AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

ASNE Retools for the Future   

With a new executive director and a new home, the organization, like the industry it serves, is broadening its mission for the digital age. Fri., June 15, 2012.

By Michaelle Bond
Michaelle Bond (mbond@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

For Arnie Robbins, being a newspaper lover was hereditary.

"My mom and dad were avid newspaper readers," Robbins says. While growing up in the Cleveland suburbs, the recently appointed executive director of the American Society of News Editors was always on the lookout for the Plain Dealer in the morning and the now-defunct Cleveland Press in the evening.

"When I was 9 or 10, I'd ask my mom, 'Is the paper here now? Is it here now?' " says Robbins, 59. "I was an avid sports fan. I wanted to know how badly the Cleveland Indians lost the day before."

But Robbins, who stepped down as editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in May, looked at the newspapers as more than a collection of box scores of the latest baseball games. Robbins, whose ASNE appointment was announced Monday, has always loved the creativity and information he found in newspapers, he says.

After graduating from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he worked for Chicago's Suburban Trib, the Chicago Sun-Times and Minneapolis' Star Tribune, rising to editing positions at all three papers. Robbins served as editor and managing editor at the Post-Dispatch for 13 years.

ASNE, which dropped "Newspaper" from its name in favor of "News" in 2009, has fought to remain relevant during a time in which the future of printed newspapers is far from certain. The 90-year-old organization had to cancel its annual convention the year it updated its name, citing the recession's impact on the industry and the fact that attendance would have been much lower than usual.

"The internal discussion at ASNE has evolved," says Chris Peck, ASNE secretary and editor of the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "What we're really focusing on is providing leadership for journalism organizations and academic organizations and for startup journalism endeavors. There's going to be a need to help newsroom leaders for the future, which is beyond our somewhat narrower focus in the past. We're broadening out."

Last year, David Boardman, now ASNE's vice president, led a committee to discuss the organization's future. This led to the decision to move its headquarters from Reston, Virginia, to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute on the University of Missouri's campus in Columbia. And the move is about more than saving costs by operating out of Missouri instead of the pricey Washington, D.C., area.

"Reynolds is focused on innovation and how to preserve and carry forward the most essential values in journalism, including investigative journalism, the preservation of free speech and First Amendment rights, in ways that can engage the public," says Boardman, executive editor of the Seattle Times. "That aligns just perfectly with ASNE's mission, and we saw some great potential for synergy with that organization."

ASNE will join organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors and the National Freedom of Information Coalition in calling the University of Missouri home. The move, set to happen this summer, is one sign that "we're not an organization that's in retreat," Boardman says.

"We're an organization that, like the rest of the industry―particularly like the newspaper industry―has had significant challenges over the past decade, but is not hunkering down," Boardman says. "Quite the opposite. We're confident we can be of great service to the profession."

In fact, "ASNE's role is more important than ever," says Susan Goldberg, ASNE president and Bloomberg News' executive editor. "The more chaotic and changing and growing our industry is, the more we need effective and ethical leadership of these organizations... ASNE's job really is to help journalism newsroom leaders manage change and to champion excellent journalism standards. Managing change is one of the most pressing needs of newsroom editors."

And Robbins has done well in dealing with change as an editor at the Post-Dispatch, says Steve Parker, the paper's deputy managing editor for news, who has worked there since 1980. Robbins helped guide the newsroom through times of reorganization under Cole Campbell in 1999 and Ellen Soeteber in 2001, Parker says. In both cases, editors had to reapply for jobs with the paper.

"Arnie was a good person for the newsroom to turn to for sympathy and empathy and direction," says Parker, who reported directly to Robbins for more than 10 years. The ability of an editor to show this kind of leadership and understanding during difficult times "is especially important in our industry now."

Both Robbins' experience at the Post-Dispatch and his personality mesh well with his new job, Parker says. "I think it's a good move for Arnie. He's as studied and knowledgeable about the industry as anyone I know." He adds that Robbins is good at networking, "is a very likeable person and maintains strong contacts, so it doesn't surprise me that he would end up at a job like this."

ASNE didn't carry out a full-scale search for a new executive director, Goldberg says. Current Executive Director Richard Karpel decided moving to Missouri didn't work for his family. "As luck would have it, in May, as we were starting to talk about this, Arnie decided to leave his longtime employer at the Dispatch," Goldberg says. "It all just came together. It was incredibly fortunate."

As a longtime ASNE member, Robbins has served on committees and helped turn ASNE's magazine, The American Editor, into a digital product when he was co-editor for a year.

"We are thrilled that we were able to get an experienced leader, an accomplished journalist, someone who knows the history of ASNE, but is himself such an innovative thinker about the industry," Goldberg says.

Everyone in the news business is trying to figure out how to change with the times, but still be principled as they make needed changes, Robbins says.

"ASNE is not an organization that is necessarily going to have all the answers for the news industry," he says. Finding solutions is up to individual news outlets, which have unique editors, publishers, markets and ways of succeeding, he says. "But I think the organization can certainly help by helping train leadership, creating more leadership and helping editors by bringing them together to learn."

Collaboration is one reason why Anh Do, vice president of Nguoi Viet Daily News in Orange County, California, the oldest and largest Vietnamese language paper in the U.S., decided to become an ASNE member two years ago. Do says ASNE can help offer a deeper understanding not only of the news business, but also of the skills and technology that editors need moving forward.

"It's all about connections and understanding that we need not only online, but face-to-face interactions to exchange ideas," she says. "And I just really like talking to people who are passionate about engaging media and the audience."

The type of newsroom an editor has doesn't matter, she says. Everyone needs to engage not only with their audience, but also with other editors, she says.

"One thing the ASNE can offer is a personal playbook for each member, a guide for best practices and how to manage strategically," Do says. "It's sort of this vast buffet of resources, and we pick from the menu what suits our tastes and our audience, and we offer our own things to be a part of that menu as well."

ASNE's focus over the past few years has been on how to use technology, including hosting webinars "geared toward taking tools and seizing them as opportunities rather than seeing them as threats," Boardman says. The organization is also "in the middle of a serious effort to open membership across various forms of media," including digital, broadcast and academia, Boardman says. Like the industry, ASNE has taken a hit. Its membership of 450 is much smaller than it was in newspapers' glory days.

In the last few months, as part of its rebuilding, ASNE has created scholarships to further open up the organization to people who may not have thought of being members or may not have the means, the ASNE vice president says. Each board member was able to choose several potentially valuable ASNE members, Boardman says.

The publisher of Seattle-based Grist, a nonprofit online environmental magazine; the editor of the Texas Tribune, a Web site that covers government and politics; and the chairman of the University of Washington's Department of Communication are among the new members who received free membership from him, Boardman says.

ASNE's partnership with the Reynolds Journalism Institute stands to benefit both ASNE's members and the institute, Boardman says. The institute wants to do a lot of experimentation and innovation, and "our members can provide the laboratories for that experimentation," he says.

For example, the institute has developed an online tool that helps news organizations determine optimal pricing and packaging for digital subscriptions, says Randy Picht, its executive director.

"The tool allows organizations to get statistically significant feedback from users of the site about what they would like to see and how much they are willing to pay," Picht says. The institute has tested the tool at a major metropolitan paper on the West Coast and a paper in the Southeast. (Picht declined to name the papers.) The tests have been successful, Picht says, and the institute is starting to talk to other papers about using it. "So we're interested in seeing if ASNE can help us with that."

As the institute's new executive director just appointed in April, Picht says he wants "to take a lot of the great projects and knowledge that are here at the journalism institute and to bring them to the industry. Also, on the other hand, I want to reach out to the industry and find out what specific issues and problems they're having at the moment, so we can be sure that we're working on the things that will benefit the industry. ASNE is just perfect to help me and RJI do both of those things."

ASNE's partnership with the Reynolds Journalism Institute is about rebuilding and refocusing its mission, Goldberg says. It will "help us be more innovative and keep us on the cutting edge," she says. "We want to position ourselves as the thought leaders of journalism on any platform."

Says ASNE secretary Peck, "The fact that we've moved, the fact that we have a new executive director, speaks to our intent to make ASNE vital and relevant."