May 1, 2008

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.

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