Exactly 10 years ago today (April 6, 2001) some 600 or 700 hundred of my closest friends in the newspaper business sang “Happy Birthday” to my then 22-year-old son Jason. Jason has Down syndrome. It was a moment neither of us will ever forget. He talked about it this past weekend when we discussed his birthday.
The mysterious gods of ASNE had deemed that my induction as ASNE President should precisely collide with Jason’s birthday. With some wariness when I had the podium, I asked the assembled editors to sing to a young man who had spent his life desperately wishing to be normal. The graciousness of my fellow ASNE members overwhelmed Jason. He cried happy tears. I welled up.
As I’ve reflected all day on Jason’s 32nd birthday and that glorious salute, I have also been forced to reflect on my fellow ASNE members gathering in San Diego today for this year’s convention. I am not attending because my ankle continues to recuperate and I feel guilty about my absence.
It is a much different gathering in 2011 than it was in 2001. That fact is making me well up again. The number may have increased since two weeks ago, but at that time I was told 142 people were registered for this convention. The financial noose I described a year ago when there were only 198 attendees has drawn even tighter.
That’s more the size of a large, local Rotary meeting than the size of a major meeting of important news leaders. While the news industry shrinks, its traditional organizations do too. APME had a convention small enough to be held at the Poynter Institute last fall. The future of Unity is being vigorously debated. AASFE has broadened its mandate to include reporters and is now known as the Society of Features Journalists in an attempt to serve a broader constituency. Unsurprisingly, the Online News Association continues to grow.
Some very tough decisions are going to have to be made this week about the future of ASNE. With the low convention attendance the budget is going to take another huge hit. Downsizing is inevitable. A significant refocusing of the organization’s mission is required.
It is my fervent prayer nobody making these difficult decisions blinks. I will argue only a handful of people have a greater emotional attachment to ASNE than I do. Despite that attachment, or perhaps because of it, I am convinced it is time to blow ASNE up. It is time forge a dramatic new direction built on the future, not the past.
ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd often talks about how “life must be lived through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.” For organizations like ASNE the past was sensational and rewarding, just like the newspaper industry. The newspaper industry needs to be fundamentally rethought and so does ASNE.
Romanticism must not get in the way of either process.