Kaiser takes over as ASNE president: 'Our profession is in crisis'

Originally posted by Gregory Favre April 27, 2009 on Favre was 1994-95 ASNE president and a former vice president for news for McClatchy.

Originally posted by Gregory Favre April 27, 2009 on Favre was 1994-95 ASNE president and a former vice president for news for McClatchy.

Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, officially becomes the new president of the American Society of News Editors this week. But there won't be the ceremonial passing of the gavel before a crowd of his colleagues at the convention in Chicago.

And he will not have an opportunity in person to flesh out the theme of his presidency or issue a call for action during this time of volatile change in the news media and economic downfall that is crippling newspapers.

Because, of course, there won't be a convention. It was canceled after too few editors indicated they could attend.

So Poynter, via e-mail and telephone, gave Kaiser the chance to say what he would have told ASNE members.

Favre: You will not have the opportunity to accept the gavel of the president's office and speak of your plans to your colleagues at the convention. What would you have said to them?

Marty Kaiser: I have a passion for journalism and ASNE. I know our industry and members have high expectations for this organization. As incoming President, I take that to heart.

Our profession is in crisis. We know that leadership could never be more important. To be relevant in these turbulent times, ASNE must be essential.

We might take comfort when Google CEO Eric Schmidt says it is a huge moral imperative to help newspapers and has called the Internet a "cesspool."

However, Schmidt has been critical of the newspaper industry's lack of innovation. And I doubt many editors would disagree. Clearly a more important message to editors is Schmidt's comment that "incumbents very seldom invent the future."

We must be leaders in the invention of the future of journalism. ASNE is changing so we can better help each other.

Our communities and our shrinking staffs depend on us like never before. Our industry's business model is broken, but we as journalists have an obligation to protect, nurture and build trusted news coverage that is necessary to our democracy. Our journalism provides context and explanation to a complicated world.

We know that journalism has long been recognized as a sacred trust and explicitly protected through the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."

In their book "The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect," Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel echoed Jefferson by saying, "The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing."

They came up with the nine elements of journalism that I would condense to: our obligation to truth with a discipline of verification and a loyalty to citizens.

Warren Phillips, former chairman and CEO of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, explained it this way: "The Wall Street Journal is not just another business. It's not ... making corn flakes, it's not making nuts and bolts and widgets." He continued, "It performs a very real public trust function in that it is responsible for providing reliable, trustworthy information on which people make very, very important decisions, decisions affecting their livelihood, political decisions that affect the governance of society."

In this time of great change, as leaders of the news industry, we need a strong vision and supporting cultural values –- a goal for our newsrooms and, for that matter, our companies to rally around. There isn't a clearer goal than what our journalism can do for our communities. Yes, our newsrooms are smaller, but let's not ignore some of the outstanding journalism we are still doing. Having judged and read the work of national contest winners this year, I have come away still inspired by the exceptional work being done by so many journalists in print and online.

But we all know that won't be enough to find our way through the great challenges and changes we face.

We are in a fight for our future. As someone who has spent more than 35 years in this business, here is how I would look at the situation -- and, yes, hindsight is always easier, but I think there are some clues for our future.

When the national competitive landscape changed with the industry consolidation into essentially one newspaper cities we lost much of our competitive and even entrepreneurial drive.

There were two or three papers in most large cities when I got my first newspaper job. And I know from personal experience, some newspapers, such as the one where I worked in Chicago, were staffed up to 20 hours a day and published almost around the clock. It was much like the reporting we are doing online today.

Our instinct to dig deep and fast -- to not just bring the great story to the public, but to beat the competition and be more appealing to readers -- drove us.

The underdog newspapers were fighting for their lives. We talked about how -- if we didn't connect better with readers -- the newspaper would not survive.

Today there is a similarity with many news organizations fighting to survive. Just as societal shifts impacted the business model to kill many newspapers years ago, so it has again. This time the situation is vastly more dramatic. Today we have many, many more competitors. The time is long past where the main producers of news were the people who owned the printing presses or the TV and radio towers. We are challenged by greater societal changes, rapid technological advancements and demographic shifts of a magnitude few understood or knew how to prepare for.

The urgency could never be greater to take chances, be creative and use new technology to be more meaningful. What is really different this time is the speed at which we must move. It calls for an entrepreneurial mindset.

This is why the culture of our news organizations is so important. The culture comes from leadership. Leaders create it. We are responsible for changing our staffs.

Despite the crisis we are experiencing, we need to encourage in them the passion that we still find in our work, nurture the joy, and recognize that it is still a calling, not just a job.

Like those underdog newspapers of years ago, we need to innovate, stir things up, raise a little hell, and welcome new ideas.

And if we do that, we might just build new bridges to our readers and users that neither they, nor we, ever before imagined.

Favre: The theme of your year as president is based on providing leadership during a time of a crisis that you reference in your previous answer. What should editors be doing to guide their remaining staffs through these uncharted waters?

Kaiser: Leadership in any era calls for developing an inspiring vision, supporting strategies, building a great team to execute and establishing a culture that values trusting and supportive relationships. Even as we go through the painful and agonizing cuts we must stay focused on the big picture and still be part of the daily routine. It encourages and reassures staff members that editors know their work and care. This connection to the staff is vital to building trust in leadership essential during this period of volcanic change.

We know we can't do everything. Our staffs are reduced and we must make choices deciding what our communities need, concentrating on the coverage most important to our readers, while being transparent with them about our decisions.

As leaders we must be able to admit mistakes and encourage expression of opinions. Top editors must help their staff members think bigger and push them out of their own comfort zone.

We must reinvigorate the importance of diversity in our news coverage and our staffs to stay connected to our communities. The demographics of our country are changing rapidly. To remain relevant we must reflect the great diversity of our communities, whether in race, gender, lifestyle, political view, age, economic status, religion or cultural background.

Paramount to the success of any news operation, especially during times of crisis, is the underlying values of the top leader. This goes beyond a well thought out, communicated and enforced ethics policy, but is a personal tone, a work ethic that is demonstrated daily.

It is the open discussion, commitment to seeking the truth, practice of fairness and ensuing discussions of the values behind our decisions that reinforce a strong ethical environment. These actions send a resounding message to the staff, the readers and the entire company that journalism is about credibility and credibility cannot exist without strong ethics.

Our ethics and values is the foundation of journalism and journalism is essential to a free society.

Favre: Next year's convention is slated for Washington. How confident are you that there will be one and, if so, what instructions will you have for the convention program committee?

Kaiser: I believe it is necessary for ASNE members to come together, after this year's hiatus, no matter the economic concerns we may still be facing. As an organization we have to change our conventions to be more practical and offer newsroom leaders the best solutions to evolve their own news operations and build strength for the future.

This was the type of convention we had planned for this year in Chicago. Just as our newsrooms are being reinvented, last year's president, Charlotte Hall, and her convention chairs, John Temple and George Stanley, were planning a reinvention of our convention to demonstrate how ASNE is changing to better serve its members. The best of these ideas will be used next spring in Washington.

Favre: What is the financial state of ASNE, and is it time to start seriously thinking about the consolidation of some of the news associations, such as ASNE and APME and perhaps others? Why did you change the name of ASNE?

Kaiser: We are fortunate that we are able to overcome a very difficult economic year and move forward with generous help of the ASNE Foundation. We are broadening our membership structure to include online editors, academics, etc. ASNE is going to look different. That is why we changed our name from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to the American Society of News Editors. We needed to show we are neutral about how we distribute our journalism. What we are about is leadership. The capacity to harness leaders who care about news and the quality of journalism necessary to serve a civil society is our sphere. Our members care foremost about the ethics and standards of gathering and reporting news and about FOI/First Amendment issues.

I don't know whether we need to consolidate, but we do need to explore ways that we might work together to strengthen news associations.

Favre: Your newspaper has consistently been publishing some excellent journalism of accountability and was recognized last year with a Pulitzer Prize and this year as a finalist. But you have also had to cut your staff. Can your paper, and others, continue to provide this kind of unique and vital journalism? And if you and others can't, what will this mean in communities such as Milwaukee across this land?

Kaiser: I believe we have no choice, despite our smaller newsroom staffs, to provide the journalism that is essential to our communities. The fight for our future in Milwaukee is no different than I described in the answers to the first two questions. We have to make tough choices with our diminished resources. In Milwaukee we have tightened our focus to four major area:

  1. Expertise. This covers everything from the Packers to our investigative team. We believe we must be the experts and give readers and users news and information they can't get anywhere else. It is our chance to be unique and relevant. To survive I believe we have to go for the big impact stories in the paper and on the Web. This is all part of taking advantage of technology from letting fans interact with our Brewers writer online to using computer assisted reporting to gather, slice and dice information in ways we once never dreamed possible to strengthen our investigative and enterprise reporting.
  2. Immediacy. We still have the largest news gathering staff in our state. We strive to break news as quickly as possible. We must use new technology to enhance our storytelling using everything from text to audio interviews, to blogs to photography to video.
  3. Multimedia. Once again we believe that new technology gives us better ways to tell stories. Like other news organizations we are expanding your use of video and multimedia.
  4. Interactivity. News is no longer all about us. We can use new technology to strengthen our reporting because it is now easier to interact with readers of the paper and users of our Web sites to improve the sources of our reporting.

No one knows for sure if the changes we embrace now will ensure the future of journalism as we know it. However, we have no choice as leaders. We know that journalism based on our ethics and values is necessary to a democratic society.

In her book "Leadership and the New Science," Margaret Wheatley wrote:

"We live in a time of great stirring storms, both natural and human made. ... It was from this place of feeling battered and bruised that I listened one night to a radio interview with a geologist whose specialty was beaches and shorelines. The interview was being conducted as a huge hurricane was pounding the Outer Banks of the eastern United States. The geologist had studied the Outer Banks for many years and was speaking fondly about their unique geological features. He was waiting for the storm to abate so he could get out and take a look at the hurricane's impact. The interviewer asked what do you expect to find when you go out there? Like the interviewer, I assumed he would present a litany of disasters -- demolished homes, felled trees, eroded shoreline. But he surprised me, 'I expect,' he said calmly, 'to find a new beach.'"

Today I trust that we will endure these chaotic times for journalism and find our way.