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.”