Remarks on the future of ASNE by Ken Paulson

Ken Paulson becomes the 82nd president of ASNE at the San Diego convention.

As prepared for delivery at the 2011 ASNE Convention.

ASNE 2011
San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina
April 9

Good morning.

I'm truly honored to be elected the 82nd president of the American Society of News Editors and I look forward to our collective work ahead.

Of course, to take on this kind of role, you need the support of the people you work for, and I've had nothing but commitment and enthusiasm from Charles Overby and my colleagues at the Freedom Forum and First Amendment Center, which, by the way, includes two former presidents of ASNE, my good friends and mentors, John Seigenthaler and John Quinn.

I'm here today to talk with you about ASNE's bright future, but it's also probably valuable to reflect a bit on the past, most notably a day just about 100 years ago.

It was on that day that the idea of forming ASNE first surfaced.

For all of ASNE's advocacy of ethics and professional standards, I have to let you in on the organization's dirty little secret: ASNE was conceived on a junket.

Just about a century ago, a railroad executive trying to drum up positive press for Glacier National Park, invited newspaper editors to enjoy a two-week vacation in the wilds of Montana.

Of course, that invites a couple of questions. Was taking the trip ethical? And how in the world did newspaper editors get two weeks off?

According to ASNE's recorded history, Casper Yost, editorial director of the St. Louis Globe Democrat, sat with other editors around a campfire and shared his vision for a new professional organization.

He must have been persuasive. One of those in attendance recalled thirty years later that “He was telling us of a dream which possessed him…He had eyes that a master might have used in painting a picture of St. Francis of Assisi. His dream was the creation of an ethical organization of American newspaper editors.”

That's a vivid description and one of the few times in American history that the words “editor' and saint” have been used in the same sentence.

Though inspired, it took the editors another ten years to get actually get ASNE founded. (That's what happens when you take that much vacation time.)

The driving force was some unflattering articles about the newspaper business published in the Atlantic. These editors wanted to defend the business they loved.

We know all of this because ASNE has its history chronicled in amazing detail in not one, but two books: “Read All About It, 50 Years of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,” and the oddly titled “Gods Within the Machine,” taken from Yost's first address as the first president of ASNE in 1923. Apparently the editors were the gods in question. And they think we're arrogant.

A lot has changed since then. The once all white male organization has considerably more diversity, though still not enough. And being criticized by others is pretty much the least of our problems.

So what if that 1922 meeting had never happened? What if ASNE has never been founded? Would we still see a need for it today?

Imagine if a group of us happened to run into each other in a barroom down the street today and we began comparing notes about the challenges we face. What would be our driving concerns today?

Let me suggest a few:

  • We face increasing government secrecy with record numbers of documents being classified by the federal government each year. At the state level, officials are trying to keep emails, tweets and text messages out of public view, hiding the public's business from the public. Somebody ought to do something about that.
  • The federal government is also growing increasingly zealous about prosecuting those who leak information to the press. Our watchdog role will be forever compromised if we can't keep our sources secret and our reporters out of jail. Somebody needs to tackle that.
  • If we're really going to represent the communities we serve, we need to make sure our newsrooms are diverse. There needs to be an industry-wide effort to ensure that journalists of color are getting the opportunities they deserve. Somebody should be watching that.
  • The economic challenges facing newsrooms is so substantial that our best and brightest are not always getting the guidance and training they need to become the next generation of industry leaders. They need workshops and seminars close to home, and at a reasonable cost. And there are hundreds of journalism leaders – both inside and outside the business today – who could serve as mentors and sounding boards for those who still aspire to lead newsrooms in a digital age. Somebody needs to address that.
  • We also need to build public understanding of the role of a free press and why we do what we do. There will always be critics and we can't kid ourselves about becoming the most popular people in town, but communicating clearly with our readers and audience, while explaining why we do what we do, could go a long way in rebuilding public trust. Somebody needs to encourage that.
  • And one more thing: Those economic and public pressures have taken a toll on the way we look at ourselves. Despite the cutbacks, there is still extraordinary work being done by America's journalists.

We need to celebrate that work and also remind ourselves from time to time that our role and our responsibilities were handed to us by the American people in 1791.

In that year of the First Amendment's birth, newspapers were generally not published to make a buck. They were launched to make a point, generally attacking someone on the other side of the political ledger.

There was no concern about the loss of classified ads. Or declining circulation. Or competition from new technology. And there certainly wasn't anxiety about the survival of newspapers.

No, the real question was the survival of America.

Despite winning our independence, this nation was still on shaky gound economically and militarily. The Federalists made their case for a new constitution, largely through articles in America's newspapers.

But ratification fell short because the public was leery of the power the Constitution would give a federal government. They'd already had their taste of a strong central government – called a “king” and they demanded greater protection of individual liberties.

It wasn't until the Constitution's supporters made a series of promises, to be embodied in the Bill of Rights, that the American public accepted this this historic plan.

Prominent in those demands was the insistence on a free press. The American people, in effect, said “We don't trust anyone with that much power. You could have George Washington run things, for all we know, but we still want someone to keep an eye on this new and powerful government.”

And so that first generation of Americans decided that the best way to keep an eye on people in power was to guarantee a free press.

That sense of mission needs to be at the forefront of all that we do. Somebody needs to reaffirm that.

I would hope that at the conclusion of that modern day bar conversation – in the neon glow of a beer sign – someone's eyes would light up like St. Francis of Assisi and they would say: Hey, let's pool our talents and address these issues together. Let's hold public officials accountable, keep public meetings and records open, support news media diversity, encourage innovation, provide training and support the First Amendment.

In short, if ASNE didn't already exist, we'd need to invent it.

One of those ASNE history books noted that virtually every decade someone has called for the reinvention and reform of ASNE. I'm sure that's inevitable. Put together a group of people who make dozens of decisions daily and you know they're going to want to edit their own organization.

But the truth is that all organizations with a century or so behind them need to take a long hard look at what they've been and what they need to be today.

Tradition alone doesn't cut it. Our options are two: We can retire – or we can reinvigorate. We choose the latter.

To that end, you'll see some of the most dramatic change in the history of the organization in the coming 12 months. The 15 standing committees that have served ASNE for many years have been consolidated into just six, each focusing on the make-or-break issues that will define the future of ASNE.

That includes partnerships reaching out to like-minded organizations to share resources and reach. That means partnering with journalism associations, foundations, America's universities and high schools, First Amendment organizations and many others. We cannot stand alone.

Obviously, we will need to continue to grow membership and that includes bylaws changes that will allow us to recruit not just the top editors in a news organization, but also those a bit lower on the ladder, who aspire to run the place one day. In short, for talented journalists all across this country, ASNE needs to be the leadership track.

This new generation of ASNE will continue to recruit leaders, but not just leaders of newsrooms. We're also inviting the thought leaders of American journalism, people whose perspectives will enhance our own.

ASNE also needs to strive for greater visibility. On the big journalistic issues of the day, whether that's Wikileaks or newsroom ethics, people need to know where we stand. We need to give voice to our values.

We also need to continue the good fight for a shield law, open meetings and open records, and maintain our commitment to diversity in America's newsrooms.

I've been a member of ASNE for 25 years. It has been a good and noble organization that drew the editors of America's largest newspapers together to discuss ethics and the pressing issues of our time.

But just as the news business has been turned on its ear in the past decade, ASNE has also changed –dramatically and irrevocably. ASNE will never again be what it was.

But it can be better. Our most diverse, inclusive and innovative years are still ahead if we couple the passion of our past with the engagement and inventiveness we embrace today.

Our future can be captured in two words:

Membership and Mission.

We need to grow by welcoming a broader range of members than ever before, celebrating fresh ideas and new perspectives.

But we also need to remember our core commitment to the American people.

When we do our jobs the right way, when we strive everyday to publish reports of integrity and balance, when we ask the tough questions, when we fight to keep the public's business public and when we provide the kind of thorough and balanced reporting that is the lifeblood of a democracy, we fulfill our promise to that first generation of Americans who believed that one of the best ways to guarantee a democracy was a free and vigorous press. That's our job.

If we get all of this right, ASNE can be the most vibrant voice in American journalism for years to come, taking a firm stand for ethics, access, diversity and integrity in a shifting media marketplace.

We've come a very long way from that campfire in Montana and we still have work to do. The public is still counting on us to keep an eye on people in power and to ensure the free flow of information.

We will not let them down.