A Bigger Tent
ASNE repositions for the future.
Posted: Fri, April 15, 2011
By Greg Masters
Greg Masters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Tim McGuire, who was president of what was then called the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2001-2002, says he has great affection for the organization. Nevertheless, he says "it's time to blow it up." In a column published on April 6 – the first day of ASNE's 2011 convention in San Diego – McGuire wrote, "It is time to forge a dramatic new direction built on the future, not the past."
But Ken Paulson, who became ASNE's new president last Friday, says the nearly century-old organization is embracing the future. "I have the greatest respect for Tim McGuire, but he could have saved himself a column if he'd picked up the phone," Paulson says. "The kind of dramatic changes he is calling for are already in progress, and I have a hunch he would be very supportive of all that we have planned."
ASNE, which in 2009 became the American Society of News Editors, has a long and storied past. But it has hardly been immune to the problems that have besieged the newspaper business. Attendance at its annual convention has plummeted, and two years ago, for only the second time in its history, it canceled the event. In a memo to members, ASNE leaders said they had scrapped the convention "because of the challenging times we face." Editors, the memo said, were needed in their newsrooms.
But despite the obstacles, Paulson expresses optimism about the future. A former editor of USA Today who is now president of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, Paulson says the future ASNE will be a "hybrid of some traditional values and forward thinking."
Among traditional values, Paulson emphasized newsroom diversity – which ASNE promotes through its annual census of news organizations – and freedom of information. "Those are old-school values that we will not turn our back on. Diversity and the First Amendment remain at the core of what ASNE does."
But he also believes the organization must move beyond its traditional role as a group dominated by the editors of top newspapers. "We also need to bring on board the thought leaders of American journalism," he says. Paulson says ASNE's new bylaws, about to be voted on, "will dramatically expand the number of people who would qualify for membership in this 90-year-old organization. For the first time that will include most professors of journalism communication, most news bloggers, and authors and scholars who study the field of journalism. The organization will be much more diverse in terms of perspectives and experience."
This goal harks back to 2008, when ASNE first proposed removing the word "paper" from its name and offering full membership to Web editors without a print product, as well as journalism educators and people at journalism foundations. The changes would "assure a robust future," then-President Charlotte Hall wrote in a letter to members.
When Paulson joined in 1995, he says, ASNE "was a dramatically different organization. Throughout its history, ASNE has been an organization made up primarily of editors of very large newspapers who would gather in annual conventions to hear speakers and discuss issues of the day. Period," he says. "Today, the new ASNE ... will welcome leaders in journalism, regardless of platform. It's no longer a newspaper-centric organization. It is a news-centric organization."
As for newspapers, Paulson said in 2009 that they "remain an extraordinary information bargain," but there was no question that "there will one day be a final day of on-paper publication for the last remaining American newspaper."
Does he still believe that? "Since I made those remarks at the National Press Club, the tablet has arrived. This means that so much of what we admire about newspapers today – portability, editing and a structure that makes sense – can easily move to the tablet. It's actually pretty astonishing how close to a newspaper experience you can have on an iPad."
He concludes, "Instead of dying, newspapers will in effect be reborn."
Besides working to increase and diversify its membership, ASNE will "step up its training activities dramatically in the coming years," Paulson says. "With the economic cutbacks at news organizations across the country, training has also been scaled back. People are hungry for training and workshops, particularly those that involve digital and mobile devices. We plan to fill that gap by staging regional training conferences across the country."
Paulson says ASNE will seek to train newspaper staff, not just top editors. "That editor has his or her hands full and would love to have a team that's more fluent in mobile devices, for example."
In another "significant development in our thinking," Paulson says ASNE is "actively reaching out to other like-minded organizations to share both resources and mission. In an era of declining resources for journalism, no one organization can stand alone. We need to tap each other's talents and do good work on behalf of the industry." He says ASNE has had "conversations with about a dozen journalism, diversity and First Amendment organizations who either share or complement our goals," but that it is too early to name names.
Paulson wants the organization to be more visible. "ASNE has long been both dignified and discreet, and there is merit in that," he says. But, he adds, ASNE "should be part of the public discussion when things like WikiLeaks come along. We can provide perspective and remind Americans of the importance of a free press and a free society." He says the organization will use "social media, guest columns and public events – all the ways you get America's attention."
ASNE's 15 committees have been "distilled" down to six, reflecting "the areas we think matter the most," Paulson says. The remaining committees focus on membership, partnerships, diversity, freedom of information, conventions and leadership development. "So what you have there is a focus on training the future leaders of America's news organizations, ensuring that newsrooms are diverse, bringing more people into the tent, providing them with the training they need and fighting the good fight for access to information. That's ASNE right there."
So with all of this forward-looking repositioning, is McGuire, the former editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune, ready to rescind his call for demolition? Rather than answer the question head-on, McGuire opted for diplomacy. "I'm not convinced these changes have gone far enough, but I trust the leadership."
"I think ASNE is in good hands," says McGuire, who now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. "I think most of the leadership understands something dramatic has to be done." On hearing Paulson's description of the future ASNE as "a hybrid of some traditional values and forward thinking," McGuire said, "I think that's a tremendous focusing statement."
But, he adds, "I guess my concern is, are any of these things dramatic enough? Or are they continuing to operate with the idea that ASNE still has the kind of power it once did?"
In his column, McGuire said there were "some 600 or 700" people from the newspaper business in attendance at his induction as ASNE president in 2001. He compared that number with the 198 attendees in 2010 and the even smaller number he was told had registered for last week's event. "The financial noose I described a year ago ... has drawn even tighter," he wrote.
ASNE's executive director, Richard Karpel, says the 2011 ASNE meeting drew about 200 people, including about 125 ASNE members. Asked about the size of the convention, Paulson replied, "We had to cancel our convention two years ago because so many editors felt they needed to stay in their newsrooms. Every convention since then has been a victory."
McGuire says he remains doubtful about the organization's budget. "I think that their expenditures are far exceeding their revenues."
Paulson, though, says ASNE has the support of the ASNE Foundation and is financially stable. "Like all other journalism organizations, we're focused on sustainability," he says. "We clearly need to make some steps to cut expenses and bring in additional revenue in the coming years. That's the challenge, but it's certainly within our grasp.
"I'm certain ASNE will continue to exist far into the future. We just can't rely on tradition anymore."