How ASNE has become similar to ONA (and vice-versa)

By Ben Mullin
Naughton Fellow
The Poynter Institute
Oct. 15, 2014 
A quick scan of the program from September's American Society of News Editors convention might lead you to believe you'd stumbled into the wrong Chicago hotel.

Sessions like “What Can We Learn from Startups?” and “How to Succeed at Mobile Before It's Too Late,” seem as if they'd be more at home at the
Online News Association conference, an annual gathering of digital journalists, which was held in the same town about a week later.

The ASNE/APME convention at the Hyatt Regency along the Chicago River was a collection of 362 leading newspaper editors and academics, plus 100 students. The ONA conference, held at a hotel just a short walk east, was a gathering of 1,882 journalists, developers, gamers, entrepreneurs, and heads of startups. 

Those contrasts symbolize the organizations' varying legacies and missions. ASNE, for example, is nearly a century old and was conceptualized by ink-stained editors hiking through Glacier National Park. ONA is 15 years old, and was born at a less pastoral location — O'Hare International Airport. ASNE mentions the word “newspaper” nine times in its mission statement. That word doesn't appear once in ONA's mission statement. ASNE's very existence seemed in doubt just a few years ago. ONA's conference has seen a 117 percent increase in conference attendance over the last five years.

Despite their very different pulp and pixels histories, however, the organizations' nearly back-to-back national conventions had more in common than just being in nearby riverfront hotels. Their members were searching for new ways to reach larger audiences, contemplating the stampeding growth of news consumption on mobile devices and trying to figure how they could monetize those readers. And there was at least one big, similar question hanging over both conventions: What does a sustainable business model for journalism look like?

ASNE vice president Pam Fine, who co-chaired this year's convention, said the organization has tried to step up its Web-focused sessions as digital transformation becomes increasingly urgent for newspaper editors throughout the country.

“In the last couple of years, we've recognized through our programming the importance of audience metrics, of digital storytelling, of mobile,” said Fine, who is also the Knight chair in news, leadership and community at the University of Kansas. “Our critical mission is to help news leaders develop effective content across multiple platforms, and digital is key to that.”

ASNE has taken several steps to put Web literacy near the top of its agenda in recent years. It
dropped “paper” from its name in 2009 to be more inclusive of digital editors. It has also added a series of prominent digital editors to its board, including Stomping Ground Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jim Brady (2011) ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg (2012) and Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw (2014).

The emphasis on digital has been attractive to foundation funders. In September, The McCormick Foundation committed $250,000 to
an ASNE program designed around increasing news literacy in the Internet age. That same month, ASNE announced an $85,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to hold a series of conferences designed to help editors adopt digital tools in their newsrooms. As part of the grant, ASNE will host digital-focused sessions at its annual conventions for the next three years. Disclaimer: Some of this money will go toward hosting Webinars at Poynter, where I work.

ASNE's current strategy was born from a period of financial turmoil that mirrored the downturn in newspapers. In 2011, facing declining membership dues, foundation grants and convention revenue, the organization was in trouble. It had canceled its annual convention in 2009 —
for the first time since World War II — because of a predicted drop in attendance. Leaders held a special meeting at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where they asked each other a critical question: was there any point in the organization existing anymore?

“After the full brunt of the recession in 2008, essentially what was happening to ASNE and many other trade groups was the class structure of the organization was really out of touch with what was going on with other news organizations,” said Chris Peck, president of ASNE.

The answer came back quickly, Peck said. Yes, ASNE was still relevant. But it had to
rethink many things, including its budget, membership structure and fundraising strategy. It moved headquarters from Virginia to the University of Missouri to save costs and brought aboard a new executive director, Arnie Robbins, who had been the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Since then, things have improved, Peck said. The organization now has 476 members, up 90 from 2012. This year's convention, which was held jointly for the first time with the Associated Press Media Editors, saw 60 more attendees than last year's convention. And the financial outlook has been brighter, too. From 2012 to 2014, ASNE used $300,000 from its foundation to pay the bills; this year, ASNE projects a balanced budget without relying on its foundation.

For its part, ONA has recently taken practical action in areas of importance to ASNE, including freedom of expression, diversity and newsroom leadership. At its convention last month, ONA
announced an award honoring digital-first conflict reporters in memory of GlobalPost journalist James Foley, who was killed by the Islamic State group after being captured in Syria. ONA conference organizers also made sure that an equal number of men and woman were selected to present sessions and tried to increase representation of journalists of color. And ONA this year announced a series of “digital leadership breakfasts,” which will allow top editors to gather and discuss the future of digital innovation.

The challenge of finding a way forward for news in the digital age has united journalists whether they belong to newer organizations like ONA or more storied groups like ASNE, Brady said to Poynter in an email.

“I think we're beyond the point where we're debating where our future lies: it's clearly in digital,” Brady said. “Once that became obvious, I think journalism organizations became more united than they'd been, because we all had a common goal: finding viable business models for what we do in journalism. And I think that's led to more cooperation between organizations that used to not collaborate much. In a way, we're following the same ‘huddling for warmth' course as journalism itself.”