A New Leader for the American Press Institute  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

A New Leader for the American Press Institute   

Tom Rosenstiel will leave the Project for Excellence in Journalism to plot a new future for the respected but struggling organization. Mon., November 19, 2012.

By Allison Goldstein
AJR editorial assistant Allison Goldstein (agoldstein@ajr.umd.edu) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

As its newly appointed executive director, Tom Rosenstiel plans to steer the American Press Institute from highly respected training organization to innovative, problem-solving think tank. By bringing together the best minds from different fields, the new API will expand its research efforts and also offer training as one part of the organization's re-envisioned future.

"Training becomes part of this circle of intellectual ferment," says Rosenstiel, founder and director of Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "So there's research, there's convening, there's training and there's also talking and writing to refine these ideas."

Rosenstiel's appointment announcement today was accompanied by a statement outlining API's broader mission. "In addition to training the next generation of leaders in the news media industry, the American Press Institute will substantially expand its efforts in research, developing best practices, and bringing people together to help journalism and newspaper media remain a sustainable safeguard of democracy and communities," the organization said in a press release.

Since its 1946 beginnings at Columbia University, API long reigned as the go-to organization for useful, inspiring seminars for newspaper executives. This year, API's executive director role was left vacant following the organization's February merger with the trade group Newspaper Association of America Foundation. Without a leader of its own, API teamed up with Poynter News University to launch the "Transformation Tour" that began earlier this fall in Salt Lake City. The tour, a series of modified two-day versions of API's well-respected two-week-long training seminars, kept API alive while it searched for its new leader.

Rosenstiel, an author and former chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, starts his new job January 1. He plans to shape the future of API by first learning from those who helped build it. "I think they have much to teach me," he says. "The goal is to make API as valuable to the future of journalism as it can be. I have always felt you figure out the future by first figuring out what was valuable in past."

In a changing industry, learning from the past may have its limitations. That's why Rosenstiel, who co-founded the Committee of Concerned Journalists, will also find out how API can best serve the news industry going forward. He plans to "go out and talk to people and listen to them about what it is they need. What is a newspaper in the 21st century is changing fairly dramatically and as a consequence what [newspaper companies] need is changing," he says.

Defining a newspaper is not as easy as it used to be, and the term "newspaper" may soon have more to do with community function than newsprint. "I think in the end we may be more focused on the work that is done than what is the means of delivery," Rosenstiel says.

But it will likely be a challenge to fulfill the needs of professionals in an industry where such critical definitions are evolving. The API of the past struggled when faced with declining newspaper profits and a falloff in seminar attendance. Ultimately, operating expenses far exceeded API's revenue despite attempts to build partnerships with universities and restructure seminars. Perhaps as a result of API's hardships of the past, the new API is embracing a new approach, focused partly on training but also on collaboration, research and solutions.

"This is, in many ways, a dream come true: to be able to create, at a critical moment, an applied think tank to help the industry move forward. The best ideas are the ideas that everyone wants to feel. They may come from people with an engineering background or a business innovation background," Rosenstiel says. "I think what you want to do is find these fertile minds and bring them to bear with other fertile minds to say we all have a vested interest in there being a healthy journalism."

The new executive director says he will not abandon the elements that shaped API in the past, but instead build on them. And that kind of forward thinking is a big part of his approach to the new role. "Given the pace of change in news, it can be very disorienting, and the important question is, 'Which way do you stand?' Do you look back and say, 'Look at all the things that we can't do that we used to do.' Or do you look forward and say, 'Look at all the things that we can do now that we couldn't do before.' You have to look forward because otherwise the future is going to blindside you. You can't drive the car looking in the backseat."