Speech by ASNE President David Zeeck during 2007 convention

For each of us there are a few moments when the arc of your life is forever redirected, your world-view altered.

One of those occurred for me 12 years ago on an ASNE trip to China and Vietnam. The moment I recall occurred on an early morning walk through Hanoi as the city awoke and headed to work. I was standing in the heart of the city, along a street bordering Hoa Kiem Lake.

For each of us there are a few moments when the arc of your life is forever redirected, your world-view altered.

One of those occurred for me 12 years ago on an ASNE trip to China and Vietnam. The moment I recall occurred on an early morning walk through Hanoi as the city awoke and headed to work. I was standing in the heart of the city, along a street bordering Hoa Kiem Lake.

With my back to the lake and its ancient island temples I could look left and see the old market quarter, called 36 Streets. There every craft guild was represented on a different block. Furniture here. Cobblers on that street. Butchers over there. It was Hanoi as it's been for 100 years. But I turned my head to the right and saw modern hotels rising from the roots of towering construction cranes. Sidewalk stalls overflowed with modern electronics. Businessmen dressed in tropical-casual swung briefcases as they marched to the office.

At rush hour tricycle pedicabs and bicycles crammed the streets. They were joined by the buzz of motorcycles and the occasional mechanical purr of a Mercedes gliding by.

I had come to Vietnam as a middle-aged newspaper editor, part of the generation shaped by the Vietnam War. It was the mid-‘90s but I was emotionally stuck in a Vietnam from the late 60s and early 70s. I expected a nation still struggling back from the war that formed me and killed not a few of my friends.

What I found in Vietnam, however, was a nation that mostly didn't care about the war, and largely didn't remember it. More than half of Vietnam's population had been born since 1975.

The foreign minister gave us some perspective: “Vietnam was the longest war America ever fought,” he said. “For Vietnam, the war with America was our shortest.”

I was a captive of the past. But the Vietnamese were busy building their future. They were inventing an economy to take them from the 19th century to the 21st in a generation. Today their former enemy – the US – is their largest trading partner. Among Asian countries they're behind only China in economic growth.

I remember thinking as I left Vietnam that, if I were in my 20s, this might be the place I'd want to be. California during the Gold Rush would have been much the same. Full of turmoil, but also a place of adventure and opportunity. It was a place where the past demanded respect, but the future commanded attention.

I think ASNE and newspapers are at such a point, a Guttenberg moment some have called it. A time to get over our past and get on with our future.

I'd like to talk about what moving forward means for ASNE and what it means for the newspaper business.

For ASNE moving forward means, for one thing, refining our mission. Over the years ASNE's mission statement became unwieldy, with five priorities and eight strategies. It was time to simplify.

So last year we did a first-of-its-kind member survey. We asked editors what ASNE's mission should be. Two issues tied for the top spot, well above all others: ASNE's job, they said, is helping editors lead the digital transformation in our newsrooms and supporting and protecting the First Amendment.

We've responded in several ways.

First is this conference. Most of the agenda has been directed at the First Amendment and at the digital revolution.

We've also created a First Amendment Committee; I've asked Ken Paulson to head it. Its purpose is to spread the gospel to the American public -- to educate, to inform, to promote, if you will, the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

The First Amendment Committee doesn't replace our Freedom of Information Committee. FOI will continue to be our prime defender of open government and press rights. It will be our voice in promoting a federal shield law and a broader federal Freedom of Information Act. But now there will be two committees, working together, to promote and defend our first freedoms.

Another free press initiative was a First Amendment Summit organized by ASNE and the Poynter Institute and held here in Washington. It scored a breakthrough moment in favor of a federal shield law, and produced a new agenda for action by free press and reporters'-rights advocates. You'll hear more about that this afternoon.

Beyond the survey, moving ASNE forward also means figuring out ways to make the organization more efficient, more cost effective, and more plugged into the world of hybrid news delivery we're inventing.

In the last year the board began to move toward shortening conventions, to save you and ASNE money on travel and hotel. If that happens we also won't have to spend a week away from our newsrooms to attend this conference. Though we were obligated this year to a four-day contract, in coming years we may shrink the convention to two or three days. We may begin on a Sunday so we're back in our newsrooms by Wednesday. We'll spend two or three nights in a hotel rather than four or five.

As we move forward, we've also made ASNE more financially stable.

The board and especially the ASNE Foundation led by Edward Seaton have been working several years to establish a sizable ASNE endowment. We need one to fund the diversity programs so essential to our future and our First Amendment work.

You'll hear later today of a multi-million dollar first step on that journey, and a challenge the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is putting before us to establish such an endowment.

We also won more than $5 million in multi-year grants this year -- from the Knight Foundation and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation -- to support high school journalism. These two programs encourage new journalists and support new newspapers, especially in schools that serve neighborhoods with lower incomes or more diverse populations. They also help ASNE train high school journalism advisors to lead these programs and develop future journalists.

Moving ASNE forward also means updating some of our bylaws. This is the 21st Century, after all, so it seems appropriate to allow absentee voting by e-mail, not just snail mail, and to allow special board meetings to be held via internet, video or phone conference.

But the biggest change ASNE needs to consider is broader – its very identity. At our mid-year board meeting I asked whether we should drop the word newspaper from our name.

I'm not sure it's time for a name change, or even that it's wise, but it's the same issue we face in our newsrooms. It deserves discussion. Do we work for newspaper companies or news companies? If our newsrooms also produce video, and podcasts, and magazines and free-standing Web publications, does the single word “newspaper” really define who we are?

I don't have a final answer, but a transition of identity already is under way.

You can see it partly in our new logo: ASNE – leading America's newsrooms. I think that's a better description of who we are and what we do.

Moving forward means we also need to partner with other associations that have similar missions and values. As a first step, last year we proposed a joint project with the Online News Association. ASNE's Interactive Chair Pam Fine and ONA president Kinsey Wilson organized a one-day seminar for newspaper editors the day before ONA's national conference began. The seminar sold out well in advance and some workshops were standing-room-only.

We also began a discussion with ONA about trying to move either our conference or theirs to the same schedule (they meet in the fall). We don't have to merge the two organizations, but we could meet at the same time and share a day or two days of mutual programming and comradeship that I think would produce a sum greater than the parts.

We should pursue such partnerships with others who share our values and whose essential job is covering news.

So that's what moving ASNE forward looks like. What does moving our newspapers forward look like?

In the short term it doubtless means more pain. The stock prices of publicly traded companies will continue to suffer until investors see, as we do, the remaining strength of our businesses and until we prove to them that we have a plan for a financially secure future.

Newspaper circulations levels are likely to continue a slow decline. The fight for our share of total advertising spending will get more competitive, not less.

All that, of course, will put pressure on newsroom spending and, necessarily, staff size.

That's the truth of our situation. So what do we do about it?

We could adjourn now to the bar and plan speedy retirements. But I'm not ready for retirement and I'm not ready to give up on news.

As my friend Howard Weaver says: “I didn't get in this business to be a hospice nurse.”

So, I'm with him, and I say let's use whatever resources we do have – more judiciously, more expertly and more on behalf of the people -- than ever before.

Let's look at three strengths that we still possess, strengths we can carry forward as we invent a new digital journalism.

One, our dominance in every local market – in print and online -- means we're still the source of most news in this country. We'll keep that dominance for a long time. We have the advantage, as Tom Rosenstiel says, of more boots on the ground. Those boots give us the advantage of covering important news that no one else covers, and of presenting a high barrier to market entry for any competitor.

I'm told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch. Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we – newspapers – write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: the lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn't produce a single BTU of intellectual heat.

It's the same with the Internet in general. When someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say: “Oh yeah? So, tell me again, how many reporters does Yahoo have at City Hall? How many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq?

People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source?

News on the Internet – news from real communities, new about real governments and real wars – comes from flesh-and-blood reporters. And they're dispatched from our newsrooms, not the soulless zero-gravity of the Internet.

Another newspaper strength we must carry into the future is our investigative and enterprise reporting. I prefer Len Downie and Bob Kaiser's phrase – accountability reporting -- because it recalls our constitutional mandate to hold the powerful to account. Whatever you call it, newspapers are still the source of almost all serious accountability reporting in the nation.

I judged the investigative categories of both the Pulitzers and the ASNE writing awards this year. I feared that, with all the cost pressures on American newsrooms, I would see a visible decline in the number of entries or in the depth and quality of the work that was entered.

Not so. The Pulitzers had 79 entries in the investigative category in 2005. The number climbed to 99 in 2006, and dropped to 67 this year. But there were another 150 entries this year in a new category, local reporting, many of which also were investigative. Investigative entries also held steady in the ASNE writing awards. Entries in the local investigations category numbered 117 last year, 106 this year.

Not only have the numbers stayed strong, the quality and depth of the work was truly inspiring. From Belleville to Baltimore, Biloxi to Boston, Seattle to St. Pete – it was inventive, important, well-sourced and original.

And it's the investigative work of newspaper newsrooms that forces change in our communities and moves the national agenda – think NSA eavesdropping, think secret prisons, think Walter Reed hospital.

ASNE is doing its part to keep investigative reporting alive. We and IRE just won another grant to keep our Better Watchdog Workshops going for a third year; I saw the fruits of that work at the ASNE and Pulitzer judging. As editors we can do our part by keeping strong investigative reporting a central part of our newsroom mission.

The third strength of newspapers – and the most important – is you, the editors in this room.

Maybe some of you are here by mistake, but my guess is that most of you got your jobs and keep them because you chose to lead, and you're good at it.

You already know this about yourselves, and your staffs know it. It's your passion and your skills that – working with the people you've chosen -- make the first two strengths come alive in your newsrooms. A passion for local news, a commitment to ground-breaking investigative reporting – that's what makes newspapers such difficult competitors for others to equal, much less conquer.

But while we and our newsrooms know the power brought to the enterprise through your passion, values and skill, in too many cases readers don't.

It's not that readers don't already have a bond with your newspaper. They do. But that connection is primarily indirect, a byproduct of coverage that's a mixture of affection for the community and a willingness to tell the truth, even when it hurts.

But your community yearns for a personal connection with your newsroom – one with a real human being at the heart of things. The simplest way to create that connection is by writing a weekly column in your newspaper.

I resisted writing such a column for years. Who has the time? Where -- among all the meetings, the line editing, the crisis triage that is an editor's life – where is there room to write a weekly column? We already have enough columnists, I told myself; we don't need one more.

I was wrong.
For nearly a decade I've written a weekly column at The News Tribune. I write about our successes, our mistakes and our failures. I explain why we had to fire a popular reporter for making up quotes. I tried to explain – though no excuse is sufficient – how we printed the newspaper one day without a crossword puzzle.

I now believe the column is the most important task I perform at the newspaper. It gives the newsroom a face and a voice. It's a place where readers can connect to at least one human being who talks about nothing but journalism.

I hear it over and over from readers: “I feel like for the first time I'm beginning to understand why journalists do what they do.” It makes us appear human, and -- sometimes -- reasonable. It lets them know we are not a heartless printing press looking “to sell papers.”

For a generation, or more, we've let others define us. Spiro Agnew comes to mind. Rush Limbaugh and the rest of talk radio, both right and left. Bloggers who assail us as the MSM, the mainstream media, as if that's a badge that should shame us. You know what they say: We're the liberal media. We're elitists. We're only interested in bad news. We tear people down just to sell papers. We have a political agenda. We're unpatriotic.

How can I put this delicately? If you'll pardon a literary aside, I'll just mention the subject of a recent bestseller: “Bullshit.”

We may know that such criticism is untrue. But what's our public response? Mostly silence. We're uncomfortable being advocates for ourselves. We think our work will speak for itself. We want to maintain our objectivity.

Well, here's a news flash, my friends: We're losing our case in the court of public opinion. The gasbags are winning and we're sitting on the sidelines.

So here's what I propose. Quit making excuses and vow to write a letter from your newsroom to your readers once a week. Then publish it in the paper. Argue your case. Admit your flaws. Tell them what you believe. Explain the difference between the journalism of assertion and the journalism of verification.

Here's what I tell my readers: I tell them I don't believe that pure objectivity is possible. I tell them I do believe in fairness, in the journalism of verification, and in bringing intellectual honesty to our coverage.

But I also tell them we're not objective about two things: open government and the First Amendment. We can report fairly and with intellectual honesty about both. But threats to either are likely to end up on Page 1. If we're going to be a crusading paper, it will be for those two values.


I believe journalism is important. I don't think free people or free societies can exist without a free press. I believe that's what journalism is for. For that reason, my newspaper will fight for open government and the First Amendment.

I also believe that if we produce journalism worthy of that First Amendment, and if we hold to our principles, if we cover our communities with affection but tell the truth, we can survive this crisis as we've survived so many others.

The challenges we face are great. But the talents, the standards and the creativity of the people in our newsrooms – and of America's editors – can surmount any challenge.

I believe we're like post-war Vietnam.

I believe our best days are still ahead.

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