2009 Archives

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Community wants time with you

Despite the Web, people still want to sit down with journalists

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Robin Swanson

I am a consultant for ballot measures, issue advocacy and candidates in California. One of the first questions my clients always ask is: When do we get to meet with editorial boards? 

That's because even in a world where tweets are replacing blogs, where texts are replacing e-mails, where Facebook has replaced the need to have face-to-face conversations, and where YouTube ensures that every irrelevant campaign ad without adequate funding to buy air time can still find a relevant audience, it turns out people still want to sit in a room with knowledgeable journalists to have a substantive conversation about their campaign or issue.

In the heat of the campaign, there's little that's more satisfying than going before the judge and juries of thoughtful editorial writers with your A-Team of influential spokespeople and persuading a room of skeptics to support your view. 

Does that make favorable editorials and columns critical to the success of the campaign?  Not necessarily. Let's face it - the sad reality is that as newsrooms thin out faster than contestants on "The Biggest Loser" and some major metro daily newspapers are now about as thick as Chinese take-out menus, it's up to the campaigns to make positive editorials and columns matter to voters.

Despite this seismic shift we've seen in the newspaper business, the brand identity of some newspapers and certain editorial writers still resonates with many voters, whether  they're willing to pony up for a newspaper subscription, or not. 

Two political trends will only continue to bolster this need for credible messengers: the growing ranks of decline-to-state voters and the increasing tendency to micro-target political campaigns.

True to their name, independent voters say that they prefer to find information about candidates and issues independently.  In focus groups, they say they don't trust information they receive in the mail or on television and in radio ads.   Instead, they are increasingly turning to podcasts, interesting blogs and Web sites that they trust.  That's good news for enterprising opinion writers who have learned to distribute their information in varying and ever-changing media.

And, as campaigns work to micro-target their audience, the political bent of the editorial can be used to devastating effect, whether in a 30-second campaign ad, a mail piece or taken door-to-door.  The micro-targeting can be by region, by ethnicity, by gender or even by sub-groups of political parties.

For example, when the Sacramento Bee's traditionally conservative syndicated columnist Dan Walters wrote a couple of columns that seemed to make the case supporting funding for public schools during California's remarkably painful budget process,  education groups didn't hesitate to redistribute the precious rare gems to right-leaning legislators.

The fact is: a thoughtful, well-written opinion piece, when wielded properly in a campaign, can cut through the white-noise of wall-to-wall campaign commercials. 

And nothing can replace the face-to-face meetings where editorial writers and campaign representatives can cut through the talking points and get down to the nuts and bolts.  Sometimes, even the tone and tenor set by the spokespeople in the room can help editorial writers get the real scoop. 

In the last election cycle, I attended an editorial board meeting for California's Proposition 2 (Farm Animal Protection Act), where a hired gun by the opposition played the role of a struggling single mother and theatrically presented proponents' free-range eggs that she claimed she "couldn't afford."    The stunt could've worked for a television audience in a press conference setting, but the editorial writers ultimately saw through the smoke and mirrors, writing one of the most thoughtful opinion pieces of the entire campaign.  (Though perhaps watching her drive away from the meeting in her BMW SUV, or looking up her $20K per month retainer on the Secretary of State's Web site ultimately confirmed suspicions that something about her story and her insistence that she wasn't a paid flack wasn't quite right.)  And in this particular scenario, the editorial writers also did their due-diligence with plenty of follow-up conversations to clarify specific economic arguments.

This kind of thoughtful exchange almost never happens in a "virtual" environment.  Though time is limited for busy editorial writers, it would be a shame if in-person meetings were a casualty of newspaper downsizing. While content is being developed, real conversations and in-person exchanges are irreplaceable.   But once the editorial is inked (or pixilated), distributing the piece in diverse mediums and ensuring that readers can be involved in an online dialogue about it is critical to its relevance.

That's where responsible editors are going to have to strike a careful online balance, working to break down the stereotype of the aloof editorial writer for an audience hooked on reality television and used to giving credence to information presented by the everyman.    Though most readers will never see the inside of an editorial board meeting, their experiences and online exchanges can help add real-life applications to sometimes cerebral editorials, and should be given enough space that they feel invested in both the issue and the venue.   Ultimately, the online "comments" sections for editorials are the new "letters to the editor," and show just how engaged a reader is with a particular writer or piece. 

So my final 140-character "tweet" for the editorial writers of America is this: GOOD EDITORIAL WRITING WILL ALWAYS BE RELEVANT,  AS LONG AS U ADAPT TO NEW METHODS OF DISTRIBUTION AND LET UR READERS JOIN IN ON THE ACTION.

Robin Swanson is a principal in Swanson Communications, a political consulting firm in Sacramento, Calif.


Facebook or Facetime?

The genesis of this Symposiumbegan with a lively reposte

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 7:00 am by Lois Kazakoff

Facebook or Face Time? The genesis of this edition's Symposium started with a question about balancing our ever-dwindling time in our ever-dwindling shops, and a lively response from David Barnham:

 "Limit meetings as much as possible, he said. "My bosses also liked to tell their bosses that we interviewed EVERYBODY who ran for statewide office. Including David Duke. Think about that."

Jane Nicholes came right back: "And yet, most of you spend more and more of your limited time worrying about your online presence, how many anonymous people are clicking on your Web site, what people hiding behind screen names are saying in your forums, how to get more of them to click on you, debating the merits of reaching people through Facebook, and so on. But when real people want to come talk to you face-to-face, you don't have time? No wonder newspapers are in trouble."

As we move opinion journalism more and more online, these are the tradeoffs we must weigh. Each of us will have to find the balance of Facebook and face time.

- Lois Kazakoff, Masthead editor


NCEW Foundation launches the Nancy Q. Keefe Endowment Fund

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Robyn Blumner

No, that's not the most eye-catching headline ever devised. But for those who believe that steady investment and careful planning are the way to ensure NCEW's survival into the future - and count me as one of those - the headline is good news.

Thanks to an inaugural gift by the surviving husband and children of longtime newspaper editor and columnist, and NCEW booster, Nancy Keefe, we finally have a fund set up to receive bequest and endowment gifts. The interest on contributions made to the Nancy Keefe Endowment Fund will go to support the work of the NCEW Foundation.

This is an investment in NCEW's long-term health if not survival - and a fully tax deductible one at that.

Keefe, whose columns ran in the Gannett newspapers of Westchester and Putnam counties, passed away in 2004 at the tender age of 69. She was an active member and a board member of NCEW throughout her long newspaper career and her family decided to honor her memory by helping to ensure that the organization she loved and worked so hard for, will endure.

We hope you will consider including NCEW in your will or estate plans as well. You may also consider giving a gift directly into the endowment fund. All bequests in the name of the NCEW Foundation and all checks made out to the Nancy Keefe Endowment Fund will be put into an endowment for NCEW's future.

Nancy passed a vibrant professional organization to us, now we have to keep it that way.

Robyn Blumner, St. Petersburg Times editorial writer and columnist, NCEW Foundation board member and Nancy Keefe Endowment Fund donor.


Look 'em in the eye

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Jane Nicholes

On consecutive days a while back, two large groups of "real" people came in to talk to the Mobile Press-Register editorial board. They weren't politicians and they weren't our usual suspects among community activists.

The first group, from Mobile's neighboring city of Prichard, wanted to talk about high water bills and a water and sewer board that charged $275 just to look at a public record.

The second group, from neighboring Baldwin County, wanted to talk about coastal insurance costs. Some of them had driven an hour to see us.

Both groups were polite and organized. The Prichard citizens were happy with our news coverage and editorials, while the Baldwin County group was rather critical.

They didn't care that newspapers are in trouble, or that cutbacks affect our news and editorial operations. They came to talk to us in person because they wanted help with their causes and they expect us to provide leadership.

Can an editorial board do that through e-mail and online forums?

Sure. Can we do it as well? No.

We've all had to take on more duties with fewer people, and most of us are encouraged to host forums, blog and otherwise interact with often anonymous folks online.  

 The result: Editorial page editors and writers worry about how to make time for Facebook contacts, even as we try to get out of having to go to editorial board meetings to speak with the public face to face.  

 Doesn't a person who wants to sit down and talk to you, not interact with you, deserve your attention ahead of a computer presence with a screen name? Just as you become angry when the store clerk answers the phone while you're standing in line with your purchase in hand, aren't we doing the same thing to our readers and potential readers when we don't welcome their visits?

In Mobile, our editorial board is seen as an important community leader. If we abandon that role for the Web, we've given real people one more reason not to care about the future of our newspaper.

Jane Nicholes is an editorial writer with the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.


Pulitzer win sends message

Mahoney takes the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Fred Fiske

"Sometimes, you strike a nerve."

So begins one of Mark C. Mahoney's editorials on freedom of information and open government - editorials that won him this year's Pulitzer Prize.

Writing "sunshine" editorials posed a challenge: they risk sounding preachy and self-serving, landing on readers with what Mark himself called "a resounding thud." Mark's approach, featuring hard-hitting editorials and a sizzling blog, broke the mold. His commentary from the citizen's point of view - down to earth, specific, convincing, passionate - caught the Pulitzer jurors' attention...

His is the first Pulitzer for The Post-Star (circulation 34,000) in Glens Falls, a small city in the foothills of New York's Adirondack Mountains. "The best response has been from the town - people so excited about this," Mark said over the phone. "It's about small-town papers beating the big guys, showing what we can do. The whole community is excited."

Mark, 45, joined the paper as a reporter in 1988, became an editor and migrated to the editorial page. He's a friendly bear of a man with an easy laugh and a way of casting a wary eye on the unfolding scene. He runs a one-man shop with the active support of editor Ken Tingley, citizen representative Nancy Fitzpatrick and publisher Rick Emanuel.

In his Pulitzer portfolio, Mark sounded the alarm against a gag order on members of the Warrensburg Board of Education, and "confidentiality agreements" that seal information about tax reassessments from public view. After his editorials challenged secrecy over contract terms for teachers in Fort Edward, the state Legislature in Albany took up a measure that would require public access to negotiated labor agreements prior to board approval. .

Mark's win sends some powerful messages. "This is for all the small newspapers out there that never got to play in the game," says editor Tingley, who originally persuaded a reluctant Mark to go for the Pulitzer.

While Mark's Your Right to Know blog was not an official part of his Pulitzer entry (could this be its own category some day?), it enriched his editorials and is a model and resource as blogging moves front-and-center in editorial shops. (Find Mark's blog at http://www.poststar.com/blogs/?cat=50. For a great blogging primer, see the Spring 2009 Masthead symposium.).

Mahoney managed to "strike a nerve" by alerting bloggers to their rights - and drawing out their own tales of being denied access. "Every citizen has a right to public records," he wrote.

More charitably, Mark also wrote that "many public officials deeply share and respect the public's right to know. "I try to focus on the positive, encourage people to make changes. It doesn't have to be us versus them always."

Recruiting readers and bloggers to the cause of open-government, Mark has struck a blow for democracy -- and for the editorial mission in the community. Now he's thrilled to think publicity from his Pulitzer award will aid the cause.

The temporary distraction of that "big award" drew Mark away from his duties, and on the phone he sounded eager to get back in editorial harness. "The reason I haven't been able to write anything is that I haven't been mad," he said. "I've gotten so many congratulations that I'm not in a bad mood." He laughed. "Have they ruined me as an editorial writer?"

NCEW trouper he is, Mark quickly reconsidered. "I'm getting it back," he said, referring to his righteous indignation. "There's always something to be mad at, something that needs to be addressed."

Fred Fiske is the editorial page editor of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.


Members to vote on new name

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Charles Rowe

NCEW members will have the opportunity to vote on a name change for the organization at the Salt Lake City convention in September. Among the initial proposals: the Conference of Opinion Journalists and the Opinion Media Alliance.

The idea was advanced by the NCEW Board of Directors. The board's reasoning was explained in a message to the membership in May:

"As our organization has evolved over the years, our members have included not only newspaper editorial writers but also broadcast editorialists, columnists, oped editors and bloggers, among others - including journalists from other countries. While the National Conference of Editorial Writers certainly strives for relevancy in a shifting professional landscape, our proud and well-recognized name no longer accurately describes us."

Name changes have been discussed by the membership intermittently over the years, though rejected.

NCEW Vice President Tom Waseleski has begun discussions with the oped editors association and the cartoonists association as possible attendees or partners in the next two NCEW conventions. He adds: "If joining forces more formally with them or others is part of our future - and it's too early to say if it is - we could better position ourselves by updating our name and making it more inclusive of others who work in opinion."

Charles Rowe is the editorial page editor for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.


Shield law pro/con

Federal shield law is long overdue

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Christian Trejbal

Congress is again considering the Free Flow of Information Act ­- a federal press shield law. Its passage is long overdue. Though most states have such laws, they are easily evaded by filing suits in federal courts where judges can compel journalists to name their sources.

Last year, NCEW joined dozens of other journalism organizations in support of the bill - ­despite opposition from some members.

Some argued that the United Sates should not set journalists apart as a special protected class. Rather, journalists should be the same as other citizens in the eyes of the law.

An interesting view, except journalists area special protected class. The First Amendment sets the press apart. We have additional rights and access denied average citizens. We carry press passes for a reason.

Others argued that the First Amendment contains all the protection the press needs.

Maybe it should be enough, but in practice it isn't. It doesn't prevent judges from compelling journalists to reveal sources and give up notes.

Really, though, shield laws are not even about the press. They protect our sources, not us. They protect whistleblowers who could lose their jobs, government employees who could face retribution, and lawbreakers whose information allows use to report on the less savory side of a community.

True, sometimes those people leak information and demand confidentiality for their own, selfish reasons. More often, their only goal is to inform the public about some scandal, abuse or corruption. Their risk is all the greater when zealous prosecutors or attorneys in a civil suit could discover their identities with a subpoena. Some, instead, choose silence.

There's room to quibble about some of the specifics in the Free Flow of Information Act, but its fundamental idea is sound. If journalists cannot protect anonymous sources, important stories will never come to light.

Christian Trejbal is an editorial writer for The Roanoke Times and chair of NCEW's open government committee


As I gaze into the future

Straight talk from David Holwerk

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by David Holwerk

All of us know that this is a difficult time for our industries and our profession, so it should come as no surprise that these are difficult times for NCEW, too.

How difficult? Because of declining membership and uncertain attendance at the annual convention in Salt Lake City, there is a very real possibility that NCEW have to dip into its reserve funds to avoid running out of cash before the end of this year. Luckily, we have reserves, but this is obviously a situation that calls for action.

It was against that stark background that the NCEW board met in Salt Lake City on April 24 and 25. That meeting produced a number of important decisions about the future of NCEW. Mostly, it produced a deep conviction among board members that the organization must either change in fundamental ways or die.

The board is opting for change. Each of the organization's officers is heading a work group dealing with one of NCEW most pressing issues.

Vice President Tom Waseleski is heading up a group looking at our conventions, including the question of whether annual conventions still make sense and the possibility of holding conventions jointly with other organizations.

Treasurer Dan Radmacher is heading a work group on leadership. This group is examining how to expand the pool of members willing and able to run for board and officer slots in this difficult economic environment.

Secretary Froma Harrop is heading a group looking at ways to expand membership, including new membership categories, merger with other organizations and perhaps even a name change for NCEW.

We also will be asking the membership to approve a bylaw change that will allow the bylaws to be amended by electronic vote of the membership between the annual meetings. NCEW's future will be a prime topic of discussion for the membership when we meet in Salt Lake City - which makes it all the more important that as many members as possible attend.

A first step for all NCEW members would be to volunteer to work on any of the work groups outlined above. All we ask is that you come prepared to work and with an open-minded commitment to the survival and future success of NCEW. Together, we can chart a course for this organization.

But we don't have much time.

In another note, after 31 years as a daily journalist and more than 20 as an NCEW member, I am leaving the newspaper business. I have accepted an offer to become director of communications for the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, and will begin those duties sometime in June.

It's an exciting opportunity, but one that comes with a cost: I will be resigning as president of NCEW when I leave my current post with The Sacramento Bee.

It is not easy to say goodbye to an organization that I hold dear. But the decision is made easier by the knowledge that with Tom Waseleski, Dan Radmacher and Froma Harrop as officers, NCEW is in good hands.

 - David Holwerk


Students staff nonprofit paper

The Express covers the poorest neighborhood in the poorest congressional district

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Bernard L. Stein

In November, New York's Gov. David Paterson visited the South Bronx to announce a plan to curb the asthma epidemic that afflicts the neighborhood. The city's press corps was out in force, but all the reporters wanted to talk about was who the governor would name to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate.

Only two news outlets produced more than a brief on the asthma initiative-the ABC affiliate and the local paper, The Hunts Point Express.

The Express covers the poorest neighborhood in the poorest congressional district in the United States, a community where median household income is under $17,000 and one out of every four adults has no job. Because advertisers aren't interested in reaching those with little or no disposable income, Hunts Point could never sustain a commercial newspaper. Instead, it is served by a nonprofit publication and Website staffed by students in Hunter College's Department of Film & Media Studies.

As newspaper budgets shrink, more attention has been devoted to nonprofit news. In New York City's poorest borough, the concept is old news. The Bronx's five nonprofit newspapers have gone largely unnoticed because they cover neighborhoods, not nations.

I edit one of those newspapers-The Express, which I founded four years ago after  joining Hunter's faculty, and I will edit the Mott Haven Herald, which makes its debut this spring, staffed by my students at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism. The schools host the Websites and pay for production and distribution. Funds I've raised privately have allowed me to hire a j-school graduate as community editor of both papers.

The Express has helped rally opposition to a city plan to build a new jail in the community. It has reported on efforts to reclaim the waterfront for recreation; on a neighborhood campaign to improve a deficient bus system; and on efforts to curb emissions from waste facilities, trucks and industrial plants that sometimes make the air barely breathable. The newspaper reports from the street, the classroom, the community center, the public meeting, the protest march, emphasizing the ordinary men and women   who take part. It also provides an opportunity to hear residents, who have created "Neighborhood voices," claiming page 2 as their own.

I'm proud of my students' work. Its won praise from the advocates who work to improve life in Hunts Point, and from ordinary citizens. But my favorite reaction was from an angry deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction who called to complain that his department hadn't gotten a fair shake in a story about the jail. "The reason I'm so angry," he said, "is that the people up there don't get their news from The New York Times; they get it from you!"

Many of the students who report for these papers will join us as professional journalists. Others will become lawyers, teachers, business people, but will have gained a keener appreciation of the value of journalism. All, I hope, will come to share my conviction that journalism is less about stringing facts together than connecting people to one another. News for the under-served can mold committed journalists who care about communities, who want them to change for the better, and who believe that what they write can make a difference by strengthening their readers' ability to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

As editor and publisher of The Riverdale Press, Bernard L. Stein won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He is now a professor at Hunter College and the City University Graduate School of Journalism.


No villains here, just sadness (Rocky)

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Linda Seebach

The Rocky Mountain News is dead, and I mourn it.

It would have been 150 years old on April 23, and it didn't deserve to die. It was a great paper, and a great place to work. When I joined the staff, in June 1997, there were three people writing editorials - editorial page editor Vincent Carroll, Peter Blake and me. We also had an all-purpose copy/letters/op-ed editor, a staff cartoonist and a commentary clerk.

Because all three of us also wrote columns, the edit-writing staff was closer to two full-time equivalents than to three. I know that sounds impossibly luxurious to those of you working insane jobs in one-person shops, but it was very thin for a paper that size. At the time, the Denver Post had seven writers.

Later we added a fourth writer, but Blake took a buyout in May 2007 and I retired in July that year, and we weren't replaced, except for a few months during the 2008 election season.

The two papers were in a ferocious circulation war, with hawkers haunting the median strips of Denver's arterials and penny-a-day subscription tables in seemingly every supermarket. I don't have to tell you that subscriptions in this business are often a kind of "loss leader" -- circulation revenue doesn't cover the costs of printing and delivering papers -- but the idea is that revenue in our real business, selling readers' attention to advertisers, will make up for that loss, and bring in enough more to support the newsroom and yield a decent profit for the owners.

But even then, it wasn't quite working. Not only were both papers practically offering free subscriptions, they were competing for advertising as well, so ad rates were a fraction of what they were in one-newspaper cities. The corporate parents, Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co. for the Rocky and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group Inc. for the Post, negotiated a Joint Operating Agreement that came into effect in 2001.

And for a while, matters improved. The penny-a-day people dropped away, distribution costs fell and ad rates began to climb, though against considerable resistance. The JOA partners were optimistic enough to build a stunning new building in a prime location, at the 0-0 corner of Denver's street-numbering system and kitty-corner from the state Capitol. The Rocky had one whole floor, the Post another, and the rest was home to the JOA's business operation, the Denver Newspaper Agency, and to MediaNews corporate headquarters.

The partners also invested more than $150 million in consolidating and upgrading the papers' printing facilities, leaving the agency with $130 million in bank debt.

But optimism wasn't enough to survive the flight of advertising to the Internet and the recession. John Temple, the Rocky's editor since 1998 who was named publisher in 2001, said in his final column Feb. 27, "In Denver, the steep decline in classified advertising alone has meant the loss of more than $100 million in highly profitable categories like help wanted and real estate."

To have two newspapers, Temple said, "the economics have to work. They don't anymore."

Scripps has owned the Rocky since the 1920s. In negotiations for the JOA, it agreed to pay $60 million to assure a 50-50 split in agency distributions. The problem is, there haven't been any recently.

In January, Rocky business reporter David Milstead reported that Scripps had not received any distributions from the agency since July. In a recent interview with Denver's alt-weekly Westword, Milstead said agency revenues had dropped from $400 million in 2006 to $300 million in two years.

Some common theories proffered as reasons for newspapers' financial difficulties don't apply to the Rocky, or at least no more so than to the Post. The Rocky was not slow to recognize the impact of changing technology. We had a partnership with a television station. and the newsroom in the new building was designed with a set for television broadcasts.

The Rocky launched an online citizen-journalism site called YourHub.com in May 2005 (now in seven states) with a weekly print tie-in to attract advertising at the local and neighborhood level.

Liberal bias? Our franchise was local and regional, and our national and international news came from wire services, as it does for almost every paper that isn't also a wire service itself. Local reporting tends not to be overtly political, but to whatever extent it was, there didn't seem to be much to distinguish the two papers. On the opinion side, the Rocky leaned center-right, and the Post center-left; not very far, in either direction.

In short, I don't see any villains here. Just great cause for sadness.

Editorial writer Linda Seebach retired from the Rocky Mountain News in July 2007


A new name for NCEW?

Plenty of ideas to choose from

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Lois Kazakoff

Ideas for a new name came fast and furious on the list-serv, with a number offered in jest. Dan Radmacher reminded us that a new name is deadly serious business.

To get you thinking, what about?:

  • International Conference of Opinion Writers (iCow)
  • Opinion Media Alliance (OMA)
  • Opinion Alliance (OA)
  • Opinion Journalists' Association (OJA)
  • Association of Opinion Journalists (AOJ)
  • Professional Opinion Writers Association (POW-A)

And from the ever-creative Ron Dzwonkowski:

  • Editorial Journalists Association (E-JA)
  • Editorial Truth Union (ET-U)
  • Conference of Opinion Journalists (COJ)
  • Editorial Opinion League (EOL)
  • Thinking Journalists Association  (TJA)

- Lois Kazakoff


I won't 'friend' someone online if I wouldn't be friends in real life

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009 by Ryan Blethen

I haven't warmed to the idea of becoming Facebook friends with politicians, sources, subjects and flaks. I really do not need them to know about my recent trip to Walla Walla for a bit of wine tasting. Nor do they need to read the spirited banter between my college friends and me.

This separation between who I am during working hours and who I am at home is important. It keeps me sane. I do not want to talk about or be lobbied on the state budget or the ferry system away from work.

Dividing myself in two was easy until I got on Facebook. About a year ago a friend of mine in New York sent me a Facebook invitation through my personal e-mail address. She was having fun with Facebook and thought that I should join.

It took about eight months for my professional life to worm its way into what had been a personal activity. I had become friends with some colleagues at the Seattle Times. All of them were people I consider friends outside of cyberspace. What I was not ready for were "friend" requests from politicians. The first such request came from Ron Sims, the long time King County executive who is joining the Obama administration. I let him sit in the request bin for weeks before deciding to reject his request and any others from sources, subjects and politicians.

As Ron's smiling profile picture stared at me I realized that I felt that there would be too many complications in allowing the county executive or any other politician into my inner circle. I would never be personal friends with Sims in the real world. So why would I in cyberspace? 

It came down to what I was comfortable with. Simply put, I was not comfortable granting a professional contact access to my personal life. Even among friends, I measure my words about public policy. I would be even more restrained if politicians were alerted to my every Facebook thought or action. I really do not need a comment I made on Facebook used against me by a politician or flak.

Facebook has proven useful as a way of engaging my friends with the Times. Some are avid readers; others are not. I post everything I write and always receive some response from friends. That rarely happened before Facebook.

So far I have rejected the idea of creating a work profile or using privacy settings to limit what non-friends can see on my profile. The duplication seems a bit much and I do not want to go through and consider what my nearly 200 friends can and cannot see.

I have not completely shut out politicians, sources and flaks. I started a Twitter account for my professional persona. This allows me to share nothing more than what I write with a group of people who only know the working me.

I do not believe a new tool like Facebook should force me to change my efforts to   separate my professional self from my personal self. I would bet that Sims agrees and probably is not upset that he does not know what I had for dinner last night.

Ryan Blethen is the editorial page editor of the Seattle Times.


A Plan of Action: Members

A call to members for members

Published Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7:00 am by Froma Harrop

Our shorter membership list no doubt reflects the troubles facing both the industry and the economy. But business conditions will eventually improve, and whatever form of delivering opinion journalism survives, expands or is yet to be invented, NCEW will play an important role for its practitioners.

Indeed, there is more opinion writing than ever, thanks to the proliferation of online outlets. They include such highly evolved political Web sites such as Politico.com and RealClearPolitics.com. The NCEW universe must include these players. Our job is to identify and recruit professional editorialists in both the old and new media. That, of course, will require defining "professional" - no easy task given the multitude of forums and people with opinions.  We at NCEW have much to discuss.

The superb Web site redesign will be of great help. It showcases the organization's vitality and offers wonderful new visibility. Prospective members will have a place to see who we are and what we are doing. The site truly adds value to the NCEW package.  

John Penney, chairman of membership committee, has obtained access to the online Editor& Publisher membership directory. He is using it to cross reference the publications and their editorial page editors, state by state, with the NCEW list. With that information in hand, Penney will lead a team of regional captains to contact those people we believe should be members.

Another source of potential members could be state press associations. Penney is working with the Pennsylvania Newpaper Association to secure a list of the groups. Ideally, we would want their Web sites to offer a link to the new NCEW home page. 

To broaden our membership base, we may have to change our name. "Editorial Writers" has pigeonholed us as newspaper people, even as our roster has included broadcasting journalists and columnists. Most of us already have at least one foot in digital media, and as time goes on, we will have more members plying the trade exclusively online. Our name must reflect that reality.

The word "National" implies "American." We have long had Canadian members, and in 1998, we held a "national convention" in Ottawa. Too few members have come from other continents. If we are to actively recruit colleagues from many countries, our name must not refer to one. An international expansion holds much promise. Electronic communications have made the logistics of handling a far-flung membership much easier than before.

Earlier this year, we asked list-serv participants to comment on two proposed new names and to suggest their own. Our candidates were Opinion Media Alliance and Conference of Opinion Journalists, which keeps a word from the old name, "conference," and clearly states that we are professional journalists. Members responded with an outpouring of critiques plus their own proposals.

One popular candidate was International Conference of Opinion Writers, which carried the witty acronym of ICOW. We should note that not changing the name is also an option.

As Sir Francis Bacon said, "A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds." Let's go out and make new opportunities for expanding our membership.

Froma Harrop is the Secretary of the National Conference of Editorial Page Writers.


Cultivate your blog and its audience

Cross-promote, get the word out, and link, link, link

Published Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7:00 am by Kate Riley

Jim Boren, in tending The Fresno Bee’s Opinion Talkblog, uses “drip irrigation.” For the California agricultural region around Fresno, it’s an apt metaphor. But instead of judiciously targeted use of water to grow crops, Boren is marketing specific editorials or blog entries to people or organizations with a vested interest in the topic.

If we write about agriculture, we send links to all the farm groups,” said Boren. He has several ready-made email lists, including one for immigration groups, pro and conundefined another hot topic for the region.

The strategy has been paying off. The blog has a strong following that includes loyal local readers in addition to these other cultivated audiences.

It’s a far cry from newspapering of old. You used to print your editorial, and most people in town bought the paper, read it and responded with letters to the editor. It was a pretty straightforward conversation.

But these days, with the proliferation of opinion content, both local and national, on the Internet and younger readers increasingly getting their news from online sources, readers’ attention is often divided or overwhelmed.

That’s where Boren’s brand of reader cultivation comes in. He knows there is an audience for The Fresno Bee’s authoritative commentary; he just is making sure the commentary lands in front of the audience.

Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, has a less bucolic term for this: “Prostitute yourself.” He urges bloggers to send links to community bloggersundefinedyes, even the ones you would like to ignoreundefined and link to them.

Don’t imagine [audiences] are going tofind you by serendipity,” Cox said. “You have to have an active campaign.”

That’s a strategy Miriam Pepper, vice president of The Kansas City Star editorial page, has on her to-do list, although her editorial page blog has been wildly successful for other reasons.

In October, the Star’s Midwest Voices blog logged 1.57 million hitsundefinedabout 10 times greater than the usual monthly averageundefinedin part because Missouri was repeating its traditional role as a battleground state in the presidential election. Peopleundefinedfrom near and farundefinedwere after Missouri political news in a big way.

However, the Star’s blog already was particularly positioned to provide readers with pertinent political content that keeps people checking back.

Midwest Voices blog has strong local commentary with an easy-to-maneuver blog page that also aggregates editorial comment from other Midwestern newspapers.

But besides Star staff bloggers, community members are invited into the mix. Among those deputized with blog privileges are members of a reader advisory panel and a group of community writers who write columns as well.

With community members as well as public commenters, the Midwest Voices blog is an egalitarian modern answer to the stuffy, editorial page preaching to the masses.

It’s engaging and conversational and extremely topical.

Among Pepper’s recommendations for building audience is ensuring the blog has frequent, updated content. She has no blogging quota for staff members, but by spreading the responsibility to trusted community bloggers, new content has not been a problem.

If people come and the blog is static and nothing changes, they won’t come again,” she warns. “Three new posts a day won’t cut it.”

She also encourages her bloggers to post fast on any national breaking story. One writer posts often about the latest Gallup poll, which draws readers to the blog. Pepper expects some of them are sticking around for other things.

At The Dallas Morning News, which was one of the first editorial pages to jump into the blogosphere, the blog’s following is wellcultivated among local readers but also played a role in the presidential election conversation with many breaking blog items that went viral. Among them was assistant editorial page editor Michael Landauer’s blog entry about what exactly community organizers doundefinedwhen Barack Obama’s experience was being derided. It got 110,000 hits.

Landauer says frequent posts are critical to building an audience for the blog. Initially, editorial page editor Keven Willey began requiring all writers to post at least three blog items a day. The requirement is not necessary now, but it was at the beginning as writers were loosening up and becoming more comfortable with this new kind of commentary journalism.

That interaction has paid off in a blog that ranges from conversational to pointed, from serious to silly. Writers wrestle with each other, agreeing and disagreeing over topics. This brings a transparency to editorial boards, which often are criticized for being opaque and aloof.

Readers see us screwing with each other, bickering and making fun of each other, so they get to know each of us a little better,” Landauer said. “We’re not disrespectful. We’re fun and snarky. Most successful blogs are personality driven.”

Landauer often squares off with conservative Rod Dreher in serious, but playful, disagreements. “People are surprised to learn we have lunch together almost every day,” Landauer said. Landauer shares Boren’s belief in the importance of marketing content. He often uses Internet tools to increase eyes on the News’ content, such as Digg. He also posts his blog entries to his Facebook page.

It’s like fishing,” Landauer says. “You bait the hook and see what happens.”

Speaking of hooks, all three of these editors emphasize the importance of blog entry headlines that will show up in reader searches.

Sarah Palin” was very successful during the election seasonundefinedso you get the idea.

Pithy, clever headlines that work in print will be snubbed by search engines. Search engines have no affinity for the English language and no sense of humor. So spell it out. Use full names of subjects and organizations.

A couple things common to all three of these blogs: Readers get a clear idea about everything the editorial page staff is doing. New editorials are posted; columnists post about their latest columns. Appearances of editorial board members on radio or TV are advertised through the blog. All is mixed in with blog posts on everything ranging from local to world affairs.

All three are cross-promoted in the print product. With shrinking print real estate, that might be uncomfortable to do, but readers have to learn you have online content if you want them to find it.

Boren is serious about spreading the word about his staff’s blog. Not only does he spend up to an hour a day marketing blog content to audiences outside his print circulation area that might not find it otherwise, he’s trying to get as many local readers as well.

He’s made up business cards with the blog address on it, and hands them out when he speaks in the community and even at his local coffee shop.

I’ve gotten very good at dropping cards onall the tables,” Boren says.


When editors were trading card stars

Published Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7:00 am by Charles Rowe

In 1887, enterprising tobacco barons began placing cards picturing professional baseball players in cigarette packs to encourage sales. It was the start of a collecting boom that continues today, mostly among youngsters with big-league dreams.

Newspaper editors joined the ballplayers that year as advertising icons. For them, it was a moment of glory. Allen & Ginter's American Editors series contained 50 cards, which included some of the great names in 19th century journalism: Charles A. Dana, Whitelaw Reid, Joseph Pulitzer, Henry Grady, James Gordon Bennett Jr. and Henry Watterson.

The A&G cards used head-and-shoulder portraits originally done in watercolor and reproduced by state-of-the art color lithography. Printed on cardboard, 1-1/2 by 2-3/4 inches, the format was similar to that used periodically over the next three decades for baseball cards.

The Richmond cigarette manufacturer issued a mere 10 cards that year featuring baseball's best players. Six of those players were later inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Could you expect to trade a Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune for an Adrian "Cap" Anson of the Chicago White Sox? Not even if you threw in a Melville Stone of the Daily News. Anson's Allen & Ginter card lists for about $2,500. Most of the editor cards sell in the range of $40 to $100.

Only Pulitzer's name still resonates among 1887's list of renowned editors. But those included in the series were well chosen, though most have since fallen into obscurity - in many instances, like the newspapers for which they toiled.

Murat Halstead, for example, made the Cincinnati Commercial a standout voice against corruption during his 20-plus years as editor. He began as a reporter before the Civil War and served as a war correspondent in that conflict. He also covered the Franco-Prussian War. Halstead was nominated by President Benjamin Harrison to be ambassador to Germany in 1891 but his nomination was rejected by the Senate "because of his scathing editorials charging that some senators had bought their seats," according to the New York Times. Halstead eventually became editor of the Brooklyn Standard-Union and retired in his mid-60s. But when the Spanish-American War commenced, the irrepressible Halstead - then nearly 70 - was off to the Philippines as a freelance reporter.

Englishman Francis Dawson of the Charleston News and Courier didn't cover the Civil War - he fought in it, serving in both the Confederate army and navy. He was one of journalism's leading advocates of the New South, and worked to end the corruption and violence that marred the civil and political life of South Carolina state following the war. Dawson was knighted by Pope Gregory XVI in 1883 for his editorial campaign that ended dueling in South Carolina. Dawson was shot to death six years later - though not in a duel. As the Dawson card shows, Allen & Ginter also produced a larger format card which superimposed the editors' portraits over a familiar scene in the regions served by their publications.

The American Editors series featured one woman, Mrs. E. J. Nicholson of the New Orleans Daily Picayune. Eliza Nicholson was hired as literary editor for the newspaper and later married the Picayune's owner. Upon his death, she was left with a debt-ridden journal that she restored to financial health and state prominence. She served as the first president of the Women's International Press Association.

Oswald Ottendorfer represented the then-flourishing foreign language press in America, as the editor of the New York Staats-Zeitung. Ottendorfer fled for his life from Germany after a failed revolution and eventually found his way to New York City and the Staats-Zeitung. With the newspaper's success, he became a philanthrophist among the city's large German-American community, starting the city's first free public library. The Staats-Zeitung survives as a weekly. About half of the newspapers represented in the A&G series are now defunct.

The American Editors series can be viewed online in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library.

Charles Rowe is the editorial page editor of the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.


NCEW seeks new recognition and revenues

Published Friday, July 31, 2009 7:00 am by Vanessa Gallman

NCEW's executive committee is exploring whether, and how, to offer an annual contest that spotlights the best in print and online opinion.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which manages NCEW, has extensive background in running contests and is assisting in figuring out the least labor-intensive approach. There are several reasons this is worth consideration:

Money.  Another revenue stream would help NCEW reduce dues and convention costs.

Convention. Awards can be presented at the annual convention, attracting more attendees.

Visibility.  Many organizations run contests that include opinion categories, but NCEW should set the standard for the best in opinion journalism.

Membership.  Diverse categories --- such as blogs, cartoons, Web pages - could attract new members at a time when NCEW is reaching out to other opinion groups.

Recognition.  Right now, so many opinion journalists are working overtime, juggling extra responsibilities  and still producing incredible work. That's worth celebrating.

Right now, we are focused on the mechanics of putting together a contest. NCEW board members would appreciate any feedback on this idea, especially about what categories might be included and whether there should be one big honor each year.

Feel free to drop me a line. 

Vanessa Gallman is a past president of NCEW.


A Plan of Action: Leadership

Opportunities for leadership

Published Monday, August 3, 2009 7:00 am by Dan Radmacher

The National Conference of Editorial Writers has always depended on the blood, sweat and tears - in nearly equal measure - of its members. Volunteer labor and leadership have been instrumental in practically every accomplishment of note in the organization's 60-plus years. But in the past couple of years, it has grown increasingly difficult to find members willing and able to step up when called to run for leadership positions on the board. This is not because of a decline in commitment to NCEW, but a reflection of the state of our industry. If you are lucky enough to have a job, there is a good chance that your staff has been cut. Unless, of course, you serve in a one-person shop. In that case, there's a good chance that additional duties and job responsibilities have been piled on. In any case, your workload has undoubtedly increased over the last year or two. Almost certainly, your travel budget has been cut, if not eliminated. It may be a struggle to convince your publisher to pay your dues for NCEW - or you may have already given up that struggle and committed to paying those dues out of your own pocket, a pocket perhaps diminished by furlough days or weeks.
So when you get a phone call from a member of NCEW's nominating committee asking you to consider running for a board seat or for secretary, the first thought is not about the honor of being asked or about the opportunity to assist an organization you believe in and to help make it better. No, the first thought is likely to be, "How can I go to my publisher and ask for a commitment of time and money for the next two years?" When you agree to run for the board, after all, you are agreeing to attend three meetings a year for two years. The commitment for secretary is longer: Counting a year serving as Immediate Past President, the leadership ladder is five years long. Did we mention it's customary for the president's newspaper to make a sizable contribution to the convention? That can require some persuasion in the best of years.
In the midst of the deepest recession since World War II and a disruptive, destructive, industrywide shakeup of journalism's core business model, even asking the question seems foolish. Yet now, more than ever, the members of NCEW need this organization. We need the link to others who are working through the same difficulties. We need the examples of those who are trying new things and getting it right. And NCEW, if it is to continue to offer value to its members, needs some of those members to become leaders to help guide the organization. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but we are working on measures that we hope will help. The Spring board meeting, traditionally held in that year's convention city, will be eliminated or drastically scaled down. The winter board meeting, traditionally held in Harrisburg, Pa., the home of our management firm, may be relocated to an
easier, less expensive location to reach.

More board members have been participating by telephone. We are looking into technological solutions to allow inexpensive video conferencing to make distance participation more feasible and valuable. We have made it clear to those we've asked to consider running for secretary that expectations about financial contributions during their presidential year are, shall we say, flexible.

Other ideas that have been floated include compressing the leadership ladder by combining the positions of secretary and treasurer, amending the bylaws to allow board members to serve consecutive terms and even doing away with the leadership ladder and electing members to the executive committee positions for one-year terms.

Some of these ideas may be more practical and workable than others, and I'm sure there are other ideas out there. But if there is a silver bullet solution to this problem, I haven't found it. If you have ideas of your own, or thoughts or suggestions about any ideas raised here, then please contact me, Acting President Tom Waseleski or any current member of the board to share your ideas.


The benefits of leadership

There are many factors these days that work to dissuade members from agreeing to seek leadership positions, but the tangible benefits of serving as an NCEW leader should not be forgotten.

Serving as a committee chair, board member or officer broadens your range of contacts within the organization tremendously. Networking has always been one of the benefits of an NCEW membership, but working with others at this level cements relationships in a very different way.

These roles may also allow you to stretch professionally in ways that you may not have the opportunity to in your current position. You can lead important projects, learn new skills and make contacts inside and outside of the industry that could prove valuable.

There are certainly plenty of altruistic reasons to seek to become a leader in NCEW. But the contacts you make and the resume-enhancing value of service shouldn't be overlooked, either.

- Dan Radmacher


Candidate for secretary

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by Bob Davis

"Here comes the future, and you can't run from it," is how the song goes. For too many National Conference of Editorial Writers members and colleagues, this lyric takes on, ahem, more poignancy with each furlough, layoff and news-hole shrinkage. But enough of that boring dirge. The lyric and our experiences tell us there IS a future.

No one has filled in the details, but we are on our way, as is the NCEW. The board has worked in recent months to rethink the NCEW mission.

The point is that while the industry is changing, the need for opinion journalism is not declining. The job is to reshape the NCEW to better serve this evolving model. This process has begun, thanks to the NCEW's leadership.

I view this opportunity to serve as NCEW secretary as a chance to build upon this work, and am seeking the support of members in this year's election.

Who am I? A 40-something editor of a family-owned newspaper in east Alabama struggling to fulfill journalism's highest calling in these trying times. I supervise the newsroom as well as the editorial department, carrying my fair share of the editorial load in the process. I'm also a Southerner, and all that that implies, a University of Alabama football fan, someone who prefers to be outdoors, a husband and father and someone passionate about good journalism.

While on the editorial board of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I was fortunate to work with NCEW greats such as Tommy Denton and J.R. Labbe. Both represent the highest ideals of the NCEW. I aspire to match their tremendous service to this organization.

The NCEW has long been the friend of the editorialist, from the member of a large editorial board to the lone occupant of a one-person shop. The organization is a well-spring of ideas, advice, sharing and, on occasion, that thing that motivates editorialists worldwide – arguing.

The future, digital and unformed as it is, will nonetheless require an organization that performs the same functions. What's more we should share that mission with the larger world, explaining our work‘s value to democracy and engaging in a conversation about the necessity of opinion journalism. Our Web site would be extremely valuable in this context.

Our challenge is to adapt to these changing times. It is one those of us who appreciate the NCEW should engage in with vigor.

Bob Davis is the editor of the Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala.


digital NCEW

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by Lois Kazakoff

Screen by screen and page by page, NCEW's new Web site is coming together, and with it a new chapter for our organization.

The old Web site was all about presenting information and maintaining lists (of sources, of members).

The new Website is about building a community of NCEW members that goes beyond what we can accomplish with a once-a-year convention a static Web site and the list-serv. It integrates the building blocks of social networking - Facebook and Twitter - that we were just learning about two years ago and now can't do without (or escape. It will link members with each other, with our leaders and our leaders with us, and with emerging trends in the media industry. It will present the faces of the membership to each other and to the world. It will allow for forums to brainstorm together and places to share our best work and newest innovations. It'll be a place to showcase editorials that set the professional standard for commentary.

And it will look different. Lines of text have given away to colorful boxes to signal different activities - forums, blogging, convention information, promotions of regional conferences - and photos will enliven the experience. Keeping the visuals current and lively means members need to contribute photos (and video). For a start, be sure to pack your camera for the Salt Lake City convention.


NCEW Board of Directors: Steve Falcone

Convention 2009

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by Steve Falcone

I began my newspaper career (although I would never have called it that at the time) nearly 50 years ago, hawking the Philadelphia Bulletinon the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. Since then, I've worked as editor of a cow county weekly in Nevada and in various editing positions with the Reno Gazette-Journal, culminating in my appointment as editorial page editor in 1997. After all this time, I still believe that newspapers are as important to people as they were when I was selling the five-star sports edition of the Bulletinto guys who wanted to check out the horse-racing results before calling their bookies. I believe that as different as newspapers may be today from what they were then, newspapers still need opinion pages. And what we do -- providing perspective on the news and the best available opportunity for readers to participate in the life of our communities -- is no less important. I know that those of us who do this always difficult, but often isolating, job still need an organization like the National Conference of Editorial Writers to help us hone our craft and to remind us that we are not toiling alone. Without NCEW, I wouldn't not have learned about today's issues in education at the Hechinger Institute, met our top foreign policy experts at the State Department briefing or toured the Negro Leagues Baseball and American Jazz museums in Kansas City, Mo. Nor would I have Beyond Argumentor a collection of two dozen editions of The Mastheadon the shelf next to my desk for easy reference. Our challenge in the coming years, as the news business changes beyond recognition, will be to convince colleagues who aren't NCEW members or active participants in the organization that they can benefit from this organization; that it is worth their time, their effort and, yes, their money. I'm convinced that we can meet that challenge and look forward to doing anything I can in the coming years to help ensure that we do.


What the Foundation does for you

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by John H. Taylor Jr.

The NCEW Foundation is the lifeblood of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

As our organization struggles with reinventing itself for the digital world, the foundation's support has become ever more important.

NCEW has two primary sources of revenue: membership and conventions. It's no secret that memberships have declined and so has attendance at conventions. These are direct results of the employment compression in the newspaper business that has witnessed widespread revenue declines.

The new NCEW Website would not have been possible unless the foundation paid for the design and implementation of it. Cost: $20,000 for now, and likely more in the future.

The foundation funds a wide range of professional development programs and activities for NCEW members. The foundation supports everything from The Masthead, the organization's quarterly professional journal and publication of Beyond Argument, a handbook for professional opinion writers and editors to the ongoing Minority Writers Seminarwhich introduces minority men and women to the opinion writing and editing crafts. The foundation's resources are not endless. Like most other nonprofits, NCEW and the NCEW Foundation have lost considerable revenue in the last couple of years even though we are very conservative in our approaches to investing.

While the foundation receives some outside funding, it depends on the generosity of NCEW members for its ongoing viability. Donations can be made for general support or for specific support for one of the foundation's endowment funds like the newly formed endowment honoring long-time member Nancy Q. Keefe.

I know my quarterly report on the foundation has grown tiresomely repetitive. But I know of no other approach. Without a steady infusion of donations, the NCEW Foundation will slowly but surely dwindle to nothing. I don't want that to happen because without foundation support NCEW won't continue to be the leading source of information and collegiality for the men and women who are engaged in the opinion business. Our work is critically important today as millions of voices scramble for attention each hour of every day. The professional opinion writers and editors are needed to sort things out and to help people to understand the complexities that beset us all. You are essential to a thriving democracy.

Think about it. And help your Foundation to survive.

John H. Taylor Jr. is executive director of the Delaware Public Policy Institute and president of the NCEW Foundation.


Let's take a serious look at NCEW revenues

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by Tom Waseleski

At NCEW, conventions and revenues have been inextricably tied. That's because convention profit is typically the organization's second largest source of yearly income, after dues.

As we look to the future, though, it becomes risky business to lean heavily on convention revenue. For one thing, the profit from each of the last five years' events has been erratic and trending downward. For another, if industry changes and pressures are making it difficult for members to attend and publishers to support, then ending each convention in the black is no sure thing.

The financial foundation of nearly every NCEW convention has been major grants (lately $10,000 to $20,000 each) from the news organizations of the year's president and convention chair. This year's Salt Lake City convention, however, will not receive financial support from the 2009 president's newspaper. That will make it more difficult to cover expenses, especially because registration fees remain unchanged. Looking ahead, is NCEW likely to see other employers renege on their convention pledges? Under such circumstances should NCEW feel less constrained to seek convention sponsorships from non-journalism sources?

Here's a different question: Should NCEW shorten the length of conventions as a way of cutting attendees' costs? While it's been a happy tradition to open every year's conference with a reception on Wednesday evening, are we at a point as an organization where we can no longer afford it? Would it be preferable to open with Thursday's lunch?

A different approach to the convention revenue dilemma is to build greater attendance by either partnering with other opinion journalism groups or broadening NCEW membership in those directions. This year the Association of Opinion Page Editors - the nation's oped editors - chose not to hold a convention. NCEW leadership extended free trial memberships in 2009 to those in AOPE and invited them to attend our event in Salt Lake City. AOPE leaders will even program two of the September convention's panels.

Make no mistake, though. AOPE's members face the same obstacles to participation as their NCEW colleagues, plus their convention is a shorter, less costly event than ours.

In similar fashion, we've extended an offer to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists to convene jointly with us in Dallas in September 2010. Their convention, which is held in July, took place this year in Seattle. But if they are able to move next year's event by two months to September, we could enjoy economies of scale at the same convention in Texas.

NCEW's past presidents and former convention chairs know that our organization signs hotel contracts two or more years in advance. While that enables us to lock in choice space at prime properties, it prevents us from making changes that could accommodate other journalism groups that might like to meet alongside us. It also requires us to estimate years in advance what we can deliver by contract to the hotel in terms of spending on rooms, food and drink. Last year, NCEW fell short on its promised room block at the Little Rock convention and was forced to pay a $10,000 penalty; if attendance is way below par in Salt Lake City and Dallas, we'll be subject to similar penalties under those hotel contracts.

Convention is not the only area, however, where NCEW must take a fresh look at deriving revenue. This summer the organization launched a vibrant, new web site - one that will not only better package and better display essential information about us, but also give us income producing possibilities. The question is, how bold is NCEW willing to be in pursuing such dollars.

While our news organizations accept advertisements all the time and still produce news and opinion, NCEW's culture has been reluctant to seek and run ads from non-journalism sources. We may have reached a point where we have no choice. Since the new web site gives us the opportunity to position ads throughout, including on the electronic version of The Masthead, why shouldn't NCEW take advantage? We could accept ads not only from newspaper syndicates, but also from public policy groups and political associations, from Exxon-Mobil and the Sierra Club, from the coal industry and the EPA. Any group that wants to put legitimate information before opinion writers should be able to present it to the members of NCEW for a price - so long as our policies for accepting such ads are fair and balanced and do not favor any political point of view. Another entrepreneurial possibility along these lines is erecting an oped bank on our web site where responsible policy groups can post, for a fee, opinion pieces on timely issues that can be accessed by our members and published. There are certainly other ideas for increasing income, including sponsoring an opinion writing contest that will generate entry fees and maybe even boost convention attendance. But NCEW must be willing to break with old habits and, with principles firmly in hand, seek new ways of doing business and serving members.

Please weigh in with your own ideas to any NCEW officer or board member.


State of the industry

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by Steve Myers

In a reflection of the turmoil in the news industry, organizations such as the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) are seeing fewer checks in the mail and more empty seats in convention halls. Membership has dropped by as much as 20 percent, according to an informal survey of 12 of the 40 or 50 journalism associations in the United States. Convention attendance is just as bad.

This has forced soul-searching upon journalism associations. It's not enough to be a fraternity of people with similar jobs who get together once a year to trade war stories at a hotel bar. These organizations must prove their worth by helping their members become digital journalists, find jobs and set up independent operations. They need to help their members figure out what role they can play in a news business that has been turned inside out.

The only organization that reported an increase is the Online News Association (ONA), which has seen membership grow by a third in the last year and has sold out its last two conventions. (The next best showing is AAJA, the Asian American Journalists Association, which hasn't experienced a significant drop, though Executive Director Ellen Endo said the group may not see a drop until later in the year.)

Everyone knows the action is online. So groups with roots in legacy media are trying to stake out territory in digital journalism, a place of unfamiliar job titles and new expectations. Two groups have changed their names. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is now the American Society of News Editors. Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) will soon be Radio Television Digital News Association. (The Society for News Design made a similar change more than 10 years ago, dropping "paper" from "newspaper" in its name.)

New names are a start, said Ken Doctor, an industry analyst who focuses on the transition from print to digital. But these groups, he wrote in an e-mail, need to provide "transition help. Part of that is mindset, discussing what's staying the same and what's changing, and most importantly, skills training." Many groups are looking outside their traditional spheres for new audiences, whether they are professionals in other countries or semi-pro journalists in the United States. A few have opened their standard membership class up to nonprofessional journalists, though most of them only allow them to become nonvoting "associate" members.

Groups have been motivated to make these changes as much by necessity as open-mindedness, Brant Houston, former IRE head and now the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. Other than student members, "I think we were slow to embrace people who were interested in becoming journalists or learning more about journalism and learning how to practice it," he said. "I think there was a bit of fear that somehow we might become tainted

Used with permission of Poynter Online


Why we do what we do

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009 7:00 am by David Holwerk

(Editor's note: David Holwerk, an NCEW member for 20 years and until June NCEW president, wrote this for the Sunday, June 7, 2009, editorial page of the Sacramento Bee. Published with permission of the Sacramento Bee.)

All good things, the old proverb says, must come to an end. I can attest that it's true, because my newspaper career has been a very good thing (at least from my perspective), and this is my final Sunday column as a newspaper editor.

Friday was my last day as The Bee's editorial page editor. In a couple of weeks, I'll begin post-journalism life. So I hope you will bear with me as I take the opportunity to offer a few observations on newspapering and the work of its editorial pages.

Please do not be alarmed. This is not a column about the plight and prospects of newspapers. I don't claim to know what the future holds for newspapers and journalism. If I did I'd be making a killing as a consultant, not writing a farewell column.

No, I want to talk a bit about the part of newspapers I know best: their editorial pages.

First, let me acknowledge that editorial pages are an imperfect undertaking. How could it be otherwise? In the course of a single year, we offer so many opinions on so many topics that we are bound to be wrong on many occasions. But being right, as desirable as that is, is not what an editorial page is about.

Editorial pages - and their online extensions - have many roles: Providing a forum for public discussion, offering a range of views, setting agendas, standing up to the powerful. But after more than 20 years of being involved in editorial pages, I think there is one role that transcends all the others: Offering a strong, consistent, fair and independent voice, a voice attuned to both the issues of the day and the needs of the future, engaged in the life of the city, region, state and nation.

When editorial pages and editorial writers take on that role with passion and commitment, they serve a unique role in American democracy, a role that no other institution - not broadcast or online media, not political parties, not schools, not churches, not civic organizations -- can fulfill.

In my time on editorial pages, I've been privileged to work with passionate and committed journalists who have accomplished things to be proud of.

Here in Sacramento, my colleagues on the editorial pages have vigorously advocated lower bus fares for schoolkids, for better zoning decisions, for restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley, for better schools, for honest government. They have stood up against numerous interests that would loot the public treasuries, against self-serving and self-dealing politicians, against those who would divide Californians by race, or ethnicity or class.

We haven't always been successful, but we've always been there, giving it a shot, day after day. That presence, that continuity of voice, is what an editorialpage is all about.

The Bee's commitment to strong local commentary was one of the things that attracted me to Sacramento in 2001. And I am confident that commitment will continue.

Lord knows, California needs a commitment like that. Looming beyond the current financial crisis is the prospect of a constitutional convention that has the potential to cure the state's political problems - or to plunge it further into chaos.

I don't know which it will do, but I am sure of this: There's a much better chance of a positive outcome if editorial writers from the state's newspapers are doing their jobs, watching elected officials, interest groups and political parties, and calling them to account for what they do and say.

I won't be around to take part in the festivities, but I'll be watching from afar. And whenever one of my colleagues at The Bee or any other newspaper lands a good solid verbal punch to some windbag's flapping jaw, I'll be saying, "Go get 'em, Tiger."

I hope you'll do the same.

Published with permission of the Sacramento Bee 


AOPE joins NCEW for convention

State of the industry

Published Thursday, August 6, 2009 7:00 am by Richard Burr

The Association of Opinion Page Editors has broken with tradition and decided to coordinate our conference efforts with the National Conference of Editorial Writers in Salt Lake City.

AOPE, a two-decade-old group of op-ed page editors, usually meets annually at an annual conference to share ideas and discuss the latest op-ed trends in print and online. THis informal group lacks a bureaucracy but treasures the sharing of ideas and troubleshooting problems that are unique to the op-ed page. It also annually recognizes the best work among opinion pages in North America.

But the sagging economy and declining travel budgets prompted our group to reassess our mission and be practical about our conference. So we accepted NCEW's invitation to coordinate efforts at NCEW's September 23-26 convention.

We plan to coordinate two forums. The first will be a discussion on how the syndicates are adapting to the changing landscape of the newspaper industry.James Hill of the Washington Post Writers Group is one of the confirmed panelists who will talk about how his syndicate is exploring new ideas and adding opinion value for its newspaper clients.

One of the examples Hill may discuss is a weekly online forumthat the syndicate has started for editorial page leaders to discuss how they are handling one of the issues of the day.

The second session focuses on trends on the op-ed pages. It will explore examples of how newspapers are finding new ways to meet the needs of their communities at a time of shrinking news holes. It also will point out innovative developments among newspapers online.

Among AOPE members, this session is known as "Nuts and Bolts," but it is hardly workmanlike. One session highlighted how the Cleveland Plain Dealertook a local controversy with a politician and turned into a catchy audio editorial ditty that had the audience roaring with laughter. Another touched on how editors guard against plagiarism. Yet another explored how editors sift letters to prevent "Astro Turf" letter campaigns -- that is, fake grassroots efforts in which readers copy from political party or political activist group talking points. A typical session

"Nuts and Bolts" is traditionally one of the most popular highlights of any given AOPE conference, and we plan to bring the same to the NCEW conference.

Our association appreciates the generosity of NCEW and looks forward to sharing ideas on some of the common problems we share on the editorial and op-ed pages.

Richard Burr is associate editor of The Detroit News editorial page and president of the Association of Opinion Page Editors.


Bobbi Bowman receives 2009 Ida B. Wells Award

Published Wednesday, August 19, 2009 7:00 am

Former ASNE Diversity Director Bobbi Bowman received the 2009 Ida B. Wells award at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Tampa, Fla. This annual award, bestowed jointly by NCEW and NABJ, recognizes a journalist or educator who has shown the highest commitment to the journalism standards expressed by Ms. Wells.

Below is Ms. Bowman's acceptance speech.

Thank you very, very, very much for this greatest of honors. This is the only journalism award I've ever wanted to win. To the boards of NABJ and NCEW, thank you very much.

No one wins a cherished award like this alone. There are many people to thank.

In the next few minutes I want to thank special people and talk about the best story of our lives.

Let me start by thanking my great boss - Scott Bosley. Scott is always wise, patient, supportive and a calming influence.

Ten outstanding editors have headed ASNE's Diversity Committee. They have given me great ideas, support and commitment. They are Wanda Lloyd, Milton Coleman, Sharon Rosenhause, Carolina Garcia, Charlotte Hall, David Yarnold, Greg Moore, Phil Currie, Pam Fine and Caesar Andrews.

Mary Kay Blake, of the Freedom Forum, and Phil Currie, formerly of Gannett, taught me how to advocate passionately without making folks mad.

Milton Coleman, Greg Moore, Gilbert Bailon, Wanda Lloyd and Caesar Andrews have all been long-time friends, mentors and fellow agitators.

Arlene Morgan and Sig Gissler of Columbia University and Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute  taught me and many others that writing about race and ethnicity equals great journalism.

Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute and the Poynter Institute let me write columns for journalists to help them cover this historic story.

Last, let me thank NABJ.  As a young reporter and editor this is the place where I came every year to remember that I was not the one in the newsroom who was crazy!

I became a journalist to change the world. I'm a child of the '60s. I believe we can change the world.

Now we stand on the brink of the Next America.

The theme of the 21st century will be written in the 2010 Census. That Census will make clear to everyone that the United States of America will become a minority majority nation in about 30 years. When you look at a white baby in the U.S. You are looking at America's new minority.

I challenge you to get a piece of this story. This is the best story of our lives.

Whether you cover sports, fashion, food or politics, you  will be reporting on the incredible implications of the country's rapidly changing population for the rest of your career.

To cover that story let me leave you with three important tips:

First, learn Spanish. Milton Coleman and I both speak Spanish so you know it's easy. Immigrants have amazing stories to tell. But they can only tell them in their own language.

Second, the Census is not about numbers. It is about power and money. The numbers tell you who gets the power and who gets the money.

Last, read the life story of Ida B. Wells and be inspired by her courage.

We are living through a revolution in our business with change coming every day. We need you to hang in there. Do the great stories. Become the boss.

Ida B. Wells and I know you can change the world.


Doing more with less

The future of newspapers

Published Sunday, October 25, 2009 7:00 am by Roger Hendrix

The newspaper of the future will do much more for much less. Its management will relentlessly pursue the necessity of ensuring the downward slope of cost saving. New technology will constantly be invested in, facilitating efficiency of operation and growth into new markets. New information products will flourish, while old ones will be retired.

The life blood of the industry, journalists, will increasingly become major contributors (creators) on the ever expanding digital information network. As such, they will come to understand that the network is packed with insatiable consumers in search of products and services that meet their customized needs.

In the give and take between creators and consumers, value added information will be born.

"Products and services'' is a term of art that refers to any and everything that is bought and sold in the marketplace.

In the global digital network, anything that is sold is considered a product.

Thus, everything becomes a product. EVERYTHING - cars are products, jewels are products, banking services are products, religion is a product, democracy is a product, etc.

Jounalists will spend most of their time on the network adding informational value to products. Jounalists will not be marketers for products. They will add new knowledge (positive or negative)  to the product under question. The more value that is added to a product, the more valuable the consumer considers the information. Think TV Guide. At one point, TV Guide was more valuable than all the networks whose programs it listed on a weekly basis. 

The result will render the information more valuable to the consumers than the actual products and services they use, purchase, or participate in. Now that's doing more, much more, with less.

Rogert Hendrix gave NCEW members a glimpse of the future of journalism at the Salt Lake City convention.


CJR article reports on the 2009 convention

Published Thursday, October 29, 2009 7:00 am

Richard Benfield, former editorial page editor of The Record of Bergen County, NJ, and former member of The New York Times's editorial board, wrote about his impressions of the 2009 NCEW Convention in Salt Lake City for the Columbia Journalism Review in an article titled "Not Here This Year."


Voices from the past

Some past presidents reflect on NCEW

Published Friday, November 13, 2009 7:00 am by Tom Waseleski

I hope you had a chance to see the latest NCEW e-newsletter. There at the top is a keeper of a photo of 10 past NCEW presidents who were honored at this year's convention in Salt Lake City. In the shot were: John Taylor, Tommy Denton, J.R. Labbe, David Holwerk, Joe Geshwiler, Morgan McGinley, Vanessa Gallman, Don Gale, Rena Pederson and Sue Ryon.

They weren't the only ones the organization thanked for their toil, trouble and service. The past presidents who couldn't make it were: Susan Albright, Cred Black, Lynell Burkett, Van Cavett, Jerry Dhonau, Robert Estabrook, Fred Fiske, Phil Haslanger, Neil Heinen, Edward Jones, W. Lawrie Joslin, James Kilpatrick, Robert Pittman, Dennis Ryerson, Ken Rystrom, Kay Semion, William Snider, Chuck Stokes, Barbara S. Williams, Joanna Wragg, and John Zakarian. Whether they came to Utah or not, NCEW gave each former president a small keepsake: a travel alarm clock with the NCEW logo.

A delightful surprise came to me weeks later when several of the leaders, some of whom haven't been heard from in years, sent letters of thanks and good cheer. Here are a few choice excerpts (if anyone would like their contact info, please let me know).

James J. Kilpatrick (1956 president, Minneapolis convention) wrote:

"Your kindness set me to sauntering down Memory Lane. There can't be many of us left from the days of Vermont Royster, Paul Trescott and Lauren Soth. Memory fails. There was that wonderful guy from the Christian Science Monitor -- so badly crippled that he walked with a big limp but he was hell on a tennis court. Name escapes me. Washington Post -- he and his lovely wife played four-hand piano. What was the year we were in bone-dry Oklahoma City? I had to use boyhood connections to hustle up a drink for our principal speaker.

"The NCEW played a big role in my life as an editor. Please remember me to any of the old guard who remain."

Then there was the note from John J. Zakarian (1976, Hilton Head convention):

"I so wanted to be in Salt Lake City and actually planned to drive westward with Kay, until our son and his new bride called to ask if they could spend their September vacation with us. They live in Kansas City and we had not seen them in over a year. So family took precedence. ...

"Keep the faith (in editorial journalism) and be well."

Our most senior honoree, in terms of presidential year, was Robert H. Estabrook (1951, Cleveland convention):

"Those active years were a long time ago, but I remember them well. I well recall our 1948 meeting in Louisville when Walter Cronkite, newly back from assignment as UPI bureau chief in Moscow, was the speaker.

"I believe I am the only surviving founder of NCEW. I'll be 91 on October 16.

"Although my wife's condition as an invalid has compelled me to give up my editorial column, I remain an active member of the executive committee of The Lakeville Journal Company and am in the office almost every day.  The associations and friendships made in the NCEW will remain a proud basis of my journalistic philosophy as long as I live."

Just as it will for many of us, Bob. Thank you, all NCEW past presidents, for your selfless service.


Paper tries 'reconditioning' market

Published Sunday, November 22, 2009 5:00 pm by Donald Luzzato

When we decided to pull staff-written columns from PilotOnline.com, we did it with the notion that giving away expensive things isn't much of a business model, especially when loyal customers are asked to pay.

It was an experiment. Like every other newspaper, the Pilot is struggling to figure out how to make real money in a world where information wants to be free but the business will have a hard time surviving that way. Like most scribblers, I once had the luxury of not caring about such things, but the past few years have turned us all into balance-sheet readers.)

As part of our deliberations, we're trying to decide what should be free and what shouldn't be, what should be available to everybody online and what should be available only to subscribers (either online or print).

Breaking news should be free, at least some of it. News that can be had elsewhere should be free. But some should carry a cost, because we spend a lot -- in salaries, in benefits, in heat and lights -- to find and produce it.

We decided to start the experiment with columns. Summer projects, too. So we stopped posting some of them to PilotOnline.

Then we waited.

Five months later, I'd love to tell you that we have found the answer to the newspaper industry's woes,that our margins are right back where they were a decade ago because so many folks are willing to pay to read my 700 words a week.

But it didn't happen. Or, at least, we can't be sure it did.

Our circulation director says that too many variables -- a price increase, the usual summer churn -- make it impossible to know whether our decision affected circulation. (I've seen the numbers, and they're baffling.)

I'm told hits on our electronic opinion pages are actually up since we pulled the columns. It's probably best not to dwell too much on that fact. I'm going to tell myself that they would've been up even more had the columns been there -- and that the additional page views were caused by people frantically clicking to find our work.

My colleagues have pointed out the costs of going dark:

  • We've silenced part of our voice in the online conversation.(Some of the columnists have made up for that by blogging and tweeting, tailoring their effort to the medium).
  • We've shortened our reach, especially in Richmond.
  • We've missed the occasional tip or compliment from folks outside our area.

And we've made our moms mad. (I was tired of my mother's crazy e-mails about how I was in the tank for McCain, but that's just me.)

In the end, I don't think our experiment has generated a result. It didn't spike circulation, at least not discernibly so, and it probably reduced our influence.

What it undeniably did, though, is represent an initial effort toward what our publisher this week called "reconditioning the market" to understand that what we produce is valuable. Maybe it was a tiny one, maybe you couldn't find the impact with a microscope, but we've got to start somewhere.

The world is accustomed to getting our work for free, and it's easy to misunderstand that price tag as an estimation of a thing's true value, especially when there's so much noise in the marketplace.

For too long, and for what seemed valid reasons at the time, newspapers have acted as if giving away valuable work was a sustainable approach to the future, or for journalism.

For the past few months -- when anybody who wanted to read my column had to pay something for it -- it reminded me that my words have real value. If we're lucky, perhaps it reminded our readers, too.

Donald Luzzatto is the editorial page editor for The Virginian-Pilot.


Vero Beach readers want us to connect them with decisions-makers

Lessons learned from the Opinion Pool project

Published Monday, December 14, 2009 7:00 am by Laurence Reisman

Here are two things that really stick in my mind about focus groups we ran here at Vero Beach as part of the Opinion Pool project:

  1. Readers want us to connect them with decision-makers in the community.
  2. Their definition of opinion is broad, encompassing everything from comments on where to get the best burger to what plumbing contractor is the best for the least price.

Re No. 1:

What we did: The 2008 elections were the perfect time to experiment. Using software from a sister newspaper in Kitsap, Wash., we launchedTCPalmAskTheCandidates.com, which enabled candidates to complete a questionnaire (required to get into now-streamlined editorial board interviews) and allowed readers to ask questions - moderated by us.

The results: Print and online promotion led to great amounts of traffic, peaking ON Election Day; dozens of reader questions (and candidate replies); and numerous thanks from readers for a great source of candidate information.

We had so much success, and associated ad revenue, that our online group created its own software for the 2010 election. That software not only will target some glitches we had, but spur more revenue and reader interaction.

The Web site was complemented by TCPalmElections.com, which had an array of interactive features at the bottom right of the page.

We've also used our blogs and personal Facebook and Twitter pages to market editorial board meetings with newsmakers. Recently, we directed readers to www.tcpalm.com/news/2009/dec/03/our-editorial-board-meet-fpl-exec/, where readers could pose questions for a meeting. We videotaped newsmakers answering reader questions.

Re No. 2:

I queried our Reader Sounding Board -- a database of readers who like to answer questions -- about their favorite books for possible holiday gift-giving. I received dozens of responses (The third and final installment:www.tcpalm.com/news/2009/dec/08/no-headline---op_10trsbbooks) and opened it up to the rest of our readers -- some of whom wanted to know what books the newsroom staff recommended. So we did a package on that (http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2009/dec/06/treasure-coast-newspapers-staff-journalists-for/).

To me, creating an e-mail database of readers who will reply to you within minutes, hours or a day is essential. If you need help in doing it, please let me know.

Laurence Reisman is the editorial page editor for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Vero Beach, Fla.


Come on into the pool!

What the Kansas City star learned from Opinion Pool

Published Monday, December 14, 2009 7:00 am by Miriam Pepper

The Opinion Pool needs new partners. Now.  Join us.  Please. The original eight partners  --  large, medium and small papers -- have undergone changes and reductions in staff. That doesn't mean our mission is any less urgent.    

With opinion dominating the Web, newspaper editorial pages need to build a strong, reliable presence to keep our readers satisfied and coming back. And there is no better way to build success than by doing it together, sharing tips on best practices, best traffic drivers and best design tactics. 

For The Kansas City Star's Midwest Voices blog (voices.kansascity.com), we launched and then kept tweaking.  We added more featured writers (from our staff, our 10 annual Midwest Voices columnists and six reader advisers who advise our board on editorial topics) and took good advice from others to add links below the writers' photos to draw attention to their latest posts. (The idea to link was offered at an NCEW convetnion and immediately adopted - that's how the Opinion Pool should work - by helping each other.) We dropped the Question of the Day, finding that our readers wanted to respond to an opinion, not create their own.

We kept the RSS feeds from other Midwest editorial pages as a one-stop opinion shop for Heartland views.

And we tracked our traffic religiously using Omniture. 

National, breaking news topics draw the big numbers, but we are committed to offering local topics as well. Traffic alone cannot determine content. With new partners, the Opinion Pool can approach universities to help with research and better design.  But it takes a village of papers to present ourselves as an entity worthy of university attention. 

So give it some thought.  It requires little (just a willingness to discuss tactics and respond to queries); and the benefits could be significant, for your paper and the future of editorial pages.

Interested?  Call or write.  We need you. 

Miriam Pepper is the Kansas City Star editorial page editor.


Opinion Pool revisited

Published Monday, December 14, 2009 5:00 am by Eddie Roth and David Holwerk

Whatever happened to NCEW's Opinion Pool project? Glad you asked.

First a bit of background is in order. The Opinion Pool project was our brainchild. As we envisioned it, the project aimed to help NCEW members survive and thrive in the online, interactive world. We wanted to develop an innovative and flexible tool kit of best practices and templates that opinion shops of all sizes could use in the digital environment.

The project took a year to organize; it received its official start at the 2007 annual convention in Kansas City. In the two years since, much was accomplished, including:

NCEW established a relationship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute at Missouri Journalism School.

NCEW, with the assistance of the Seattle Times and Gannett Corp., developed a comprehensive research outline for discerning the interests of younger and readers and audiences in online opinion content.

NCEW's Opinion Pool concept was a finalist for a Knight News Challenge.

NCEW helped organize and sent many participants to the Knight Digital Media Center for a conference on best practices for "editorial/commentary in cyberspace."

NCEW held documented focus groups in Seattle, Des Moines, and Vero Beach, Fla., to discern the interests of younger readers and audiences in online opinion content.

NCEW's progress on all these fronts was thoroughly and regularly documented through news articles, commentary and updates in The Masthead, through the display of focus group videoexcerpts developed by the Reynolds Institute, by posting of principal planning documents online,and through trainings and presentations at the annual meeting.  

NCEW members made significant progress on many innovations and widely shared them with other members.

But let's be frank: Over these two years some important things were not accomplished, including:

NCEW did not obtain a funding source for continuation of the project. While we made it to the finals of the 2008 Knight News Challenge, we didn't make the final cut and so did not secure any financial support.

More important, while the Opinion Pool project has many excellent elements , it has not yielded "turn-key templates," which was its principal objective.

Where the project goes from here is uncertain.

Over the past year, the industry has been beset by a climate of rapid change and uncertainty that has made it hard for the project to achieve its aims. 

Opinion Pool pilot sites, and other interested NCEW member properties, have experienced radical changes in staffing and contractions in print pages. Eddie has taken a job at a different newspaper, a move that has greatly limited his ability to pursue day-to-day progress in the project. David has left the newspaper industry.

But that climate of change and uncertainty makes the need for innovation and easily applied tools and techniques all the more pressing. In an ideal world, NCEW would continue pursuing the aims of the Opinion Pool project by finding a way to support a Web-savvy journalist who would work for a year gathering and distilling all of the valuable information, practices, and strategies that have been collected into the practical templates opinion journalists needs.

With circumstances in the industry being far from ideal, the best course is for NCEW leaders and members to commit as much energy as they can to continUE innovating in their own shops and sharing the results of their innovations with others in the craft.

Eddie Roth is an editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. David Holwerk is the director of communications director for the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.


Opinion drives traffic to Seattle Times Web site

What we learned from the Opinion Pool project

Published Monday, December 14, 2009 5:00 am by Kate Riley

I was recently on a Seattle Times committee charged with updating the newspaper's ethics code to accommodate the new phenomenon of social media.

The most interesting thing about the first meeting was the generational chasm between our younger staffers and our veterans -- people for whom social networking comes second nature and people who have never Tweeted or Facebooked and still think a "friend" is a friend.

One well-respected staff member of more than 30 years shook her head, threw up her hands in frustration and dismissed the effort: "Well, most of our readers still get our news the traditional way."

My question? "Yeah, but what are you going to do when they die?"

I don't mean to be callous here, but clinging only to the old linear ways of getting people news or commentary is a recipe for industry self-destruction.

I didn't come to this conclusion easily or even, ahem, without a lot of mental kicking and screaming.

My epiphany occurred while I was watching the NCEW Opinion Pool focus groups in Seattle. Those eight hours of watching the Young and the Wired -- 21- to 38-year-olds WHO ARE incredibly civic-minded and informed AND who never or rarely touch newsprint -­- was incredibly eye-opening and a little terrifying. I realized that we have to dish up our content in all the ways that work for our many audiences, not just for those who enjoy the textural and olfactory experience of ink on paper.

Now, some of us who have served on the editorial pages for years have shrugged our shoulders about our readership. We tend to get readers once they are more established, more concerned about their communities and the politics. Don't worry, we'd tell ourselves, we'll get the young people as they become parents and their children start school. Well, that worked when ink-on-paper was they only game in town. The young and the wired have developed new habits and even new sensibilities. By the way, don't underestimate the motives of the environmentally sensitive. (Think: I hate to waste all that paper!).

So I was sitting behind the two-way glass in the research office, trying to swallow the lump in my throat, and realized that these young people love opinion and they probably would love Seattle Times opinion - or love to hate it - if they only had the opportunity. That is, if it crossed their paths as they moved through their days accessing news on their laptops or phones.

So, here is the question: How do we get our editorials and columns into their field of vision? You cover as many bases as you can, including marketing through search and through Twitter. Here are a few things we've been doing -- all of which were prompted by things we learned from the focus groups.

Marketing through search

I remember one young man in his 20s said he rarely would go to a newspaper Web site. His news trolling was driven by his curiosity and the returns from Google searches. So, he might indeed read a Seattle Times editorial, if it turned up in his search about the international climate change meeting in Copenhagen. How do you make sure it lands there? Through something called search-engine optimization or writing for the machine. That means making sure your online headlines and Web summaries are rife with words that are likely to occur to people who are searching for a specific topic. It also means usually scrapping your print headline for something wonkier - and stickier - so it is picked up in search.

Marketing through Twitter

I have a personal Twitter account that I rarely use. But a subset of our potential audience uses Twitter religiously to engage with their communities and to keep themselves informed. To reach them, we launched a Twitter feed, SeaTimesOpinion, to inform our 1,200 (and growing) followers about our latest editorial about Amanda Knox or the latest staff column about the Copenhagen summit. Our tweets go out automatically as we publish our content, which we do as soon as it's ready in the afternoon.

(Interestingly, the Seattle Times Opinion channel is the only Times channel showing a bump in traffic in the afternoon after the lunch-hour jump. I'm convinced this is because we have been publishing fresh content halfway through the day and promoting it through Twitter.)

Personal marketing of content

Some editorial writers and editors, such as Jim Boren at the Fresno Bee, have perfected this. Promote your editorials and content through prepared e-mail source lists or by sending to groups who would be interested. Takes one more minute, but you can reap extra readership - not to mention more influence - by landing your opinion in the inbox of politicians, university presidents or community activists.  Go mix it up on your community bloggers Web site. If they post about your editorial, write your own blog item about it and post the response in the bloggers' comment section, inviting his readers over to your Web site. If you have a sizable number of "friends" on Facebook or other social network, share your content there. But be judicious and not obnoxious, it's easy to block a friend's news feed. Post your own columns or your "big editorial" about the governor's budget.

I experimented with this once, writing a column about Eunice Shriver and sharing some personal perspective. I tracked an extra 150 hits from the bit.ly link I created and posted. Some sources in the disability community forwarded the link.

Be inclusive and a source of many opinions

Many times across all the focus groups, participants said they like strong opinion and they didn't necessarily mind a newspaper editorial page having a strong opinion, but they liked to read different opinions and make up their own minds.

Taking this to heart at the Times but with shrinking space, we launched an online-only feature that pits our conservative columnist Bruce Ramsey against our more liberal columnist Lynne Varner. They almost always disagree, but are fond friends - so it works. We publish their "Civil disagreement" feature on the editorial page blog and often promote it in print to encourage our hybrid readers (print and online) to check it out. It's been fun for the writers and a little community of followers has even developed around them. The topics need to be timely to work - pirates, guns and Rush Limbaugh were big draws; Section 8 housing policy not so much.

Kate Riley is the deputy editorial page editor for online at the Seattle Times.


Too many faces -- and prying eyes -- on Facebook?

A few simple steps to sort your friends from your friends

Published Monday, December 21, 2009 7:00 am by Michael Landauer

Wow, that was one heckuva holiday party, wasn't it? You still can't believe what Rod said in his toast. And ... uh, oh. Did you notice a flash of light when you accidentally spilled eggnog all over your editor's prized Christmas sweater?

Well, there's the proof, right there on Facebook. Someone uploaded the photo, tagged you, and now it's out there for the world to see. Oh, no, there's already five comments. And every time someone comments, that's a whole new universe that can be drawn to that photo.

You could click "Remove tag." But you don't care if your friends see this. It's kinda funny, you suppose. And besides, they might find it anyway, even if you remove your name as a tag. But what if you could keep it out of the hands of my "professional friends?"

Well, you can. In fact, Facebook makes it easy to control exactly what information you share with each one of your friends. For professional journalists, Facebook is more than just a personal networking tool. It's also a reader-engagement tool, a way to connect with sources. But how do you keep some of your private moments behind a firewall (of sorts), hidden from your professional contacts?

The first thing you need to do is create a list of "friends" that you want to have diminished access to your stuff. To do this:

Go to "Friends"

Click "Create New List"

Name the list, and then start selecting folks to be included on it. This can take some time if you have a lot of friends, but it's worth it. From now on, when you accept a new friend, you can add them to a list all in one easy step.

There is no limit on how many lists you can have, and there is no limit as to how many lists you can put someone on. For example, I have friends on a "Journalism" list and on lists I have created for specific newspapers where I have worked.

Side note: There's another good reason for organizing your friends into lists. When you are on your home page, you will see a list of your friend lists on the left side. If you don't, just click "more." When you click on one of those lists, it shows you the news feed for just the people on that list. So, for example, if you have 10 people you want to keep up with, make a list and then save that page as a favorite or bookmark. It is much easier than sifting through all the posts from "friends" who seem to have nothing better to do than to post 10 times a day ...

Now that you have created lists (and basically ranked your friends without them knowing), you're ready to change your privacy settings to block certain stuff from these people. Start by rolling your mouse over "Settings" and clicking on "Privacy Settings." There are a number of things you can change to stay private, but since we're talking about those embarrassing holiday party photos, let's start there:

Go to "Profile Information"

Look for "Photos and Videos of Me"

Use the pull-down menu to select the people who can see each album.

To block one group of "friends," click on "Customize" and type the name of that group under.

Now, that only hides the photos someone else took of you spilling eggnog on your boss. To hide the photos you've taken and posted, you need to change your settings on your own albums, too. Every photo you upload to Facebook goes into an album. If you post something on your wall, it goes in "Wall Photos," and if you use something as a profile picture, it goes in "Profile Photos." While still on the "Privacy Settings > Profile Information" page:

Look for "Photo Albums" right under "Photos and Videos of Me." This will take you to a page where you must set the privacy settings for each album separately.

Use the pull-down menus next to each album to select the people who can see each album.

To block one group of "friends," click on "Customize" and type the name of that group under. 

To allow only one group of friends to see an album, click the button next to "Some Friends" and type the name of the group there.

As you probably noticed, there are dozens of other things you can hide from professional friends and sources. For example, I made it so that my "Sources" cannot see what my friends post to my Wall. Just in case.

You can also avoid the whole "friends" mess by creating a Fan Page for you or your department. Then, when a source asks to be your friend, you can simply direct them to the fan page. On a fan page, you have much more control, and it is completely separate from your personal posts, photos, etc. To be sure, though, fan pages are less visible than a personal profile. You really have to know it's there, but it is an option. Here's a link to get started down that path: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?filter=pp#/pages/create.php.

Michael Landauer, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, is a member of the NCEW Board of Directors.


Spelling it out for the governor

Answering in anagram

Published Sunday, November 22, 2009 7:00 am by John Diaz

First, let me spare you the trouble: There is no hidden message in this posting, whether you read it forward, backward, sideways or pick out every eighth character.

There was, however, a concealed twist in California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent veto message of legislation by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano that would have provided financing help for the Port of San Francisco. If you read the far left-hand letters in each of the missive's eight lines, it says, "I f-- you." 

The governor's staff claimed innocence, insisting the characters fell into that profane response by pure chance. Skeptics wondered whether it might have had something to do with Ammiano shouting "you lie!" and telling Schwarzenegger to "kiss my gay ass" when the Republican governor made a surprise appearance at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco.

Obviously, our editorial page will not countenance such incivility. On Oct. 29, we tightened our bow ties and lowered the boom with our most serious adult voice in an editorial entitled "Message on the margin." The governor's antics, we intoned, were "beneath the dignity" of his office.

The reaction from the governor's office was swift and fierce. One of his high-level aides e-mailed me at 7 a.m. to suggest I had lost my sense of humor and "need to get out more."

Before long, careful readers began to notice a message on the left-hand margin. The first letters of the 15 lines spelled out, "Grow up girlie man." Was this beneath the dignity of an editorial page? Or, as with the governor's message, was it just the way the letters randomly fell? We're not telling.

John Diaz is the editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.


Top Ten Commentary Topics of the Decade

Published Tuesday, December 22, 2009 7:00 am

A discussion on the list-serv about the most important commentary topics of the decade lead to many ideas from NCEW members. Frank Partsch, former editorial page editor of The Omaha World-Herald, took that list and combined it into 10 topic areas.

As you prepare your year- and decade-end pieces, this list might come in handy. Also, vote on which one you think was the most important at our online poll. You can discuss the topics in greater detail in our forum here.

  • Jihad, terrorism, war and profiling.  Ripples of  9/11 affected national self-image, religious discussion, domestic politics and even civil rights.
  • America in an Asian century.  Recession, diplomacy, global scientific issues, copyright competitions, trade and geopolitics all fell under the umbrella question of whether the era of American supremacy is past.
  • Preparing our kids for survival.  A 19th century agrarian-based school system faced a shrinking world of high technology and assertive competitors , with an American advantage no longer to be taken for granted.
  • Navigating the information whirlpools. Democracy and culture were subjected to profound change from an information explosion and a decline of authoritative voices of information. 
  • Preserving human values.  Events called into question our commitments to human respect (illegal immigration), compassion for the suffering (health care reform), charity (aid to developing countries) and even our toleration of divergent opinions.  DNA testing uncovered shocking prosecutorial abuse, freshening the capital punishment debate.
  • Government:  Friend or foe? Political polarization cast a harsh light on actions of the federal government, illuminating such events as the Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court case, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Obama administration's climate initiative.
  • Science regained, science lost.  The 2008 election brought hope that science would regain respect lost during the Bush years.  But a lot of Americans still consulted astrology charts, argued against evolution and campaigned against the use of fluoride in their drinking water.
  • Sharing the freedom dream.  Gay rights became the civil rights issue of the decade.  Questions arose about the lifetime denial of a former felon's right to vote, the lifetime stigmatization of a reformed sex offender, the lingering job discrimination against a reformed youthful offender.
  • Facing a changing culture.  A more diverse population brought traditions under more scrutiny. The public celebration of Christmas became more secular, and not without controversy.  Institutions once reflexively trusted -- banks, the police, the clergy -- saw their standing eroded. Commentators had plenty of opportunity to examine and evaluate the evolution of sexual mores, entertainment, educational patterns, career expectations, "the breakdown of "(fill in the blank)."
  • Follow the money.  The bursting of high-tech, housing and banking bubbles thrust many middle class Americans into long-term economic uncertainty.  State governments struggled with near bankruptcy. Americans wondered if they had any hope of escaping perpetual indebtedness to financiers in the rest of the world.