NCEW: 50 Years

The following material is preserved from the original AOJ website as of December 2016 and should be considered historical.

The National Conference of Editorial Writers moved its journal, Masthead, from print to online in 2011. In 2012, the organization renamed itself Association of Opinion Journalists and made Masthead freely visible online (taking it out from behind a membership-or-subscription access wall). A member began an updating of the history but was diverted by the turmoil in the industry and in his own life. This note by Masthead editor John McClelland in 2014 March 14 and April 23 now precedes the original full history by the late Ken Rystrom.

A half-century of provocative journalism

Fifty years of conventions, board of directors meetings, resolutions debated and disposed of, ideas generated and kept or discarded - all are elements of the evolution of the remarkable organization that endures, indeed thrives, as the National Conference of Editorial Writers. 

Ever since the "API 26" gathered at Columbia University in January 1947, commentary writers and editors have been stimulated and energized by the spark of mutual recognition, common cause, and professional fellowship. In the pages that follow, we invite you to savor the story of NCEW and how it grew.

NCEW stands stronger than ever

(Republished from the Fall 1996 Masthead)

By Ken Rystrom

The 50th anniversary of NCEW comes at a time when we increasingly see reminders that editorials are not the only opinion show in town.

Traditional print and broadcast opinion writers face competition from talk radio, reader-dominated opinion pages, public or civic journalism, the Internet, Sunday talk shows, and Oprah.

My reading of the almost-50-year history of "organized" editorial writing suggests that editorial writers are a resourceful, innovative, scrappy hunch who can be counted on to hang onto the the best of the old ways and grab hold of the best of the new.

They've been that way ever since their first get-together in January 1947, at American Press Institute's first seminar for editorial writers at Columbia University in New York City. Realizing now what a break-through that session turned out to be - and how much has changed in the field of editorial writing since - is hard for us.

Twenty-six editorial writers showed up at API, but when they got together again just nine months later, an incredible 101 came. That gathering in October 1947 in Washington, D.C., became the first annual conference (now called convention) of NCEW.

Until API's session, editorial writers from across the country had never assembled. One attendee of both meetings described his fellow writers as "anonymous wretches," unknown to each other and largely unknown to their readers.

Publishers and editors had been getting together at lavish conventions for decades, but editorial writers had remained "cloistered" (a description by another API participant) and didn't dare to leave their typewriters. They feared they would be seen as uppity by their bosses, assuming privileges not given to editorial writers.

Once out of the editorial closet, however, no one has been able to push the writers back in. By October 1996, they will have held an unbroken series of 50 annual NCEW conventions, each of which could match the quality of any meeting of their bosses.

By fall 1996, they also will have published 188 issues of the quarterly publication The Masthead (consistently one of the nation's most provocative journalism publications) and three anthologies. That number includes a 40th anniversary edition and this commemorative issue.

Beyond a doubt, over the decades the conventions and The Masthead have advanced the qualifications and the professional confidence of editorial writers. In the meetings and in the quarterly journal, NCEW members also have challenged their editors, their publishers, the owners of their papers, their peers, journalism educators, politicians, and their readers in a fashion that suggests to me that they can meet the challenges ahead.

For the first half of NCEW's life, about all members got for their dues were the convention and four issues per year of the publication. Those who did not attend the convention had only The Masthead, good as it was.

The first gatherings

The early conventions featured hard-working, intimate sessions. Writers listened to notable speakers and toured areas in which they were meeting, but serving as the heart of the convention from the first year were the small group critique sessions. Here, writers shared praise, criticism, and encouragement. The sessions also gave them new ideas.

Hearing writers report the following year that critique suggestions they carried home had convinced their bosses to make changes the writers had been pushing for years was not unusual - then or now.

Media critic Ben H. Bagdikian delivered one of the more memorable critiques in 1965. Eighty-eight NCEW members sent copies of their editorial pages to Bagdikian before the convention.

Reading the editorials convinced Bagdikian that "a new generation of editors is taking over," better educated than their predecessors, less inclined to spout the economic and social orthodoxies of an earlier era, and less likely to "believe the nostalgic fantasies" of the owners of some of their papers. But he expressed disappointment in the number of factual errors in editorials, the scarcity of humor, and too often the "lack of a point of view."

At that same convention, Jonathan Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer took the writers to task in a speech titled "The docility of the dignified press." He said that "the personages" who gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City every spring (the publishers and the editors) "are indistinguishable from bankers."

Looking over the Saturday night banquet crowd, he added: "You look pretty impressive yourselves."

He urged the writers to shed their stuffed shirts and "sometimes get into the hair one."

Every convention-goer has an unforgettable memory or two. 

Perhaps the most cited event, at least among old-timers, occurred in Des Moines in 1950, during a talk about farm policy by Sen. Eugene Milliken. As Dwight Sargent recalled in a look back at the first 20 years of NCEW, at one point Lauren Soth of the Des Moines Register and Tribune jumped to his feet, pointed his finger at Milliken, and shouted "Nonsense, Senator!"

Another outburst occurred at the 1965 convention during Daniels' speech. As Robert B. Frazier of the Eugene Register-Guard recalled in a Masthead reminiscence about early conventions: "In the middle of Jonathan Daniels' speech, an opinion molder, from somewhere east of the Delaware River, got up and interrupted the talk with a drunken soliloquy. The urbane Daniels replied, `My good man, every person has a place on a program, and yours is departure.' The fellow did depart, checked out of the hotel by morning, and has never been heard from since."

From time to time the editorial writers considered meeting regularly in Washington, D.C., as do some other newspaper groups. But with three exceptions, members have preferred to move around to see what is going on in other parts of the country.

They almost have been to the four corners, from San Diego to Boston, from Tampa to San Francisco. They got cold feet in 1961 after initially deciding to go to Hawaii and ended up in St. Louis. They did get to Honolulu in 1973 and to Canada in 1977 and 1987.

Convention speakers have included H.L. Mencken, President Lyndon Johnson, would-be president George Romney, Vice President Richard Nixon, Senator Barry Goldwater, then-Governor Ronald Reagan, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Senator Albert Gore Sr., and Senator Albert Gore Jr. when he was a candidate for vice president. A highlight of the first convention (then called a conference) came at the White House with President Harry Truman.

And the list of writers who have participated in the conventions or written for The Masthead is impressive. Attending the API session were notables such as Robert H. Estabrook of The Washington Post, James Russell Wiggins of The New York Times (later of The Washing-ton Post), John Cline of the (old) Washington Star, Leslie Moore of The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and Paul Trescott of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

Among the early convention-goers were Barry Bingham Sr. of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, Dwight Sargent of the New York Herald Tribune, Robert Kennedy of the Chicago Sun-Times, Rufus Terral of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and James J. Kilpatrick of The Richmond News Leader.

No fewer than 16 Pulitzer Prize winners have contributed to The Masthead, and a large but unknown number of them have attended conventions. Over the years, the authors of five editorial writing textbooks have both attended conventions and written for The Masthead.

The professional journal

Volume I, Number 1 of The Masthead appeared in Spring 1949, even though three issues of four or six mimeographed pages had been been published in 1948. In the 185 issues published through Winter 1995, a total of 4,715 articles and pieces of artwork appeared.

Most have been long forgotten but many, if rediscovered, would seem as fresh today as they were when published.

One of my favorite articles concerned the validity of anonymous editorials - a subject still being discussed on some newspapers today. Sam Reynolds of The Missoulian coined the phrase "editorial transubstantiation" to describe the belief (incredible to him) that an unsigned editorial can express the opinion of something so impersonal as a newspaper. It was like the leap of faith, he said, that is involved in believing that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the blood and body of Christ.

In another favorite but entirely different article, Al Southwick of The Worcester Telegram offered advice on how to write an editorial about the world of nature. He appended a charming example titled "Cider - the nectar of October."

The content of The Masthead has changed over the decades, reflecting how editorial writing and NCEW have changed.

During the earliest years, large numbers of articles were directed toward improving the quality of editorials and the editorial pages. The authors were not much concerned about design, columnists, cartoons, or letters. Then in the 1970s, with the arrival of cold type and offset printing, Masthead articles began concentrating more on the mechanics of putting out the editorial page.

Diversity, new technology, and alternatives to traditional editorial pages comprise recent symposiums, as well as articles with appeal to the broadened NCEW membership that now includes broadcast opinion writers, columnists, editorial page editors, and journalism educators in 48 states (all but Nevada and South Dakota) plus Canada, England, Mexico, Norway, and Sweden.

In one aspect, The Masthead has changed little.

Over the decades about one in every six articles has offered advice on how to write editorials on some subject or other. The most written-about subjects have been fairly consistent: international, politics, and humor - the last no doubt as a relief from the other two.

But what has changed is the production of The Masthead. For nearly 30 years, the quarterly publication was typewritten, proofed, and reproduced from material provided by a volunteer editor to Executive Services, operated by Christian and Ruth Nelson. The firm's principals - Joan and Christopher, along with Jan Stinson - have extensive experience in journalism and in publication of periodicals. The cover for the spring issue was always green, the summer blue, the fall tan, the winter white, with a few exceptions for special editions.

The original NCEW logo was the only artwork on the cover until the late '60s when a photograph of the officers appeared on the winter issue. The pages were stapled - no artwork inside, of course. As homely as it was. The Masthead was widely regarded as a meaty newspaper journal.

Eventually the need for The Masthead to be printed and become more attractive graphically became clear. Today's members may have difficulty realizing what a risk we ran in going to Ruth to tell her we were going elsewhere for the printing.

Part of the difficulty came because we also relied on Ruth to keep track of the membership and to help run the conventions. Publishing The Masthead helped subsidize these services. Fortunately, she stayed with NCEW until her retirement in 1977. 

 Cora Everett, who was office manager for Executive Services, took over the NCEW account. She was later joined by her daughter Tomi Fontaine. Together with Cora's husband Tom Everett, they established Everett Associates to manage the NCEW/NCEW Foundation headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Since 1988, The Masthead has been professionally produced by Armour&Armour in Nashville, which submitted the best competitive bid to the Ad Hoc Masthead Review Committee in 1987. (New members may not realize that "Armour&Armour" refers to Joan Armour and Christopher Armour, the wife and son of NCEW life member and former president Lloyd Armour.)

The firm designs the publication, giving the volunteer editor more time to devote to content. The Masthead to-day retains the same high quality it had when every page contained nothing but typewritten characters.

Review, reform, activism

As the years went by, the conventions attracted more and more participants - and became more expensive. While critiques remained a vital part of the convention, the programs began to focus on big-name speakers, recreational excursions, and hosted cocktail parties.

In San Diego in 1968 the free drinks, an evening cruise, and speeches by an admiral and Governor Ronald Reagan with several of his entourage led to a controversy about the acceptance of freebies. The following year, in Indianapolis, a revolt regarding the nomination process led to the appointment of a Review Committee, charged with taking a look at the convention and the organization.

The Review Committee recommended getting back to basics at the conventions and democratizing the organization. Until then, an inner clique had controlled nominations for officers - with one person nominated for each position and the four main officers assured of advancement up the ladder.

The committee proposed putting up two candidates for secretary and for each board position. Automatic advancement beyond secretary was not changed. The changes were adopted.

The Review Committee also suggested tightening The Statement of Principles, especially relating to conflicts of interest. It also advised the organization to speak out on issues of concern to the newspaper business.

This rethinking of NCEW's role did not take place in vacuum. The San Diego convention came a couple of months after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Vietnam War and civil rights pro-esters had demonstrated. Some of the concerns identified by the Review Committee later surfaced in new norm during the Watergate hearings in 1973.

Members of NCEW prided themselves that the group was not a "resoluting organization." They liked going to conventions, sharing and debating ideas with each other, without having to vote or reach a consensus - unlike editorial board meetings back home. They resisted having the organization speak out.

But in the spirt of the times, NCEW eventually did speak out - briefly. In 1974 the organization's first public statement (by the executive board) expressed concern about testimony in the Watergate hearings that a nationally syndicated columnist had received money from the Republicans (for writing speeches for Martha Mitchell, wife of the attorney general) without informing his syndicate or his newspaper subscribers. In filing a complaint against the columnist, NCEW became the first newspaper organization to deal with the now-defunct National News Council. The Council found in NCEW's favor.

That same year NCEW also called attention to potential conflicts of interest among other columnists. As a result of pressure from NCEW, major syndicates agreed to notify newspaper editors when conflicts of interest arose among their columnists and when readers had legitimate complaints about what the columnists have written. (But 20 years later, as an article in The Masthead reported, a recheck of the syndicates found that they had lapsed into their old patterns.)

NCEW also expressed concern when it learned in the 1970s that the CIA was using journalists as spies. Recent news reports indicate the CIA would like to continue to do so.

The radicalism of the late 1960s and the idealism of the Watergate era faded, and so did NCEW's flirtation with speaking out.

New directions

NCEW did not stop trying to open new frontiers. The group found other ways to help members.

President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had not been back long from their opening gambit in China before NCEW officers began knocking on Beijing's door, trying to arrange a tour for members. Repeated annual efforts finally paid off in 1980. The trip was so successful that the organization began to sponsor a tour abroad each year.

The idea of regional editorial writing conferences at first was viewed with apprehension since some felt they might draw participation away from the national convention. For a while several regions held meetings, which did not seem to affect convention attendance, but regionals seem to have peaked and waned.

Members may exchange copies of their editorial pages to share ideas through the "Page Exchange." Other member services today include providing a mentoring link between new members and experienced NCEW members, and offering critique services for newspaper and broadcast editorial operations.

For several years The Masthead has carried a series of "special reports" dealing with current issues - subjects like syndicated columnists, editorial page readership, and the job newspapers are doing in commenting on international issues.

In conjunction with the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, NCEW offered a series of seminars on timely foreign and domestic issues from 1982 to 1993. The Knight Center for Specialized Journalism now sponsors the December seminar.

Together with the National Broadcast Editorial Association and the National Association of Black Journalists, NCEW established the Ida B. Wells Award for exceptional service in hiring and training minorities. The award is given in alternate years at the NCEW convention.

In 1981, Reese Cleghorn spearheaded the establishment of the NCEW Foundation to "conduct, sponsor, and support educational programs and projects in the field of journalism." The Foundation annually salutes a journalism educator who recruits and trains minority students through the Barry Bingham Sr. Fellowship. It also provides scholarships for students to attend NCEW's annual convention, funds research studies, and sponsors professional meetings and educational workshops such as the Minority Writers Seminar to at-tract experienced minority writers into opinion writing.

Twenty-some years after the first steps toward democratizing NCEW's elections, members voted in 1994 to allow absentee ballots beginning with the 1995 election of officers. This extended the vote to all members, not just the convention-goers.

And NCEW enjoys a lively and growing presence on the Internet and the information superhighway, with both a Web page and a network of intra-NCEW correspondence by e-mail.

The point is that NCEW and its members have experimented with a lot of ideas, projects, and programs over the years. Concepts have been adopted, adapted, and abandoned to meet changing times and interests.

But in the most important sense of all, NCEW has not changed. For nearly 50 years, it has provided a support group, a conscience, and a poke-in-the-rear for opinion writers. Today, as an organization it is as healthy in membership, leadership, and staff support is it has ever been.

The challenge now is to draw upon the wisdom and ingenuity of its members to preserve, protect, and promote the well-being and the integrity of the opinion function in the revolution now taking place in the media. How we respond will determine whether we keep our jobs writing opinions (for whatever medium) or lose out to the babble of the Internet.

On the basis of my assessment of NCEW's history, I'm betting on the editorial writers.

NCEW life member Ken Rystrom [was] professor of communication studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. Before leaving the newspaper field, he was editorial page editor of The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash.