It feels good to leave the grit and hustle of the city behind. A fish out of water in the sprawl of streets, strip malls, and strip joints; I’m glad to get a break from city life during my drive to Macon, Georgia for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Conference. As I put miles between my minivan and Jacksonville, I watch a Deep South documentary out my front windshield.
But the once prosperous small towns where roadway and railway intersect don’t look as charming as I’d imagined. I see old homes with missing shingles and broken porch rails. An abandoned factory stands as a memorial to a heyday years ago. Old storefronts and buildings lie empty, or are occupied by bargain stores, pawnshops, and used car dealerships.
With my shirts hanging in the window and a cold cup of coffee sloshing in the console, I feel like a cheesy traveling salesperson, on my way to my next pitch.
As the bug carcasses accumulate on the windshield, my mind wanders away from the barbecue-joint-strewn scenery, and to the conference. I’m a newbie, a novice, a nobody. They are real columnists, and I’m just some 45-year-old housewife with no journalism experience. What if I find out I’m not cut out for this? Will I be forced to give up my dream of becoming legitimate? Years from now, will my family reminisce, “Hey, remember the time Lisa tried to be a columnist? Yea, that was funny.”
I resist the urge to make a sudden u-turn, and press on.
Macon appears before me quite unexpectedly without the usual urban sprawl. In the Marriott parking lot, I swallow hard, take a deep breath, and head for the entrance. A few minutes later, I am nervously hand shaking and hob-knobbing in the conference area.
I spy Suzette Standring, a comforting familiar face from the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop only two weeks prior. I cling to Suzette, who has achieved a sort of sainthood as author of the wanna-be columnist’s bible, The Art of Column Writing. The word according to Saint Suzette teaches us to believe in being a columnist, and we worship her for giving us faith.
Using Suzette as a life raft, I’m able to tread water and mingle amongst the more experienced newspaper industry veterans. I’m struck by how many of the columnists were full-time staff columnists who “retired” after being bought out or replaced, or who jumped ship when their papers were in decline and now freelance and blog. I hope this is anomalous and am optimistic that I’ll meet thriving syndicated columnists in the morning.
I face the day with guarded optimism, but am soon overwhelmed with the stark reality facing the industry. I can’t help but notice that none of the keynote speakers are presently working as columnists, and each conference session seems to have the underlying message that we need to change our way of doing things because the heyday is over.
Later, a trolley transports us to some much–needed southern food and shameless frivolity at a private dinner and Allman Brothers concert. As I watch the veteran columnists dancing wildly to a 15-minute rendition of “Tied to the Whipping Post,” I wonder what it all means for me. Am I just circling the drain? Will I be able to swim out of this rip tide known as the digital age? Or will I drown, washing up on my own doorstep, regretting having tried in the first place?
Later in the hotel hospitality suite over cocktails, I take a closer look at the eccentric bunch I so desperately wish to call my colleagues. They don’t seem plagued with pessimism; they’ve accepted the changes in the industry, because they know that nothing in this business has ever been easy.
I’m suddenly able to look beyond my fears and see the brave veteran columnists from the New York Times, Kansas City Star, Macon Telegraph, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, and other respected publications. They are the real deal. They made it in this industry because they were good at it, they worked hard, and they adapted. If those rules still apply, maybe I have a chance.
The next day, in keeping with the strange irony that seemed to permeate the convention, the most uplifting message to come out of the entire event is delivered by someone admittedly battling depression. Tommy Johnson, former President of CNN and publisher of Los Angeles Times and Dallas Times Herald, utters the phrase that we all longed to hear:
“Columnists DO matter,” he says.
Not in a cheesy, motivational speaker sort of way, but as a knowledgeable industry insider, he tells us that readers, whether they hold a newspaper or digital device, will continue to seek out the unique viewpoints of columnists.
The next morning, I’m back on the country roads leading me home. I pass through the same tiny towns, but this time, I notice the velvety green grass. I see lovely farms and sturdy houses. I see people conversing outside local restaurants. I see charming vegetable stands with Vidalia onions, fresh peaches and boiled peanuts for sale. These towns are not exactly the same as they were 25 years ago. They are different, for sure. They have adapted to our changing times, and they continue to thrive.
Finally at home, I plop down in front of my computer. I find another rejection letter from an editor of a Virginia daily newspaper. He writes that he cannot publish my column, explaining that his slim freelance budget is reserved for local writers only. I skim through the explanation, and focus my eyes intently on the last three words of his message: “Keep at it.”
That’s all I need to know.
- The Allman Brothers: Whipping Post (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)