Jerry Ceppos

When Competition Isn’t Healthy: Time for APME and ASNE to Merge

We all know that the Newspaper Association of America represents our country’s publishers and lots of other business-side people just below them. But imagine that there’s a competing organization, the National Newspaper General Managers Association, representing GMs and some publishers.

Editors would be the first to skewer both groups for diluting their power and adding to costs during the most precarious time in the history of the American newspaper business.

Of course, the National Newspaper General Managers Association doesn’t exist—because there’s no need for it. In fact, NAA 16 years ago brought together the work of seven business-side organizations to avoid duplication and produce a stronger voice for that part of the industry.

Such clarity of thought doesn’t exist on the news side of the business, though. I know. In about 1999, it occurred to me (I’m not sure why it took so long) that the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors dilute their power by competing.

That observation began a process that led from my fairly private dream of a merger of ASNE and APME . . . to a simple last-ditch effort at cooperation between the two groups . . . . to the failure of both ideas because of organizational rivalries, among other reasons.

Maybe my ideas came too early. Maybe I was a bad politician. But everything has changed (except for my political skills), and it’s clear that now is the time to merge to produce one blockbuster group rather than two diluted ones–if it’s not already too late.

Exhibit 1: The meager attendance at this month’s ASNE convention. This appeared to be the smallest of the 25 or so ASNE conventions that I’ve attended.

The problem was slightly disguised because editors met this year with publishers, and the combined crowd filled a fair number of chairs. As a result of the combination, it’s tough to figure out just how many people attended for ASNE programs; the number may have been as high as 350. Regardless, earlier recent conventions have drawn from the low 500s to the low 600s. Even those numbers pale when compared to the late ’90s, when attendance ranged from about 700 to about 900. The trend is clear.

But plummeting convention attendance, while important, isn’t the only reason for the two groups to merge. Here are the others:

  • Today’s newspaper economy just can’t support two organizations. Travel budgets and charitable contributions are way, way down. Long gone is the day when many editors attended both conventions; more common now, I’m guessing, is that most top editors attend neither convention. But lots of convention and office costs are fixed, whether one person belongs to APME or ASNE or hundreds do.

  • Look at precisely how different these organizations are:

    APME describes itself as “the key source of information and support for editors who produce vital, interesting newspapers and multimedia sites day in and day out.”

    ASNE calls itself  “the main organization of daily newspaper editors. Through its committees, it also carries on a variety of programs, projects and initiatives for the good of journalism.”

    If Mercedes and Rolls-Royce differentiated themselves that way, they’d both be out of business. But those almost-identical descriptions happen to be accurate. For example, both groups brag about their diversity and First Amendment committees–yes, their committees’ titles are exactly the same. Both also share often-identical concerns about ethics and other issues.

  • Because of those other sexier subjects, APME doesn’t focus entirely on The Associated Press. Maybe it never did—and, anyway, maybe an organization divorced from the AP would find it easier to criticize the news service.
  • The distinctions between executive editors and managing editors have faded at many newspapers. (In fact, an alarming number of newspapers have abandoned the m.e. title.) ASNE no longer is exclusively the organization of top editors, if it ever was, and APME isn’t the province solely of managing editors. That’s why both groups do the same things.
  • David Ledford, the president of APME and executive editor of the Wilmington News Journal, disagrees. He cites APME’s practical work, its relationship with the AP and “the pluck and stamina” of his organization.

    “My question,” Ledford wrote in an e-mail: “Would the can-do spirit and culture of APME be lost if we merged with ASNE?” He particularly asked me to remember the success of APME’s NewsTrain, “which has now trained over 3,000 editors from all 50 states.”

    Valid points, but here’s my own question: Could a combined organization, without two conventions and two sets of officers working to solve many of the same problems, accomplish just as much? Without duplication, might a combined group accomplish even more, at less cost and with a stronger voice?

    In an e-mail message, Charlotte Hall, the new ASNE president and editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said: “ASNE is interested in partnerships that would benefit newspapers and their editors. That could mean collaboration with journalistic groups on a range of activities including joint projects, committee work or convention programming.  My own view is that changing times call for exploration of possibilities.” 

    She also says that a merger with any organization “would take a lot of discussion.”

    Fair enough. But members of APME and ASNE should remember that we’ve been talking about this problem as long as we’ve been talking about the threat of the Internet to newspapers. If we’re as slow to act as we were on the Internet, neither organization will be strong enough to represent American journalism in the powerful way that we need in these dangerous times. Read more


    Educating Readers:Explaining why Diversity Matters

    An entirely unforeseen consequence of the war in the Middle East may be reader skepticism about one of American journalism’s proudest achievements — the increase, albeit slow, in the diversity of our staffs.

    I called a friend a few weeks ago to warn her that I was working on an op-ed piece about our contentious conversation a few days earlier about coverage of the Middle East. As this second conversation also turned edgy, she grabbed that day’s San Jose Mercury News, leafed through the war coverage and then said, to my amazement, “What’s with the Arab names on articles?”

    With those few words, she turned diversity on its head. A huge positive suddenly became a gigantic negative.

    The “Arab” byline she referred to belonged to Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer in international reporting two years ago. I pointed that out to the reader, whose response was something like, “I don’t care.”

    I don’t know Shadid, so I looked up his bio on the Pulitzer site. The wording represents everything that any editor would be proud of. But how would that reader process those words:

    “Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, speaks and reads Arabic, offering him insights not available to most Western journalists working in the Middle East. …”

    Likewise, I take a tiny slice of credit, as does everyone in Knight Ridder who even remotely knows her, for steering one of Shadid’s colleagues, Hannah Allam, toward coverage of the war in Iraq. (In addition to her other skills, Hannah speaks French and knows some Arabic.) But Hannah’s dad is Egyptian. Would that lead some readers to question her much-honored coverage?

    I put all of that out of my mind, and out of the op-ed piece, until this past Sunday, when I spoke at an event about “how to get your letter to the editor published.” (I’d conduct a similar session for groups of any race or ethnicity.)

    Before the session started, an older gentleman asked if an editor of our acquaintance “really” is Jewish given that the paper’s news coverage doesn’t tilt toward Israel. I was caught off guard. So, rather than react the way I should have, I said that the editor in fact does happen to be Jewish. Unbelievably, he then asked about the religious affiliation of the editor’s spouse. At that point, I told him that such information was none of my business. He reacted to my anger with equanimity. Why not ask such questions, he probably thought. There are no rules when it comes to the Middle East.

    I concede that my sample is tiny. But I have to think that if these rude, personal questions are asked in the liberal, hyper-diverse Bay Area, they’re being asked elsewhere. Maybe we journalists are the reason. We’ve talked for three decades about the need to hire all sorts of people in our newsrooms because of language, cultural and other advantages. But we’ve generally talked only to ourselves. Maybe it’s time to explain to readers that their sources of news will be much more complete when the mix includes everyone from Lebanese-Americans to Egyptian-Americans to Jewish Americans, whose backgrounds help them explain complex stories without slanting the news.

    Jerry Ceppos is a former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former vice president/news of Knight Ridder. Read more


    Muhammad Caricatures Should be Published

    Maybe it’s because I’m a person now and not a newspaper editor that I’m bothered by the blackout in almost all mainstream U.S. media of the cartoons that have incited much of the Muslim world.

    Images often provoke controversy more than words do.

    When I was a newspaper editor, I probably spent the equivalent of six months of my life debating whether to publish one or another controversial photograph, political cartoon or comic strip. The photograph of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia. The photo of Richard Allen Davis, Polly Klaas’ killer, making an obscene courtroom gesture. A “Doonesbury” comic strip in which a TV commentator tours Ronald Reagan’s brain, pointing out deficiencies. The (San Jose) Mercury News published the first two on my watch. I can’t remember what we decided on the Doonesbury strip, proving that what seem like tough decisions mercifully do not always follow you into eternity.

    But even the sensitivity and directness of images doesn’t explain the reluctance to publish the cartoons. I don’t know about you, but I need to better understand Islam, and I especially need to understand why these cartoons strike so deeply into the psyche of Islam. Mind you, this is no flash-in-the-pan incident.

    As The New York Times reported,

    “The Muslim world erupted in anger…over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Europe…  Streets in the Palestinian regions and in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia were filled with demonstrators calling for boycotts of European goods and burning the flag of Denmark, where the cartoons first appeared.”
    Protesters torched the Danish consulate in Beirut and the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus.

    But the editors of the largest newspapers in the United States and most network broadcasters refused to run even one of the cartoons for fear of offending readers and viewers. (A CNN anchor said the network is “pixillating” the images. I suppose that  means “making them incomprehensible,” because that’s how I felt about the CNN image of one of the cartoons.) How about fear of confusing readers and viewers who don’t understand the deep feelings of the protesters? The Associated Press, the primary source for most American newspapers and networks, won’t even transmit the cartoons so that editors can make up their own minds.

    I get it that many Muslims believe that no image of the prophet Muhammad should appear. I am grateful for the Times’ word descriptions of the drawings and understand why the drawings would be provocative: “One cartoon depicts Muhammad with a turban in the shape of a bomb. Another shows him at the gates of heaven, arms raised, saying to men who seem to be suicide bombers, ‘Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins.’ A third has devil’s horns emerging from his turban. A fourth shows two women who are entirely veiled, with only their eyes showing, and the prophet standing between them with a strip of black cloth covering his eyes, preventing him from seeing.”

    But I can’t truly understand the controversy until I see the cartoons.

    I did appreciate the Mercury News publishing on Friday, inside the A-section, a picture of a German newspaper with one of the offending cartoons (which was reproduced at less than 1-1/2 by 1-1/2 inches.)

    Not everyone agreed.

    The Mercury News on Saturday apologized to readers who were offended but noted rightly that the images “are so much a part of this ongoing story.” I’d like to see more of the 12 cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper in September, then elsewhere in Europe.

    No, I wouldn’t run the cartoons “to show support” for the Danish paper, which the BBC says was the motivation for many European newspapers. I’d run them because they’re big news and help explain a religion that we desperately need to understand.

    No, I don’t think that American editors have conspired to keep the cartoons out of the paper. Cranky editors tend to oppose most anything that suggests a united front.

    The big problem is that talking to readers and viewers is not an automatic instinct for journalists. If it were, the problem would be resolved because:

    • Editors would publish a front-page warning saying that several of the cartoons were running inside (at a size that didn’t challenge my weakening eyes).

    • Editors would explain why they made the decision to publish. Some might even want to say that it was a tough decision, but I wouldn’t. I’d simply say that it’s important for us to understand why the cartoons push a hot button, and you can’t understand that without seeing them.

    • I’d post them online or link to them (which very few newspapers have done) with the same warning and explanation.

    • If I were a broadcaster, I’d do the same thing: Warn, explain, then run the images (without “pixillation”).
    Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, author Irshad Manji authoritatively tried to explain Islam and criticized its lack of receptiveness to those of other faiths. “As long as Rome welcomes non-Christians and Jerusalem embraces non-Jews, we Muslims have more to protest than cartoons,” she wrote.

    I would have learned even more if several of the cartoons had accompanied her column.

    Why didn’t they?

    The Wall Street Journal, like so many others, refuses to publish them.

    Jerry Ceppos is a former executive editor of the Mercury News and former vice president/news of Knight Ridder, its parent company.
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