New NAA Chair Smith Calls for Change

By: Jennifer Saba Jay Smith is taking over as chair- man of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) this month during a somewhat blustery period for the industry Just think: At this time last year, the word "circulation" wasn't often followed by the words "fraud" or "collusion." And while the Bush administration wasn't exactly rolling out the welcome mat for journalists, reporters weren't in danger of going to jail for protecting their sources.

These are two of the biggest challenges that Smith faces during his tenure as head of the NAA, a position that rotates every year. Smith replaces outgoing Chairman Gregg K. Jones, co-publisher of The Greenville (Tenn.) Sun. Smith, the president of Atlanta-based Cox Newspapers, has served as vice chairman of the board and has worked with the organization for about 10 years.

E&P caught up with the new chairman in the beginning of March before he dashed off to New York for a weeklong family vacation.

In Smith's mind, the challenges of rebuilding credibility while protecting the basic rights of the press are taking center stage. He cites everything from the hard work the NAA has done on cross ownership and to Freedom of Information and shield laws. Indeed, one of the sessions slated for this year's NAA Annual Convention in San Francisco is on "Confidential Sources and the Shield Law." The panel lineup: New York Times scribe Judith Miller, one of the reporters who finds herself going to jail in the Valerie Plame/CIA probe, as well as First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams.

While the NAA is working with a broad spectrum of media and press groups on FOIA, shield law, and cross-ownership issues, it is more on its own when trying to solve circulation distress. "There's no secret about the tension that exists right now ... over paid circulation and the misdeeds that have occurred," Smith says. "We're working awfully hard to restore the faith that must be there in the relationship while broadening the definition of paid circulation."

In that way, the NAA will continue to push the standard of readership, a standard that many would accuse the industry of taking too long to embrace: "The time has long since passed that as an industry we've got to get off our heels and talk aggressively with readers and advertisers about these precise things. If it does nothing else, the NAA can help frame the discussion and develop the vocabulary to keep the discussion alive."

The NAA will continue to invest heavily in the Readership Institute, for example, but Smith concedes in the end, the idea of making readership a workable standard starts with all newspapers embracing the concept. He's starting to see evidence. "I'm tremendously impressed by my colleagues in the industry," he affirms. "It's a big brawling world of competing media interests. How do we compete better? One of the points we make within our company is that the world has changed a lot and we have changed a little. We have to change a lot."


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