the eye, and raise hell." O'Reilly is speaking Friday morning, too.

The conference will also have sessions on avoiding ethical problems, creating video columns, doing column research, and making the leap from columns to books.

"Buried in every columnist's heart is the thought: 'If John Grogan can do it, I can do it,'" said Bykofsky, referring to the now-former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who authored the best-selling "Marley & Me."

Bykofsky, who joined the Daily News in 1972, added that the research session will have something for the computer-savvy and not-so-computer-savvy as panelists discuss finding information digitally in addition to "shoe-leather" reporting.

"Stu has put together an exceptionally strong lineup of panels and speakers," NSNC President Mike Argento told E&P. The York (Pa.) Daily Record columnist does wonder at times about O'Reilly's "relationship with reality," but feels he'll be a provocative keynoter.

NSNC Vice President/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Samantha Bennett likes the diversity of the conference speakers, and said the panels such as the ethics one "are really germane to what's going on in our profession right now."

Bennett noted that all columnists were tarred by association when a few strayed ethically in recent years. "I have sympathy for airlines," she said. "When one plane crashes or is kept on the tarmac for 14 hours, the whole industry looks bad."

Layoffs are another issue for columnists. "It's a rough time to be in the newspaper business," said Argento, who joined the Daily Record in 1983.

Argento believes staff reductions don't ultimately work as a business model. "Laying off people to cut costs reduces the value of your product because there's less material for readers," he observed. "Newspapers should do more journalism and better journalism -- in print or on the Internet -- to make themselves more vital."

The NSNC president added that cutting columnists can especially hurt a newspaper because "the most personal relationship readers have with a newspaper is with columnists."

Mentioning another trend, Argento noted that more columnists are doing blogs and other online work. "With my blog, I get tons of e-mail," he said. "It's great to have the instant feedback and instant communication with readers." But, at the same time, online work can be time-consuming. Bykofsky added that columnists and other journalists are rarely paid extra for those efforts.

Bennett -- who writes a mostly online column for the Post-Gazette -- said columnists these days also face pressure from bloggers, who compete with columnists and are often eager to dissect their work.

Bykofsky said some newspapers with reduced staffs are also asking columnists to write more stories. And some papers are switching columnists to reporting posts to shore up depleted newsrooms.

"Being a columnist," concluded Bykofsky, "is probably more challenging than it's ever been."


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