Archive for February 27th, 2009

I was disappointed but not surprised when the American Society of Newspaper Editors decided today to cancel this year’s convention.

Few editors or their organizations could afford the time or money to attend the gathering scheduled for Chicago in late April — still on my calendar because I forgot to delete it before leaving work. I planned to attend, even if I had to go from my own pocket (and even if I’ve taken on a new role that doesn’t have editor in the title).  

I was more disappointed with ASNE’s weak promise to keep serving editors at the most difficult time the industry has faced in my career. By simply canceling the convention, ASNE practically tells us that it was just a big party anyway. I enjoyed the party. I enjoyed the speeches by politicians (Senators Obama, McCain and Clinton addressed last year’s convention and President Obama was on tap this year.) But I wanted to go to share and hear advice on facing our shared challenges. Leaders of the nation’s newsrooms need help now more than ever.

The list of woes is pretty familiar: The Rocky Mountain News published its final edition the same day ASNE announced it was cancelling. Philadelphia Newspapers and Journal Register had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy within the past week. And right here in Cedar Rapids, we eliminated 14 journalists’ jobs at Gazette Communications and announced a reduction in our company’s workforce of about 110 jobs since before last June’s flood.

ASNE can’t give up now. Maybe the editors don’t have the money or time to come to Chicago to party and listen to political speeches. But we have to join forces to support each other and to resist the sucking sound of the drain.

I don’t say this to criticize my ASNE friends and colleagues. When I was at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va., I worked right down the hall from the ASNE offices. My wife, Mimi, worked at ASNE for more than a year (and for two of their conventions). I consider several ASNE staff and leaders to be friends. Others that I don’t know as well are colleagues whom I admire. I’m in my second hitch as an ASNE member and I’ve attended the last four conventions. I have trained journalists in the newsroom of ASNE President Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel. She provided helpful information for a presentation I made when I was at API, and she provided support when The Gazette was resisting restrictions on our rights to liveblog at Iowa Hawkeye football games.

So I am not a critic piling on when ASNE is down. I am Bluto in “Animal House,” shouting to my friends, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” As Bluto said, nothing is over until we say it is.

Hall’s announcement of the canceled convention said ASNE would “increase reliance on the Web to help editors share what they are learning as they reinvent their news organizations for multiple platforms.” Promising some webinars and email newsletters is not exactly a rallying cry.

We can’t cancel this convention. Let’s just cancel the party in Chicago. Let’s gather electronically and wrestle with the issues that threaten our industry and share our most innovative ideas.

Here’s what we should do: Editors (and perhaps the occasional conductor) around the country who are trying something new or have some ideas to share should volunteer to lead (or contribute to) live chats on the issues. The ASNE convention is a lot of panel discussions anyway. We can do that online and probably tackle some thornier issues, maybe even a broader range of issues. ASNE can develop a wiki where people suggest topics for colleagues to cover or offer to address topics. Members can vote on the topics we most want to learn about and we can connect digitally to discuss the issues for two or three hours a day during convention week (maybe we can do it for two weeks, since we don’t need to worry about hotel rates).  

I’ll offer to lead or contribute to discussions on any or all of four topics: Leading your staff into the Twittersphere; journalism ethics in social networks; liveblogging as stories unfold and reorganizing to separate content generation from product management. I’ll pull together links to various materials for people to read before or after the discussion. I’ll host the live chat and lead the discussion (or collaborate with another colleague or two).

And I’ll join discussions colleagues want to launch on other topics. Tell us what you’re trying, especially if you’re having some success. I’ll jump online to ask questions, applaud risks and offer encouragement.

All the editors who were planning to attend the Chicago convention, as well as those who made the tough call to stay home, have great war stories about how they and their staffs succeeded in getting the big breaking story in the face of obstacles. Those are the war stories we would be telling in the Chicago bar. It wouldn’t even take one beer to get me started about how we covered the flood.

We need to use that same damn-the-obstacles approach to the convention. Let’s gather in a virtual convention center, even if we can’t gather in the bar afterwards.

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Meant to do this Wednesday, but I’ve been busy. Here’s the live chat I had at GazetteOnline Wednesday with Gazette Co. Chuck Peters and new Gazette Editor Lyle Muller about the changes we’ve made here.

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