“Not Here This Year”

Despite numerous setbacks, National Conference of Editorial Writers goes on

The sixty-third annual convention of editorial writers could hardly have met at a worse time.

Only a few days earlier, many of the papers represented carried stories saying that despite some positive signs in the rest of the economy, the downturn for newspapers had yet to hit bottom. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press had released a survey showing public confidence in the mainstream news media at a new low; 63 percent of those polled said news stories were often inaccurate. Serious questions continued to be raised as to whether some cities—Philadelphia being the most notable—would even retain a major daily.

Earlier in the year, the American Society of Newspaper Editors had for only the second time in its eighty-seven-year history canceled its convention. At a time when editors were cutting staff, travel, and newsroom budgets to the bone, how could they bring themselves to fly off to Chicago for what would be perceived as fun and games? ASNE bigwigs looked at the small number of signups and concluded they had only one option: to pull the plug.

As it turned out, leaders of the National Conference of Editorial Writers thought about doing the same thing. And they might have, had not the organization faced a high penalty if it reneged on its contract with the host hotel. Acting President Tom Waseleski said it would cost the organization less to incur the losses of a sparsely attended convention than to cancel it.

And sparsely attended it was. Only about eighty men and women trickled into Salt Lake City’s Hilton Hotel for the late September conference, and many of them were retirees who paid their own way or representatives of various good government and environmental organizations out to get the ear of the editorial writers. Outside, the late September weather was warm and sunny, but spirits inside were decidedly gloomy. “Not here this year,” was a common response when people asked the whereabouts of writers who had attended almost all recent conventions.

Some of those who did attend—like the NCEW president who only weeks before had to step down from the office after taking a non-newspaper job—had gone into other lines of work. Unlike past conventions, when members asking questions of a speaker were asked to approach a microphone so they could be heard by the large audience, the questioners this year were easily audible to the small numbers present.

But in a couple of ways the convention proceeded as normal. A major draw at all NCEW conventions is the all-day critique session. In advance of the convention, members carefully comb through each others’ editorial and op-ed pages so that they can present detailed suggestions to the five or so writers in each group as to how their pages and editorials could be improved. It’s a painstaking process that takes a lot of work, and it’s uncomfortable if not outright embarrassing to be the writer at the receiving end of the criticism. One writer at the session I attended this year sheepishly explained the stodgy, old-fashioned look of his pages by pointing out his publisher’s aversion to any change. One would think this was 1959 instead of 2009, except for the fact that this newspaper’s circulation had recently dipped by 25 percent.

As in past conventions, the editorial writers also heard from prominent present and former public officials from the area. This year, former George W. Bush administration Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O. Leavitt, who had also been a Utah governor, spoke about health care reform and the dangers of deficit spending. John Hughes, a Brigham Young University professor and former editor of The Christian Science Monitor and Deseret News, discussed freedom, credibility, and tradition in this day of online journalism.

And the mood of the writers rose—briefly, at least—when Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group owns both The Salt Lake Tribune and The Denver Post, recounted the conclusions that his top executives reached following a three-day planning session at his Colorado ranch: Instead of continuing to provide free of charge all the contents of its newspapers on their Web sites, the group’s papers would provide breaking news online for free, but reserve many of the newspapers’ in-depth and analytical stories for paid subscribers. In three to five years, he predicted, the newspaper business will be a combination of “print, online, wireless mobile and niche products.” The business “will be better than it is today, although not as good as it was yesterday.”

But the black cloud over the convention never lifted. As a man known for confronting reality in a calm, forthright manner, Waseleski made no effort to conceal the bad news. NCEW membership, he said, had declined from 514 a year ago to 360 this year, a 30 percent drop. Many paid their own way to this year’s convention because their newspapers couldn’t or wouldn’t foot the bill. Dues were being cut by 10 percent because so many had to pay out of their own pockets.

The 2010 convention in Dallas will be held, Waseleski said, again because the organization is locked into a contract with the host hotel. But after that, nobody knows. The 2011 convention is scheduled for Indianapolis, but Waseleski and his board have avoided lining up a hotel. Some members have suggested keeping costs down by holding future conventions on college campuses or offering members the option of staying at Super 8 type motels instead of full service hotels. The organization is considering merging the offices of secretary and treasurer because of the difficulty in recruiting people to serve.

And so it went. By and large, the editorial writers are a dedicated bunch. Yes, they spend time at these conventions mingling with old friends and colleagues, and they do their share of drinking and eating. But they spend most of their convention time looking for ways to improve their work, to put out better pages that will attract more readers and to gain insight into the pressing issues of the day. To participate in one of the critique groups requires a solid ten to fifteen hours of going through colleagues’ papers in advance of the convention, and many of the writers do that on their weekends and vacations.

I left Salt Lake City feeling sad. The city appears to be on an upward trend as a major section of its downtown is being reconstructed. But NCEW is on a slide and no one knows where or when it will end. Its members are trying to hang on to their jobs as many of the papers they work for are trying to hang on to their existence. Whether the online journalism of the future will have a place for the carefully researched, well-thought-out editorial is something that nobody knows.

For me, at least, an editorial writer from a large paper in the Midwest summed up the desperation best when she said that, at this point, “we’ll try anything.”

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Richard Benfield is a longtime member of NCEW. He is a former editorial page editor of The Record of Bergen County, NJ and former member of The New York Times's editorial board.