Town meeting faces hopes, fears.
YOU never know what you're going to hear when facing down a room full of opinion journalists. That's the thought I had in Salt Lake City just before kicking off "Coffee and conversation: A town meeting on the way forward for NCEW," as it was dubbed in the convention program. By the time the Saturday morning session ended, no one had thrown a single shoe. Tame crowd, these editorialists.
The idea behind the informal hour was to give NCEW members a free-wheeling opportunity to vent, react, and question, uncoupled from Robert's Rules of Order and the formality of the annual business meeting, which came later in the day anyway. To the extent that there was a format, I posed questions and heard answers. I asked for shows of hands and got instant feedback. Members offered their own suggestions to NCEW officers and board members, and it was a fluid, organic discussion. We didn't solve the problems of the organization, but we did the next best thing: shared our continuing hopes for NCEW and spoke candidly about what we were willing to do or bear to sustain it.
While the 70 or so members in convention were an unscientific sample of NCEW membership, what they said had an impact on leadership and will inform many of the decisions we make for at least the next year.
A good many of them, for instance, are now paying their dues and convention costs, something that once was covered routinely by news organizations. Four days earlier, the NCEW board voted to reduce dues rates across the board by 10%--not a huge cut, because dues remain our single-largest source of revenue, but a pricing change in the right direction nonetheless.
The talk turned to where to seek financial support for NCEW, and I noted that our convention sponsors have almost exclusively been news organizations and universities with journalism programs. Other news associations, however, are not shy about taking sponsorship dollars from other corporate entities--in much the same way that our newspapers and TV stations accept paid advertising.
The feeling around the room was to be open to support for conventions from friendly corporations that do not leave members (like the local convention chair, for instance) in a compromising position. But members were adamant that such contributions not have any influence in determining the program.
Members also said they were open to seeing paid advertising on the NCEW Website. They were most receptive to hypothetical ads from journalism-related buyers: op-ed syndicates, other associations, foundations, publishers, universities, public policy advocates. As a result, NCEW will make a run at offering Web advertising in the next year.
Similarly, there is no reason that our Website cannot offer a new benefit: timely op-eds posted on the site that could be published by members for free. Because responsible groups would pay NCEW a fee for posting the material, the op-eds would also be a new source of revenue. Look for NCEW to give this a try in the next few months.
Other thoughts that circulated the room:
* Members would not be opposed to a future convention held on a college campus. They also would not be put off by staying in a dorm, as opposed to a hotel (or so they said).
* It's time to shorten the convention by one day. Because of few people signing up for the all-day critiques, Thursday has become a day when not much programmed activity occurs. Look for the Dallas convention next September (which must meet the terms of a hotel contract signed last year) to change that a bit, and expect the Indianapolis convention in 2011 (which has no contract yet) to be reinvented.
* NCEW members also thought it was a good idea, for the sake of leadership recruitment, to shorten the officer track. Each year we elect a secretary who, year by year, moves into a new office: treasurer, vice president, president and then immediate past president--each of whom has voting power. Perhaps it's time to combine the offices of secretary and treasurer (as do other organizations) and maybe even eliminate the immediate past president as a voting board member. That way, members (and their employers) might find a three-year officer hitch less daunting than one that runs five years. Now that NCEW members have approved making bylaw changes by a secure electronic vote, they could restructure the officer track before the next election.
Finally, one topic that floated like the proverbial lead balloon was whether it is time for NCEW to change its name. That was a subject of much interest one to two years ago--not for change's sake, but as a way to broaden membership and appeal to other opinion journalists. In Salt Lake City, though, it was clear there were bigger issues on members' minds: affording the cost of membership, keeping conventions profitable, encouraging members to volunteer for NCEW leadership.
What's to be gained by changing our name? That's a question to be left for another day.
NCEW president Tom Waseleski is editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail email@example.com