Weaving through the complimentary-beverage-clutching crowd on Saturday night in Room 940 at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Conference in Washington, DC, one hears a mixed cacophony of chatter and laughter. Columnists are everywhere: smooshed together on furniture, clustered in corners, and leaning against windowsills.
“But really, what’s the best measure of the value of online columns?” one conference attendee poses to two colleagues perched on the edge of a hotel settee. “Is it clicks? Comments? Time spent?” They dissect the industry’s new parlance, and move on to examine headline SEO strategies, web teasers and “click bait.”
Across the room, others are smacking their heads trying to remember the speech in which then-President Nixon mentioned his dog, Checkers. Ironically, the youngest columnist in the group interjected with the right answer, admitting that she’d learned the trivia while touring the Washington, DC Newseum earlier that day.
Capping fresh beers from the ice-filled bathtub, another contingency discusses the ethics of writing critical columns about public figures, postmortem.
Near the veggies and hummus, a small group debates the best late night take out at their respective alma maters. Philly cheese steaks “with Wiz”, Cincinnati Chili, and Slop Dogs are offered up with no consensus, until one columnist describes the hot pizza slices that were so delicious, she forgot about the molten lava sauce that always burned her mouth, leaving a shredded curtain of skin hanging from its roof the next morning. The group erupts with shared laughter.
Conference speakers make an appearance, grabbing a cold bottle of beer or a plastic glass of chilled chardonnay. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten, renown humorist Gina Barreca, and others chat casually with those they treat like colleagues. Just as in previous conferences when speakers such as Dave Barry and Ellen Goodman squeezed into the hospitality suite, elbows are rubbed both literally and figuratively.
Conversations in Room 940 run the gamut: from the poignant speech given by 2014 Will Rogers Humanitarian Award winner Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the dinner inside the Capital Building, to confessions regarding whose spouse hogs the bed, to intense deliberations about how columnists should adapt to changes in the industry.
“Shhhhhhhh!” a conscientious member reminds the crowd, “Try to keep it down everyone … we don’t want to get kicked out of the hospitality suite like we did last year!” Despite her warnings, the group cackles on into the night, unable to help themselves.
In the end, when conference attendees are on their respective trains and planes on their way back home, they smile while swiping through conference photos on their smart phones. A combination of overindulgence in valuable information and lack of adequate sleep has left them feeling groggy, but they are nonetheless rejuvenated by a renewed sense of camaraderie and a replenished cache of lasting memories.
NSNC is undoubtedly a group of columnists of all sorts, who come together annually to learn, to develop professionally and to network. But also, this tight-knit group gathers every year because, simply put, good friends like to get together and have a good time.
And that, my friends, we certainly did.