McGuire on Media

Musings from the NAA/ASNE conference in Washington D.C.

I landed from D.,C. and the NAA/ASNE convention early Wednesday afternoon. I missed the final morning sessions to teach a class late Wednesday, but my mind is bubbling with vagrant thoughts.  I hope the conference provides fodder for some longer blog entries, but here’s what’s swirling in my head today.

The consolidation of NEXPO/NAA/ASNE disguised the dramatically low attendance. Even though euphemisms abound, several chains forbade or "discouraged" editors and publishers from attending the conference. It is is one more example of how things have changed from "the good old days." My memory is there were years when well over 800 people attended ASNE.  I would be surprised if there were over 1,000 at this joint event.

I can’t tell you how unsurprised I am that the AP/newspaper squabble boiled over Wednesday morning. I missed the conflict Joe Strupp described. That was a very public manifestation of the issues between AP and editors, but there were other behind-the-scenes tiffs. It is clear the the "new enemy from within" is AP. It is just as clear that AP is going to stand and fight.  When AP Chairman Dean Singleton told publishers and editors Monday morning that newspapers are only providing 27 percent of AP’s revenues these days I winced. It was clear to me at that point AP was being quite bold about its strategy that it is not all about newspapers these days.  If AP wants to stay away from an angry backlash that could result is editors pursuing some unattractive options, AP is going to have to go to a strict pay-for-what-you-actually get pricing plan. The days of arguing "we’re all in this together," appear to be over.

The mood of the conference was fascinating.  Many people still mutter about how stunned they are that things turned so bad, so quickly. Yet, the programs and much of the off-line discussion indicated to me that people know the meteor has already hit and it is time to clean up. The programs did not argue whether newspapers have to change, but rather, how.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that the level of innovation still seems modest. Worse, all of it is being spouted by over-45-year-old executives.  When do NAA and ASNE acknowledge the future lies in the hands of Adrian Holovaty and his under-30 peers?

I spent a fantastic two hours Sunday morning sitting in Starbucks reading the Washington Post.  For many people the fact the Post won six Pulitzers says the Post is a great newspaper. While I don’t scoff at that, for me the better evidence is that I can read the Sunday Post for two hours and mutter to myself countless times "I didn’t know that!"  That is the measure of a great newspaper.

The Newseum is a fantastic museum, but I am surprised my many friends at the Freedom Forum seem so taken aback by the press criticism. That was inevitable. This was a bold move sure to ignite controversy. What matters is how the public responds. I was fascinated by a tangential observation I made at the Newseum.  Cleverly, front pages from newspapers around the country are posted in front of the  the building on Pennsylvania Avenue. As I perused those papers I was struck by how different the front pages were from newspaper to newspaper.  I have no scientific evidence, but my instinct is that 10 years ago there would have been far greater homogeneity.  My thought is this shows the high level of experimentation, localness and independence among newspapers in this age of tumult.

The highlight of the convention was the opportunity to see the three presidential candidates in person. The comparisons were fun, the showcasing of substance was impressive and watching the crowds react was fascinating.  Senator Clinton’s amazing show of substance was a showstopper for me.