By: Joe Strupp
As executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., David Zeeck didn?t have far to travel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference being held here this week. But as incoming president of ASNE, he admits both the newspaper business and the editors? organization itself have some tough roads ahead.
Zeeck, the 12-year newsroom leader of the News Tribune, says the industry?s future has never been more unknown, and ASNE?s role in aiding top editors may be more key than ever. He cites financial constraints and competitive demands on the Web as the most important issues for today?s editors, adding that ASNE itself may need to make some changes to reduce costs, increase revenue, and balance its financial burden among the industry?s newsroom bosses.
?I think we are in a house that?s burning down, burning slowly,? he told E&P. ?We have time to see what we can take with us.? His point was not that the industry is dying, but that the old ways of operating ? print-only and with certain substantial revenue sources ? are ending. Newspaper leaders need to build a new way of doing things, but they still remain unsure what their materials will be.
?The power of the news still exists, but it is wrapped up in different things,? said Zeeck, who will take over the ASNE presidency at the end of this week, replacing outgoing president Rick Rodriguez of The Sacramento Bee. ?We need to look harder at the organization,? he added, referring to ASNE itself.
Chatting Monday on the fourth-floor foyer outside of ASNE?s main events area in the Westin Hotel where he?d just finished an ASNE board meeting, Zeeck said the business is more solid than readers might think. ?We need to turn around the belief that newspapers are going away,? said Zeeck. ?Because everything else has gotten so fragmented, newspapers remain the only mass medium left. That franchise on local news is still owned by newspapers.?
He noted one statistic discussed at the board meeting, that more people read a newspaper on Super Bowl Sunday than watched the annual game.
One important need for editors, he added, is to increase communication with readers, and explanations of how they do things. ?Every editor in America ought to be writing a weekly column telling what the paper is about,? said Zeeck, who began such a practice six years ago. ?It has gotten phenomenal reaction from the community. It takes me about four hours a week to compile and write, but it is the best four hours I spend.?
He said that ASNE can do more tangible things to help editors deal with growing issues ranging from shrinking resources to growing competition. ?Editors are looking for guidance,? he said. Zeeck noted that ASNE should look at some of its programs, and possibly remove those that are outdated and add new ones that deal more with the growing issues he cited. ?We need more discussion about what members want, nuts-and-bolts information or focus on issues.?
He also said more corporate sponsorship of ASNE conferences, and even possible trade-show type exhibits could be added to offset costs. ?We need to look at the cost-structure,? he added about ASNE. ?It is somewhat expensive to belong. We have to figure out how to make it more affordable.?
Although Zeeck stressed that ASNE?s financial books are solid and the group has a good surplus, the fact that it has only 572 members in an industry with more than 1,400 daily newspapers shows many smaller papers are not involved. ?The people who pay their dues and come to conferences and attend sessions get value,? he said. ?But they do a lot of the work for the people that don?t show up.? Still, he stressed that smaller papers may not be able to afford such involvement, requiring the larger ones to take the load.
As president, Zeeck says he plans to focus on two factors, helping editors navigate the changing business, and increasing support for FOI issues. ?The federal government behaves in secrecy and that threat is growing,? he said, noting last week?s Pulitzer Prize list that included many awards for uncovering government secrets, such as The Washington Post?s Dana Priest, who revealed secret overseas prisons ? a story that has since gotten one of her sources fired from the CIA. ?The whole FOI effort [by ASNE] has to step up. Legislation at the state and federal level has to be looked at ? to either make sure good laws are put in or restrictive ones are not.?
Zeeck cited not only the pending federal shield law as an example, but others at local levels that can help open up protection against subpoena power over reporters and access to government documents. ?When you are at a time of crisis, you look at what is truly important,? he said of issues such as government accountability, secrecy, and restrictions on information access. ?Those are truly important. The best stories are where government is trying to keep a secret.?