October 2, 2015
President Barack Obama, accompanied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, left, and former U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern at the Rose Garden of the White House in 2011.  Chavern will be the new president and CEO of the NAA. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, left, and former U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern at the Rose Garden of the White House in 2011. Chavern will be the new president and CEO of the NAA. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

David Chavern, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for most of the last decade, was named Thursday the new president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America.

Chavern has no background in newspapers or other media businesses but was a good match to helm the troubled industry’s trade association in several ways:

  • He is an experienced association executive at the highest levels and considered especially skilled at positive messaging, at a time newspaper organizations continue to confront the “dying industry” meme.
  • He spent his last 18 months with the Chamber leading an ambassadorial initiative to the Silicon Valley tech industry — with whom newspapers have also had a strained relationship.
  • His background also includes investing in a data analytics firm, another competency newspaper companies know they need to master but often find baffling.

When I spoke to Chavern by phone and asked for his first thoughts on strategy for NAA and its members, he started right in on the messaging:

Newspapers are an industry undergoing a difficult transition.  I’ve dealt with that at the Chamber. One of my jobs was to go around the country making speeches about manufacturing.  U.S. manufacturing has been through 20 years like you’ve never seen.  But they are coming out the other side now and doing well in some unexpected ways.

He added:

The plus side (for newspapers) is that people want what they make.  People  really value journalism.  But they are consuming it in different and evolving ways….This isn’t the VHS industry…or Pets.com….But finding the way to new business models can be painful.

Chavern was quick to concede that monetizing digital — especially effective digital advertising — hasn’t been figured out yet, “and we’re not alone in trying to figure it out.”

I also asked about takeaways from his time with the tech industry (which has had tepid relations with the Chamber):

At least they’re optimistic.  Everyone is thinking about how tomorrow can be better.  Everyone has a business plan, even the bartenders.  By contrast Washington is pretty morose on a good day.

The downside is that they are easily caught up in the tech version of what’s in fashion, They are pretty insular — they don’t necessarily understand how the rest of the business world works, and there’s not a lot of respect for incumbent businesses.

Without having a specific plan for improved relations, Chavern, who is in his early 50s, said he is hopeful the big tech companies will swing to the view that journalism is important, important to their businesses and cannot be done, except in very simple stories, by automation.

I also spoke with Donna Barrett, NAA board Chairman and president and CEO of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., and asked what the group looking for in a successor to Caroline LIttle, who gave notice this spring she was leaving.

Barrett said the board considered candidates from both within the industry and outside, interviewing finalists from both groups.  “But David stood out.  He was the unanimous choice.”

The board also liked that Chavern’s experience at the Chamber, like the NAA, involved working with enterprises of very different sizes in its membership, in NAA’s case “ranging from the New York Times to small town weeklies.”

Lobbying remains an important part of the chairman’s job, Barrett said, echoing what Chavern had told me earlier, but doing better telling the industry’s story, with supporting research and data, is now top priority.

Little, who had run the Washington Post’s digital operations for a number of years, joined NAA as president in 2011.  She was considered a strong internal manager at a time when NAA needed to downsize drastically and refocus, but less comfortable in public speaking roles.

Her predecessor, John Sturm, who had a 15-year-run, was a career lobbyist (now representing his alma mater, Notre Dame), who did not have a newspaper background but did represent CBS earlier in his career.

Sturm, Little and Chavern are all lawyers.  Chavern spent several years before his time at the Chamber as general counsel to the Export-Import Bank.

I asked Barrett whether the NAA, which has not yet reported 2014 industry revenue results, had decided not to do so anymore.  Not exactly, she said “There’s been no formal decision on that.  But we don’t think the metrics we were using were capturing the different growth areas of the business…the whole picture….So we said.’let’s hit the pause button.'”

Sorting out those messy metrics, not to mention jumping in on planning for NAA’s annual MediaXChange conference next April in Washington, will be among the many challenges on Chavern’s plate as he begins work October 14.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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