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Elbow room for editors.

Can anyone spare a paradigm? Every nonprofit association seeks a model policy for balancing the forces weighing on its major periodical. The paradigm would ensure harmony between the journalistic idealism of editorial staff and the ever-multiple purposes of officers, boards, executives, and members.

And that's not all. No paradigm would overlook the commercial sector, the hand that helps sustain major journals through its advertising investment.

The organization I administer, the American Library Association (AIA), Chicago, is a nonprofit educational association sometimes at odds with information industry policies. But industry advertising feeds some $2.5 million a year overall into AIA programs-definitely a factor in our harmony.

So what's the paradigm for keeping leaders, readers, and feeders happy? And in serving multiple purposes, how do you both challenge and channel the publication editors, those oft-forgotten souls who wear the association's angst on their faces?

The stereotype of a CEO as someone who leads publishing staff by the nose just doesn't fit at ALA. In our magazine publishing program, we've given the editors the freedom to determine the content of their publications.

The boards and bosses of nonprofit associations set the overall policies and goals, hire the editors, and get out of the way-most of the time. Does this approach solve all our problems of multiple purposes? No. But it gives us a framework for addressing them.

A while back, the newsletter of the Society of National Association Publications, Washington, D.C., quoted a media management expert as saying, "Every serious problem of nonprofit association publishing can be traced to positioning discrepancies. The society or society's board sees the publication as existing for one purpose, while the staff, advertisers, or readers see it for another."

This is true, but the problem isn't the discrepancies-it's misplacing the responsibility for sorting them out.

ALA has given this responsibility to its publication editors. That's what professional editors do; they package a hundred points of view into a coherent medium with value to a spectrum of readers. It's a killer job, never ending and often unappreciated. But somehow it seems to work out.

A publications policy should accommodate as many agendas as possible. A big part of my agenda is to make the elected officers look good, but editors might prefer to use their limited space for other association priorities. If I can't channel the editors' interests my way by sweet persuasion or stating the hard facts, I turn to other means of promoting ALA officers.

That's not to say editors can't be swayed by leaders-for better or for worse. A leader says, "More books and articles on technology, and we jump. But it's best to measure those declarations against demonstrated reader interest.

Put it in Writing

Most of us in the nonprofit world say publishing programs must display integrity, responsiveness, and credibility to be effective, and that such qualities require editorial independence. That's what we say, but do we say it in writing?

ALA docs. I quote from our policy statement for American Libraries, the association's news magazine:

"The editor must assume an obligation to represent the best interests of the association ... fairly and as fully as possible within the scope of the journal and with due regard to the editor's prerogatives in producing a balanced and readable publication.... The editor is guaranteed independence in gathering, reporting, and publishing news according to the principles of the association's policies on intellectual freedom.... Columns shall be kept scrupulously and faithfully open to expression of all viewpoints of interest and concern to the library profession."

In effect, then, the editor can put in what he or she wants but is somewhat restricted in what can be kept out. Technically, the editor can resist long official documents that render the magazine unreadable and unbalanced; yet, when the association's governing body speaks, what editor or CEO will profit from opposing it?

Some years ago, our governing council decreed that its entire voting record should run in the association news magazine. The editor, trying to build a colorful reader's magazine and a hot medium for advertisers, grew apoplectic when he saw what he'd have to print: 15 pages of resolutions, names, and little x's and o's for each individual vote.

He marched into my predecessor's office pounding the policy manual and declaring, "Nowhere does it say the council can overrule my editorial independence." My predecessor nodded and said softly, "Yes, I can agree with you and then jump out the window. We work for these people, and when they say x's and o's, we print x's and o's."

And so we do, to this day. Polity and Practice

Our publications policy seems right for ALA, which supports intellectual freedom as a major program. The policy won't always keep us out of trouble. As administrators know, policies solve every problem except the next one to come along.

When an editor develops a deeply personal agenda that's irrevocably out of tune with mine, that's a big problem and one that may result in someone getting fired. It probably won't be me. But until the last day on the job, that editor will enjoy editorial freedom.

We had just such a situation in 1974, before our policy was fine-tuned. My predecessor felt that the current editor of American Libraries had lost sight of the association's best interests.

The editor hired a Washington Post reporter to investigate a national library commission he felt was too secretive. Our Washington office had no problems with this commission and preferred a united front among agencies promoting library development.

One day a senator called our Washington officer saying, in effect, You ask me to support the commission, and this ALA reporter says it's corrupt. What's the story?"

With crucial legislation before Congress, our Washington officer and my predecessor hit the roof. The conflict deepened and eventually the editor was fired. The whole magazine staff but one quit in protest. But before they left, they took their shots in the magazine and won some sympathy from the governing council, which demanded a policy that underscored the editor's independence and guaranteed better communication between editor and CEO on conflicting matters.

Since then, it's worked pretty well. The magazine has attracted first-rate editors, won numerous editorial awards, and quadrupled its advertising revenues. The editor reports to the publishing director on administrative matters and to me on policy matters. We don't always agree, but we work out solutions we can live with.

Mixed Messages

Publication policies should define who's in charge and also guide the direction of the publishing program. All of us in the nonprofit world are veterans of mixed messages from above:

Make money, but for heaven's sake don't be commercial.

Don't subscribe to bottom-line mentality, but watch that bottom line.

Make a business plan, but don't plan on making a business out of our mission.

What I do as a CEO is share these messages with staff and help them cope. Good policies help unmix the messages. In most associations, there will be talk about value-driven versus revenue-driven programs. At one end of the spectrum, we all have our social-issue committees, righting the world's wrongs on a shoestring budget; at the other end, our trade shows, driven on the expectation of big revenues.

At these extremes our purposes are clear, but publications get mixed messages. One message says go for higher values and lower revenues; another message says lower values and higher revenues. Most often, the message is do it all-high values, high revenues. That's a tall order.

Every year at budget time we reexamine our policy by asking these questions: Does the membership want an official house organ with no advertising appeal? Does it want a revenue-driven products catalog; Or an independent, value-driven news magazine with moderate revenues?

Aided by reader surveys, we have been clear in our preference for the last. But someone has to pay for values, and our officers are still looking for the paradigm to solve that one.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Perspective
Author:Crismond, Linda F.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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