The first AAN East conference ever sponsored by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies proved memorable in several respects. The main speaker, former Congressman Bob Barr, drew heated questions from two AAN members who took issue with his political record and personal life. But while a few hearts were still pounding from that exchange, Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King gave reporters and editors his encouraging opinion that Washington City Paper does a better job of covering metropolitan issues than his own newspaper.
About 180 people attended the conference at the Hotel Washington—so close to presidential headquarters that conference goers gazed out rooftop-level windows for a view of the White House considered remarkable even in Washington. Many AAN registrants arrived at the hotel sopping wet on Thursday as a heavy rain punctuated a long spell of freezing weather in the District.
Barr, who was Saturday’s featured luncheon speaker, has a background not typically associated with alternative newsweeklies. The Georgia Republican is a board member of the National Rifle Association who voted pro-life while in Congress, led the move to impeach President Clinton, and blocked Washington, D.C., from counting the votes on a 1998 medical marijuana initiative.
But, in his new column for AAN-member Creative Loafing Atlanta, the ultraconservative champions a cause he thinks the left can buy into: the need to protect individual privacy from being eroded by post-9/11 measures like the Patriot Act, the Terrorism Information Awareness project and the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System. That was his topic at AAN East.
“We’re changing the nature of society,” Barr warned. Criticizing the federal plan to build a national database that divides airline travelers into risk categories, he said, “Now government can collect evidence on people with no suspicion you’ve done anything wrong.” Manipulating data is not the way to find terrorists, he contends.
“Do we really want to live in the type of society where you have to think of how someone who may not have the same beliefs will react to what you have in your briefcase?”
Deferring to government just because it says it’s fighting terrorism comes at a risk. “Once you cede power to the government, you don’t get it back,” he said.
Barr praised the strong role alternative weeklies can play in educating the public on the issue. While he has several media outlets for his opinions, including a syndicated radio show, he says he gets the most response from the column he writes for Creative Loafing.
During the question period that followed his speech, Barr was asked about apparent contradictions between his own private behavior and his stands in Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act, abortion and Clinton’s impeachment. He justified the marriage act as a matter of preserving states’ rights to set their own definition of marriage and then guarded what was left of his privacy by dismissing as impolite continuing questions about his personal life.
Nor would he say who would get his vote in the 2004 presidential election, but his stand on the dangers of the Bush Administration’s policies led AAN associate member Andy Sutcliffe to ask, “So you couldn’t vote for the President?”
“You said it; I didn’t,” Barr responded.
Following the luncheon talk, conference goers scattered to various meeting rooms to learn about advertising, using fonts in Mac OS X and writing. In a session for writers and editors, King, who is a deputy editorial page editor as well as a columnist at the Post, answered questions about his work from co-presenter Jack Shafer, editor at large of the online magazine Slate.
When doing a story, King gives people who are seldom listened to a chance to voice their feelings. Cab drivers, barbers, grocery shoppers and chauffeurs all know volumes. “The resident manager of an apartment building is more knowledgeable than the president of the United States,” King said. “Big shots” forget that the chauffeurs driving them around all day have ears.
The African-American writer who worked as a bank executive before joining the Post in 1990 subscribes to the old journalistic tradition of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. He was recognized last year with the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Recent column topics include witness intimidation and smuggling of weapons into jail,
At the Post, the staff is too removed from readers and needs to let them talk back—or even hit back if the paper is hitting on them, King said. Reporters should put their email address in the paper so readers get a sense of ownership.
In King’s opinion, “our City Paper does the best” in covering the metro area, followed by the Washington Times and then the Post. Post editors “are cautious and don’t want to make mistakes,” King said. “They don’t know the city and what to go after.” Instead, they wait for stories to come to them, which they do, the Post being the Post.
Pittsburgh City Paper staff writer Brentin Mock asked several questions to learn whether King thinks a white reporter with limited background could get the same results on tough stories in the African-American community as a black reporter who’s familiar with the hood. “I think a white person who comes across genuine is going to be very effective—and more effective than a black person who’s bullshitting,” King said.
In the advertising realm, David Fowler, CEO/founder of Ads-UP, showed retail ad reps, designers and clients invited by Washington City Paper how to get an ad message across with good visuals, a simple direct design and a call to action. “Simple ads are more impactful next to complex ads,” Fowler told the crowd that came to his presentation. Ads should show off a business’s core expertise and offer irresistible rewards, he said.
Fowler also taught a session on effective classified ad building to classified reps, who were already energized by the Street Fighter Workshop that Mike Blinder conducted Saturday morning. Blinder advised reps to offer clients “a new shiny toy”—not just the ordinary fare but something innovative and exciting.
Sessions offered to design and production workers included training by computer expert Chuck Weger on Mac OS X. Weger gave out nose flutes as a reward for good questions and then, generously, for simple attendance. A nose-flute concert may be in the offing for next year’s AAN East.