McGuire on Media

ASNE needs to figure out what game it is rejoining

Last Friday ASNE President Marty Kaiser started telling me about the remarks he planned to make at the board dinner Saturday night.  His enthusiasm was so infectious I urged him to emphasize the very words he was saying to me. He did and his lead was: “Wow” We’re back in the game!”

Incoming President Milton Coleman repeated those words in his acceptance speech Wednesday morning.

I find the words rousing, exciting and full of promise. They are also a gauntlet thrown down by two smart, talented men who now have to work very hard to make sure those words aren’t empty promises. Milt offered some perspective in Wednesday morning’s acceptance speech when he said, “‘Back in the game’ is a phrase that can easily be misunderstood. You don’t get into the game if you don’t have game. And when you are out of the game, it really means something about your game is just out of whack. So you have to adjust your game. And that gets you back in the game. A year ago, when so many things weren’t working, ASNE adjusted its game plan. We didn’t abandon it.”

ASNE is back in the game, but there are no guarantees they can stay in the game. I spent  from Saturday night to mid-afternoon Monday around the ASNE scene. I was pleased about the optimism I found, but also frightened to death by the more candid behind-the-scenes conversation.  As a past-president of the organization I have tremendous affection for it, and I hear a lot of “stuff.” Those conversations lead me to some unsolicited conclusions I will offer in hopes it might help the thinking process.

The scary news is that as close as I can determine the society will spend some serious money out of its $5 million Foundation fund to pay for this convention. That comes after the foundation released a staggering sum last year to fund last year’s canceled convention. (Incidentally I applaud Charlotte Hall’s courage for canceling that convention.  For me, it was the right call and I can’t imagine how gut-wrenching it must have been.) Obviously, no group can operate very long by sucking from its foundation without other support. (Please see Ricahrd Karpel’s correction/clarification in comments section. I was not precise in my language, but the financial problem remains.)

That foundation is an important element of the future of the organization.  It might be viewed as a handsome dowry by some suitors, but there are all sorts of questions about how much of the funds are restricted and apparently different states have different laws which could govern liquidation.

Without being alarmist, I disclose the above to establish the future of the organization is more urgent and perhaps even more dire than is publicly obvious. Coleman has done exactly the right thing by appointing a special committee to explore, with urgency, the future of the organization.

I am convinced the way to explore the future is to explore the past.

Casper Yost founded ASNE in 1922. This ASNE history indicates Yost and his fellow editors initially “gathered to discuss action they could take for the advancement of the news and editorial side, to develop a constitution and a code of ethics and to launch a recruiting campaign for the group.”

I talked about Yost and the beginnings of ASNE in my presidential speech in 2002.  I wrote that Yost, the society’s first president, said: “If we can put our whole force, our whole thought, into the development of this society it will be a great thing, I am quite sure, for the advancement of our profession and for our individual interests, and the efficiency of our newspapers.”

Yost was profoundly concerned about the ethics of news gathering, professionalism, the quality of editorial leadership, editors’ ability to be independent from publishers, and the public’s view of newspapers.

By becoming the American Society of News Editors ASNE already has struck the term newspapers so I think we come close to the mission on which ASNE needs to stay focused as it reinvents itself. ASNE has value to an emerging news ecosystem only if it concentrates on providing the glue to the news leaders of news gathering organizations. Any organization that does not concentrate on the responsibilities of leading such organizations is not the right home for ASNE. The leadership element cannot be diluted.

I liked the practical nature of this year’s convention program because right now editors desperately need  help in surviving this Schumpeterian moment we’re living in.  Joseph Schumpeter wrote about “creative destruction” and that perfectly describes our current environment.  The past traditions, practices and economic imperatives are being destroyed while something new and exciting is being created.

Leaders of every news gathering organization, no matter it’s delivery platform, need learn how to explore the creation and deal with the destruction. That’s what an organization like ASNE has to offer and that’s why the wrong partnerships and the wrong collaborations could destroy the sound, original intent of the society.

Destruction is no fun. Hell, I was in a minor, momentary snit when I learned we no longer had past president ribbons for our name badges! I invested 10 years in becoming president of the organization and I briefly resented the absence of recognition. That brief lapse helped me realize that people like me probably can’t reinvent ASNE.  I probably hold on to too much of the past. Imaginative creation of a new approach to news gathering, and to the organizations that serve leaders of news gathering organizations, requires people truly free of the chains of tradition.

I do think that the people who are reinventing ASNE should consider these core principles.

  1. All the newsroom leaders and influencers, no matter the delivery mechanism, should be in one organization. ASNE and APME must get together. (I was thrilled AP”s Michael Oreskes was elected to the ASNE board this week.  I pray that his election will accelerate a merger that should have taken place at least 10 years ago.)
  2. News gathering organizations must be the organizing principle for this reinvented group. From MinnPost to the Voices of San Diego to the Arizona Republic, the delivery platform must not matter. If an organization gathers news for dissemination to the public their leaders should be eligible.
  3. Casper Yost conceived of ASNE when newspapers were under attack for poor ethical performance.  Setting professional standards was critical to Yost’s vision. That ethical leadership must be preserved and strengthened.  The changing capabilities of news gathering threaten the ethical standards that guide it.
  4. Camaraderie and problem-solving among peers was another crucial element of Yost’s vision.  That does not mean gathering in bars. It means editors of news gathering organizations can deeply benefit from annually conferring with peers and solving the major problems of the day. Collaboration in this business has skyrocketed from all indications at this year’s meeting. Collaboration won an investigative Pulitzer for heaven’s sake.  That collaboration needs to be nurtured by the news industry.
  5. Diversity is probably the most important contribution ASNE has made to the media dialogue in the last 50 years.  As our population continues its dramatic shift, diversity in coverage is a value that has to be treasured and strengthened. The diversity census which ASNE leads and directs must be inviolate. Any successor organization to ASNE must make diversity one its core pillars because without it news gathering going forward will be hollow and doomed.

An organization of the kind Casper Yost envisioned is crucial no matter what journalistic organizations look like in the future.  I applaud ASNE’s efforts to rethink. The reinvention needs to be radical. I hope these principles are worth consideration.