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Regional meetings reach more, cost less.

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY has always depended on small, independent newspapers with strong voices. But in this age of corporate journalism, small independent dailies and weeklies are declining in number, and many of the survivors don't have editorial pages that play an important role in their communities.

By holding regional seminars, the National Conference of Editorial Writers can reach out to those editors and editorial writers who are already more than mere voices in the wilderness, while also encouraging others to start saying what they think.

John Edwards regularly raises hell in hog country. He's the owner of The Times, a 4,700-circulation weekly in Smithfield, Va. Because he stays busy writing editorials, gathering news, sweeping the floor, and trying to pay the bills, he doesn't have the time or the money it takes to attend annual NCEW conventions. In fact, he's not even a member of NCEW.

Nor is Lea Campbell, who two years ago restored an editorial page to The Recorder, a 5,256-circulation weekly that's been published in remote Highland County, Va., since 1877. Every household in the county subscribes, which means The Recorder's opinions are read, discussed, and challenged.

Edwards and Campbell were among the approximately 20 participants in editorial page seminars in 1991 and 1992 jointly sponsored by NCEW and the Virginia Press Association. I arranged the seminars with the help of Ann Merriman, a former NCEW president who is commentary pages editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Here's what happened:

Last year's one-day session was held in July at Virginia Beach as part of the annual summer meeting of the state press association.

The session was led by 1959 Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Lou Forbes, who is commentary pages editor of The Washington Times. She said any newspaper has a better chance of survival if its editorials are strong and intelligently written. "Editorial pages have become wimpy," she said. "They're less inclined to take real strong stands. They're willing to let other people do the screaming."

The 1991 seminar was held on a September weekend in Fredericksburg.

On Friday, Van Cavett of The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., another former NCEW president, talked about editorial writing and then critiqued pages mailed to him in advance by seminar participants.

Other speakers were political scientist Larry Sabato, author of Feeding Frenzy, a book about how journalists cover the private lives of politicians; FBI official John Campbell, who discussed the agency's predictions about violent crime in the next decade or so; Maria Burks, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, who talked about expanding federal parks; and Richmond lawyer Craig Merritt, who discussed libel.

Based on those two seminars, here's some advice for anyone thinking about organizing a state or regional editorial page seminar:

* Work through a press association, which can handle the mailings and, more important, the money. The association's staff can also advertise the seminar, provide a place where prospective participants can call for information, help arrange accommodations, and generally bring order to chaos.

Merriman and I called around the state to let people know about the seminars. Participants mailed their registration forms and $25 fees to the press association. Any charges levied by hotels were also billed through the press association.

* Try to ensure that registration fees cover the cost of meals, room rentals, and expenses incurred by speakers. It's advisable to arrange in advance for the press association or a newspaper to bail you out if expenses exceed revenues. The Virginia Press Association has helped in that regard.

* Make NCEW part of regional seminars. Talk about the purpose of the organization and encourage seminar participants to join. Tell them about The Masthead, page exchanges, the annual convention, and other benefits. (NCEW provided money to help cover the costs of the two Virginia seminars.)

* Keep costs low. At the two-day sessions in Fredericksburg, the only expenses were the $25 registration fee (which covered the cost of morning coffee and a lunch), $65 for a night at the Sheraton, and the cost of a dinner and breakfast. Several participants who lived within driving distance spent only $25 each.

To keep down the travel costs of speakers, invite people who live nearby. (The FBI agent lived two doors from me.)

* Don't limit participation to NCEW members. Also, seek people from large newspapers and small. The latter are eager to talk to anyone else, while those who write for big papers might be surprised by how much they can learn from the editor of a weekly.

* Provide participants with comments about their editorials and their editorial pages. At the Virginia seminars, that's what people said they wanted most.

* Don't depend on celebrity speakers, because they tend to cancel on short notice. Schedule speakers who will show up.

* Avoid Fridays, if possible. That's the busiest day for almost everyone who works on editorial pages.

* Avoid beautiful weekends in the fall and spring, for obvious reasons.

As for resort cities, they can bolster registrations but quickly lure participants out of meeting rooms. Luckily, even though the Virginia Beach seminar was held on a bright summer day in a 16th floor meeting room with a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, Forbes was able to hold the audience's attention for several hours. She then left for a long weekend at her place in Ocean City, Md.

* Schedule enough free time that participants can get acquainted. Most editorial writers in Virginia don't even know each other, let alone spend time talking about issues, ethics ... or the water temperature.

Meanwhile, in a place that likes to think of itself as the hog capital of the nation, John Edwards is steadily raking his weekly share of muck and looking forward to another short, inexpensive seminar -- this year on July 9 in Virginia Beach -- sponsored by NCEW and the Virginia Press Association.

NCEW member Larry Evans is editorial page editor of The Free Lance-Star on Fredericksburg, Va.
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Author:Evans, Larry
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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