AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013  issue

Reinventing the American Press Institute   

A casualty of the decline of the newspaper industry, the highly regarded journalism training organization was absorbed earlier this year by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation. Is there a vibrant future for API in the digital era? Wed., November 21, 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.     

For newsmen and women who fondly remember the days of worthwhile training seminars on the company dime, nothing seemed to spur quite the collective disappointment as the loss of a 66-year-old midcareer training institute with a historic reputation.

With seminars geared toward newspaper executives but available for every department from circulation to production, the American Press Institute in its prime offered learning programs led by nearly a dozen discussion leaders over a two-week period. At the cost of $600 in 1974 and $995 in API's later years, newsrooms from around the country sent their top dogs to learn best practices and return with new visions for the paper. But when the newspaper industry began to decline in the digital age, funds for sending employees to off-site seminars were in short supply. The API model became unsustainable.

In January, API announced plans to merge with the nonprofit Newspaper Association of America Foundation, the foundation of the trade group for publishers. The fallout: API's headquarters at the modernist Marcel Breuer-designed building in Reston, Virginia, would be vacated; its staff of eight would lose their jobs; and NAA would acquire API's $9.4 million endowment.

That acquisition of assets appeared to many longtime API devotees to indicate a takeover rather than a merger. Those who recognized API as the heavyweight of media training feel as though an old-media essential has been swallowed whole. For now, API operates out of NAA's Arlington offices the old Reston headquarters is about to be put on the market and has launched a series of two-day seminars designed to boost local news outlets' audience and revenue.

In November, API hired Tom Rosenstiel as its new executive director to begin January 1. Rosenstiel's vision for the organization means a move toward a think tank model, where training is one part of a more complex API future. That future includes working to find solutions to problems the changing industry faces and expanding the organization's role in research.

The first concern of API, says Rosenstiel, the longtime director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, will be to further the Founders' First Amendment goals for the public to have access to independent, reliable information about civic life. "How do we as a society have that going forward? That is the essential goal and has always been the essential goal of the American Press Institute," he says.

Another challenge will be ensuring that API doesn't abandon its storied history, but builds upon it. Its model, though, has to change with changing times. "The way that you deliver training, the way that you train, the way that you lead shifts over time," Rosenstiel says. "We live in an era now when leadership is about listening more than it was a generation ago. We live in an age when a leader's knowledge becomes antiquated more quickly than it did when technology moved more slowly. To ensure that there's an industry to lead, there are other new issues economic models, revenue and sustainability that have to be part of the conversation. This is an age that demands innovation and adaptability."

The new API is seeking a clear direction for the future focused not only on print newspapers, but also their Web sites and mobile platforms.

Regardless of what the future may hold, many longstanding API fans feel bereft. "No matter what NAA and its allies now say the American Press Institute is dead. It is gone," says William L. Winter, API's president and executive director for 16 years until 2003. "Only its endowment, historic Marcel Breuer building and valuable land remain, all now in the clutches of NAA. Nor will the amazing quality and positive impact of its programs ever be duplicated within the news industry."

With much silence surrounding the merger, questions of how an organization can disappear after years of influential seminars and notable discussion leaders former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, the late Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poynter Institute Chairman Eugene Patterson and countless others went largely unanswered. And because API staff signed severance agreements that prevented them from talking about what had transpired, the silence left many questioning the process.

"No matter the rhetoric that followed, the reality is that the decision was made to kill API and give its valuable endowment, building and land to NAA," Winter said in an e-mail interview. "It's a mystery why the API and NAA boards did not convene a final celebration of the institute's many contributions to newspapering. They should have done that, then they should [have] given the place a decent burial, with an appropriate ceremony at API's historic headquarters building in Reston. This is an absolute no-brainer. Why did this not happen? Why has it still not happened?"

Summit Consulting Group President Alan Weiss, who worked with API both on strategy and as a discussion leader for more than 20 years, agrees that there may have been better alternatives to address API's financial challenges. "I think that if you went to the founding members of the API and also some other key players and said, 'Think of the value this organization can bring to you in the future. We want you to help plan that future,' they would have gotten a decent response," Weiss says. "I think that might have worked, but I don't know that anyone on the board had the innovation and initiative to take that kind of request and to use that kind of influence."

To those like Weiss and Winter who saw no proper goodbye, the merger seemed a hasty end to a prominent, decades-old institute that gave birth to countless cases of journalism inspiration.

"I think in anything like this you want to express regret, you want to give some feeling for the future, you want to acknowledge the value that's been provided, you want to solicit input. To me, I think [the API/NAA merger] was just sort of announced as an afterthought," Weiss says. "There was no regard for the fact that a key institution in the industry was in fact disappearing."

But Jim Moroney III, Dallas Morning News publisher and CEO and an API and NAA board member at the time of the merger, believes the API board did what it could to preserve the institute by positioning it for success as part of NAA. "The board of API should be congratulated for finding a way to put the organization in a place where it can do things that can better the industry," he says.

"Every person on the API board for the three years I was on it, including the staff, did everything they could and worked very hard to try to find a way to keep the API independent," Moroney says. "But at some point, it became clear that our fiduciary responsibility on the board was that we preserve the financial assets of the institution. And the best solution we could find was the merger with the NAA Foundation."

Winter's successor, Drew Davis, who retired from API in 2011 after eight years as president and executive director, says that plans for API to cooperate with NAA had been in the works for several years, dating back to an April 2009 meeting. Given the newspaper industry's tough financial circumstances, API's diminishing revenue, the overlap of API and NAA board members and the strong relationship between the two organizations, collaborating with NAA seemed to Davis an idea worth exploring.

In 2009, the executive directors and the board chairmen of NAA, API, Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Suburban Newspapers of America and Inland Press Association met around a board table in Chicago, Davis says. "We all agreed that it was a good idea for the assorted associations of the newspaper industry to work more closely together, and as a result of that meeting, Inland and Suburban Newspapers got together on their conferences, and the boards of API and NAA began discussing ways to cooperate more fully. We had a huge overlap on the boards, and over the next two years the idea developed," Davis says.

With financial concerns in mind, three API board members and three from NAA teamed up in 2010 to consider the notion of combining the two organizations. The subcommittee hired Washington, D.C., consulting firm Water Street Partners to analyze the structure and financials of the potential merger, Davis says.

"I supported the merger idea to leverage the history, missions, overlapping membership base and focus of both organizations at a time of change in the industry," says Davis, now executive director of the Reserve Officers Association of the United States.

Due to the steep decline in newspaper ad revenue in recent years, many media companies cut back on sending employees to one- or two-week off-site training programs like those API offered. The training institute's revenue declined. To survive, API needed to move toward a model where the costs to run its programs did not outweigh the money they brought in.

API's board and management worked to develop new training initiatives that could pay for themselves, Moroney says. But none of those new approaches like offering newspaper consulting services, one-day seminars, increased digital media training or partnerships with universities could save the organization, says Thomas Silvestri, API board chairman at the time of the merger.

Instead, API was spending a lot more money than it recouped. Annual expenses exceeded the annual draw from the endowment and none of the new programs seemed to rekindle API's success of the past.

Over the four-year period from 2008 through 2011, API's operating expenses greatly exceeded its revenue. Operating revenue totaled $3.5 million and investment interest and dividends $1.2 million during that period, while API spent $11.1 million on operating expenses, according to figures provided by Moroney and Margaret Vassilikos, NAA executive vice president and CFO. API spent $1.8 million on staff salaries and benefits in 2008. Two years later, the institute's total revenue was only two-thirds of its then $1.2 million eight-employee price tag.

"The very problem was that the organization couldn't support the level of staff that it had. We couldn't continue to operate in this fashion," Moroney says. "If we moved the whole thing over to the NAA Foundation, we wouldn't have solved the crisis. The fact was that it was the responsibility of the board to deal with the financial crisis that the organization was in and save some of the endowment funds. That's what we did by merging it into the NAA Foundation."

"Nobody came on the board that didn't try hard to keep API as an independent organization," Moroney continues. "This was not taken lightly.... It was more of the final solution we could find as opposed to being capricious or expeditious in coming to this conclusion."

Robert Weil, vice chairman of the API board at the time of the merger and vice president of operations at McClatchy, says there was extensive thought about how to proceed and the decision was not made rashly. "I think there's an emotional attachment to API, which has caused some heartburn for a few people, but the economic reality made it absolutely necessary to do something different," Weil says. "It's unfortunate, but it's part of the changing landscape which has forced every newspaper, and all media for that matter, to do business in a different way."

Silvestri, who is publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, also stressed the board's effort to maintain the organization's autonomy. "Like newspapers and other types of companies that were forced to reinvent, there are always other options on the table... Do you become an innovation shop? Are you a collaboration of ideas? Do you inform top decision makers? As long as I was on the board, there were always other options and some business plans developed. But time ran out."

Eventually the merger came to a vote by the API board a vote that Moroney recalls being unanimous, or nearly so. According to merger documents AJR obtained from the State Corporation Commission of Virginia, the merger was approved by a vote of at least two-thirds of the API Board of Directors.

Now that the NAA has taken over fiduciary responsibility for API's assets, Moroney says he hopes that the NAA board can, over time, find a way to redefine API's mission in a way that is sustainable.

But Winter wonders if others could have found a different solution. "The many media professionals I heard from after API's demise were most disappointed at the seeming lack of creativity applied to finding a new path for the institute, and at the lack of communication by the NAA and API boards to the institute's supporters who, if asked, certainly could have helped fashion better long-term solutions," he says.

"It used to be that the API board was populated mainly by women and men who had been both API seminar attendees and discussion leaders. These executives had a deep understanding of the power of the 'API experience.' For whatever reasons in its last few years, the institute's board had far fewer such people. The guess by friends of API, then, is that there was less knowledge of and loyalty to the best of API's traditions, process and practices on the institute's board as the place struggled financially through the past few years than had been the case previously."

As an API alumnus-turned-board-member, Silvestri feels his loyalty is intact. "I always valued what API provided the industry and provided me in particular," he says. "I've valued every experience and, just like the St. Louis Cardinals would like to have gone on to the World Series, many of us would have liked API to have gone on forever. I think our industry is composed of a lot of impatient people, and if there's impatience for a new solution, I think that's an honest emotion."

Silvestri suggests that the NAA foster that emotion to gather thoughts on how the API legacy can live on. "I think what you're hearing from the [API] alumni," he says, "is that it isn't over yet."

Several other API board members declined to comment for this story or failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact them.

"The best way to sum up API in my opinion is: If it didn't exist, the newspaper industry would have to invent it," says Madelyn P. Jennings, retired senior vice president of personnel at Gannett. Jennings was on the API board for more than a decade, serving five of those years as vice chairman, until her 1995 retirement.

In recalling API's history as the newspaper industry's go-to organization for career and leadership training, Jennings describes the seminars' attendees as members of "a very special fraternity."

September 1946 marked the first API seminar, held at Columbia University for about two dozen newspaper editors. Sevellon Brown, editor and publisher of the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin, had thought up the idea for a newspaper industry midcareer training institute 10 years earlier.

API's founders represented 38 newspapers from around the country. Under Floyd Taylor, the organization's first director, the institute gave itself only two years to succeed or else shut down. But nearly 30 years of success had followed by the time of API's 1974 move from its original home in New York to the Marcel Breuer building in Reston in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where it remained until earlier this year.

During the years since 1946, 42,000 editors and newspaper executives have attended API seminars; hundreds have served as discussion leaders. Attendees were drawn to API seminars originally two weeks in length and eventually shortened to five days to spend time away from the office among industry professionals, to challenge one another, to learn journalism's best practices and to return to their papers with fresh perspective and new ideas.

API held seminars with themes for new publishers and editors, and its later years offered seminars like "The Next Generation of Media Managers," "The Power of Social Media" and "Growing SMB (Small, Medium Business) Advertising."

"The quality of the trainers, the quality of the staff, the support of both big and small companies in the U.S., [API] was unique for those reasons, and people had a good time when they got there," Jennings says. "They had a chance to share their own experiences. They had a chance to address major issues facing them and get some quality help from others. It really added a great deal to our industry."

Frank Quine, who directed API for eight years until 1987, remembers his time at the organization fondly, not only as a leader, but also as an attendee.

His introduction to API came at a 1967 seminar for sports editors. Quine had been sent there by the now-defunct St. Petersburg Evening Independent, where he had recently been appointed sports editor. He remembers feeling inspired by the two-week trip to Columbia University.

Years later, in the 1970s, Quine ran two API seminars that were attended by Philip Merrill, the man for whom the University of Maryland's journalism school was named in 2001. Merrill had just purchased the Annapolis Capital newspaper and decided to attend an API seminar for publishers. Later, he'd attend another API seminar, this time on management and costs. Quine never expected that a decade later, when he came to work as assistant dean at the University of Maryland's J-school, bumping into Merrill would become a common occurrence. Merrill's wife, Ellie, was a longtime fixture on the journalism school's Board of Visitors.

"When I would run into [Merrill], he always said, 'Frank, that API seminar was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in terms of publishing.' Phil was a blustery guy who would say that kind of thing every time, but his attendance at those seminars were really a great transformation for him."

To Quine, a former vice president of AJR, that kind of transformation stemmed directly from API's mission. "We brought these wonderful people together, facilitated discussions among them and sent them home to their newsrooms hoping they would be better managers and editors," he says.

But the wherewithal to run programs that sent better-trained managers home dwindled over the years, and the perceived value of such training seemingly waned along with it.

"It just seems to me it's a sign of the times in terms of the economic pressures that the industry is facing," Jennings says, "and it's unfortunate that the one thing you need the most is what gets affected in hard times. That's training and development of people. The story's been told over and over, and at the very best companies that doesn't happen, but that's happened here."

In August, more than six months after the merger was completed, API announced the launch of its Transformation Tour. The tour is a joint project of API and the Poynter Institute that promises, according to an NAA press release, "to provide game-changing strategies for newspaper leaders to grow audience, develop content and drive revenue." The themes mesh well with API's new approach: a digital-friendly focus for newspaper companies.

The series of workshops began in September, with plans to run events based around seven topics, including "pricing strategies" and "community connections," through April 2013. Salt Lake City was the site of the tour's first two stops, with each session videotaped and distributed through online e-modules on a new API section of Poynter's News University.

Clark Gilbert served as leader of the tour's first two workshops, "Transformative Content Strategies" and "Transformative Business Models." Both were held at Salt Lake City's Deseret News, where Gilbert is CEO and president of the News and Deseret Digital Media. Gilbert, whom NAA and API President and CEO Caroline Little describes as a "dynamic, encouraging and exciting teacher and speaker," is also a former Harvard Business School professor.

Born from an effort to keep API's values and traditions alive, the idea for the tour emerged as the NAA and API boards looked for a strategic plan to move the organization forward.

"A lot of the companies that had invested in API were members of the NAA, and they had common interests, if you will, to preserve the values of API, recognizing that training and best practices is a really big part of it," Little says.

Little says she and her colleagues thought, "How can we really reinvent API, sticking to those core training values of it, but in a way that really satisfies a changing industry? So the Transformation Tour was born out of that."

The tour offers a small forum for sharing best practices and asking questions of others in a common market. According to Little, who was unable to attend the first workshop but was at the sold-out second one in late October, feedback from attendees and staff has been positive.

API plans to assess what works well and what's less successful at these first few events. It will use that information to guide the institute's evolution when its new executive director, Tom Rosenstiel, steps in first thing next year. "I will be doing a lot of talking, including to the people who helped build API in the past," Rosenstiel says. "I think they have much to teach me. 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."

Poynter and API's new partnership dates back to a different project announced in June. That initiative, which has not yet launched but will eventually provide digital tools training through workshops and webinars, is funded by a $1.5 million endowment at the new Poynter Foundation. But despite the recent creation of the foundation, the money isn't quite as fresh. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation originally gave that $1.5 million to API years earlier.

"This is a $1.5 million endowment that Knight Foundation gave to the American Press Institute. API is now giving the funding to the new Poynter Foundation because Knight and API wanted to support Poynter and partner with them to do cutting-edge digital tools training," says Andrew Sherry, vice president of communications at the Knight Foundation.

"The new API and Knight Foundation agreed that the portion of the API endowment donated by the Knight Foundation could best help newspapers keep up with new digital editorial tools through training in partnership with the Poynter Institute which already has more than 220,000 registered users in the nation's premiere e-learning network for journalists, News University. There is no other journalistic training organization with that kind of reach, not to mention its strong digital focus," Sherry says.

The API/Poynter efforts are aimed at helping to move journalism training into a new era. But can less face time and more e-modules and videotaped sessions yield the same results? Little says that although there is high value in personal interaction, a lot of information can be exchanged over video and webinars, so the tour offers a good mix of both of approaches.

As far as reaching out to the broader world of online-only news organizations not associated with newspapers (think Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post), Little says, "Certainly API will focus on the overall health of the news industry, but its roots are in newspaper media and it will concentrate primarily on that understanding that best practices and training in newspaper media is applicable to the news industry."

Some have argued that the new API should have a new name. One nominee: American Media Institute, in part because "media" would more appropriately match the broader range of news outlets API now aims to serve, but also because the change may help preserve API's legacy. Little says that while some think that a name change may serve the organization well, others think that the word "press" carries a connection to distinct journalism values that need to live on. Regardless, a name change is not in the works at the moment while the organization focuses on its first priority establishing a new incarnation of API, Little says.

Whether the new API will reenergize the world of journalism training remains to be seen. But for many who built their careers on tools learned, ideas discussed and relationships built at API's seminars of the past, the likelihood of restoring API to its former glory seems unlikely.

Little, though, is more optimistic. "I think we live in a really, really interesting world right now, with so many opportunities and, yes, a lot of challenges," she said. "But I'm just looking forward to how we can help the industry."