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How to run a Texas-sized regional.

It all started with a quick conversation over lunch last December at the NCEW board meeting in Harrisburg. Lynnell Burkett of San Antonio, J.R. Labbe of Ft. Worth, and I declared our corner of the room the "Texas Table." There we hatched plans for an NCEW-sponsored legislative briefing for Texas editorial writers timed to the January start of the state's every-other-year legislative session.

Seven weeks later the event came to pass. By all accounts--written evaluations as well as talk-on-the-street feedback--the session was a success. We'd like to sponsor another one later this year.

Here's a tip sheet on how to do something similar in your neck of the woods:

1. Pick a program.

We decided that the headliners of the event should be governor Rick Perry, newly elected lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, and House speaker Tom Craddick. With the pending budget deficit the biggest challenge facing the Legislature, we knew we also wanted to include state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Legislative committee membership was still to be determined, but we knew we'd want to include a number key committee chairs in afternoon panels as well.

Lynnell and J.R. set out immediately to issue the invitations, verbally and by e-mail, to the key players. They also contacted staffers and lobbyists to help make the case about why these leaders should bend their schedules to accommodate our program. We had selected Friday, January 24, as our target date before we left Harrisburg, figuring editorial writers flying and driving into Austin from around the state would appreciate the flexibility to return home on a Saturday. We were prepared to move the date if none of the keynoters could make it that day, but that proved unnecessary. We did scrap plans to host a dinner the night before, however, when it became clear attendance would be low.

2. Find a (free) location.

It helped that a good friend of Lynnell just happened to be the executive director of the Texas Association of Broadcasters and agreed to let us use the association's meeting room. It was perfect--just three blocks from the state capitol, which made it easy on all the speakers.

3. Spread the word to the target audience.

Lynnell and J.R. quickly compiled a list of Texas newspapers and fired off postcards and e-mails to their editorial page editors inviting them to the Legislative Briefing. We noted up top--of course--that it was free.

In the end, we had 32 editorial writers attend from 11 newspapers across Texas. Awards for attendees coming the greatest distance would go to the Longview NewsJournal's editorial page editor, Mike Hvezdos, who had a nearly five-hour drive, and, from the southern tip of the state, Mack Harrison, the opinions editor of the McAllen Monitor. My shop streamlined our workflow that week so we could afford to send four editorial writers, two editorial columnists, and two editors to Austin, forming a three-car caravan for the three-hour drive.

4. Seta budget.

With no speaker or location costs, we figured the $100 NCEW grant would go a long way to covering expenses. We were wrong. The total bill was closer to $600. Next time we may skip the pastries at the start of the session (we started late morning to give writers time to get into Austin and probably could have done with just coffee until lunch) and charge a few bucks for the lunch to ensure that we come out even.

5. Be prepared for glitches.

We aimed the session specifically at editorial writers but reporters at a couple of papers wanted to attend, too. Initially, there was some concern that if a number of reporters attended it would drive up our costs and distort the purpose of the session, which was to elicit candid comments from elected leaders about their thinking going into what--because of the budget crisis and the just-elected historic all-GOP state government--was sure to be one of the toughest legislative sessions Texas had ever seen. We quickly determined we couldn't in good conscience ban reporters and planned to eat whatever the additional costs. It wasn't much. A couple of newspapers did get headlines from the briefing the next day--Governor Perry blasted his GOP counterpart in Illinois on the death penalty and declared a modification to his no-new-taxes pledge by noting "It's not a new tax if you should have been paying it all along."

Bottom line? The session was a blast. It took work (Lynnell and J.R. did the lion's share) but it wasn't a killer. We all learned a lot from the officials. We also benefited from the fellowship with other editorial writers from around the state and signed up at least a couple NCEW members. We'll be doing it again. You can count on it.

Keven Willey is editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News. E-mail
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Title Annotation:National Conference of Editorial Writers suggestions on hosting legislative briefings for editorial writers
Author:Willey, Keven
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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