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The listserv--a convention that never, ever, disbands ... Weigh in, seek advice, share ideas, and connect with peers.

"It's Saturday morning, September 20, the last day of the Providence convention. The membership will choose new officers at the annual meeting this afternoon. So far today, I've been monitoring discussions about the best structure for editorial boards and on the handling of predictably one-sided letters to the editor about abortion.

However, I'm not at the convention. I'm home, getting ready to get ready to go to a wedding (not mine, mind you, but an important one anyway). And the discussions I've been tracking are on NCEW'S e-mail discussion list, casually referred to by participants as the listserv. ("LISTSERV[C]" is actually a trade name of L-Soft International, Inc., even if the world in general seems to treat it as a generic term.) And the fact that the discussions continue even as the convention reaches a climax I find personally gratifying; it's been my baby since now-retired member Don Coe kindly allowed NCEW to mount it on the server of the University of Illinois at Chicago about eight years ago.

The listserv has, in fact, turned into a sort of year-round demi-convention, an oft-seized opportunity for members to weigh in on professional issues, seek advice on sticky policy questions, share useful ideas, and generally connect with their counterparts across the continent (and sometimes beyond) whenever the mood strikes or need arises.

It also has made NCEW immediately accessible to people in small shops that may seldom have the opportunity to attend an annual convention or talk to another editorialist--a daily presence in their working lives.

The exchanges have touched on a wide array of topics and have involved, at times, as many as a dozen or more members offering their views. Sometimes there is consensus, sometimes constructive disagreement. Sometimes the disagreements are more enlightening--showing that there's more than one good way to do the job, depending on a paper's or TV station's circumstances. Sometimes the exchanges have been of sufficient quality as to merit re-publication, on NCEW's website or here in The Masthead. As one member said a couple of years ago (on the listserv), the listserv alone was worth the price of membership.

It hasn't always gone so smoothly. Limited as discussers are to the pace and vagaries of email, at least they can't all talk at once (as we tend to do on controversial subjects at my shop's editorial board meetings). But online discussions are famously vulnerable to what was early on called "flaming"--sometimes-unintended angry discourse. NCEW discussions have been no exception.

The purpose of the organization--and the listserv--is to foster members' professional development, raise the quality of print and broadcast editorializing, and win recognition for the service that opinion journalism performs. But occasionally a strong political opinion slips into the mix, which gets urgently rebutted, and then vigorously defended, and further rebutted, until doubts about the intellectual or moral capacity of the opponent are subtly raised, and shortly there's a free-for-all.

And there's never any resolution, because each of the participants is deeply and irrevocably committed to his or her view.

What there is, eventually, is a return to civility--which is what the list is, thankfully, normally governed by.

Fortunately, there haven't been any knock-down, drag-outs lately.

Starting this fall, hosting of the list has been shifted from the University of Illinois to a server at NCEW's new headquarters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, running another brand of software--not LISTSERV[C]. But not without glitches: Because of a programming snafu, I--the father of the child, yet--and others were inadvertently (and temporarily) dropped from list membership shortly before the convention.

But no matter: With HQ staff handling administration of the list now, I'm off that hook. And they managed to get me back onto the listserv before the convention began, so I could continue to enjoy the conversation with other NCEW members even though I and they couldn't be in Providence.

Now if I can just make myself stop calling it the listserv....

Phineas Fiske is assistant editor of the Newsday editorial pages and chair of NCEW's Technology Committee. E-mail
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Title Annotation:Masthead Symposium
Author:Fiske, Phineas R.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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