Milton Coleman's ASNE Acceptance Speech - April 14, 2010

Milton Coleman assumes the presidency of ASNE, April 14, 2010, at the NewsNow ideas summit.

First of all, let me say that I accept this presidency of the American Society of News Editors, and I pledge to serve ASNE with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my spirit, as we say.

I would like to thank all of those who have supported my involvement in ASNE, especially those at The Washington Post. Five years ago, Don Graham, Bo Jones and Leonard Downie Jr. made that original commitment, and Katharine Weymouth joined them in maintaining it.

Also, I would like to offer special acknowledgements to three people who, as fate has it, are present here primarily in very strong spirit:

My mother, Justine Coleman, who did so much that I might accomplish whatever I have; she taught me, in word and in deed, how best to live this thing called life.

Robert C. Maynard—a pioneer, a door opener, a builder, and a personal mentor; who inspired and launched an entire generation of journalists of color, telling and showing us how to get into the business, how to succeed and how to rise to the top, and one who pressed this organization to be a drum major for diversity in our industry. I am deeply honored that his daughter Dori, who heads the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, my professional alma mater, which continues Bob's lifetime work, would be here this morning. Thank you, Dori.

And Deborah Howell, who jump-started my daily newspaper career 36 years ago in the newsroom of the Minneapolis Star, and who nurtured, pushed and occasionally even kicked me, from then until the end—that I would never underestimate myself, or what I had done, or what I could do. My last words from Deborah were on a Christmas card announcing that she was headed to New Zealand, but prodding me with a characteristic nudge of, and I quote, “Have you picked your committee chairs, yet?” I am blessed that her husband, Peter Magrath, would be here today. Thank you, Peter. And I'm certain that Deborah is looking down and is saying as even only she could say up there in that uniquely Howellian fashion: Hey, this is a big friggin' deal. She had a corner on that word—and all its derivatives—long before Joe Biden.

Ladies and gentlemen; friends and colleagues:

On one November day [11/19/63], earlier in our history, a real American president, Abraham Lincoln, noted that four score and seven years earlier, our fathers had set forth on this continent a new nation; conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now, Lincoln said on that day, the United States was engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could endure. He spoke on a battlefield of that war. He praised the valor of those who were gone, yet then called on the others to dedicate themselves to the cause that government of the people, by the people and for the people would not perish from the earth.

A few years later, the founders brought forth a constitution, and as a first order of business decreed, in 45 powerful words that the Congress of this new United States of America should not—could not—do anything that would abridge the freedom of religion, of speech, of assembly, of the right of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances, or the freedom of the press. And now, 230 years later, and thanks in part to that free press—that's us—that nation indeed has endured, and works incessantly to form that more perfect union, to establish and maintain justice, to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty to the American people and our posterity.

In a manner of speaking, we, too, today, like Lincoln, are on a battlefield, testing whether this free press, our new journalism, can endure. There are legal adversaries. There are governmental adversaries. There are ideological adversaries. There are financial and spiritual adversaries. The road ahead on the business side is treacherous.

Our newsrooms, our staffs, have tarried and do tarry on the brink of uncertainty.

A year ago, these circumstances prompted ASNE to cancel our annual convention—for the first and only time since the battlefields of World War II did the same in 1945.


Those times were then; this is now. As Marty Kaiser has proclaimed, ASNE is back in the game. To Marty, to the staff, and to all of you: thank you, thank you, and thank you. Well done.

“Back in the game” is a phrase that can easily be misunderstood. You don't get into the game if you don't have game. And when you are out of the game, it really means something about your game is just out of whack. So you have to adjust your game. And that gets you back in the game.

A year ago, when so many things weren't working, ASNE adjusted its game plan. We didn't abandon it.

In the face of adversity, we didn't forsake those things that made us what we were.

ASNE kept on fighting for freedom of information— even as sports credentialing committees on nearly every level took the offensive to the contrary, and even as the new administration in the White House seemed to get cold feet on the shield law. We found ways on the Web and on the telephone to nurture our members wrestling with the difficulties of transformational newsroom leadership—with so many platforms and so much more competition; so many more demands yet so fewer people and resources; so many bottom-line pressures from the very top.

We continued to press the case for the kinds of values and ethics that have underpinned our profession, our integrity and our credibility as the fourth estate, even as others sought to dilute them in the name of the web, social networking, the here-and-now versus what used to be.

We spread the gospel of news literacy across the land.

Others talked the talk about the future; we walked the walk.

The number of high school news media hosted on our site climbed closer to 4,000. And the number of professorial members in our ranks swelled. Some argued that in these troubled times, diversity was a luxury they no longer could afford. ASNE countered: that's penny wise and pound foolish; better to invest in diversity to safeguard your future in an increasingly competitive and increasingly diverse world. And all the while, the news media we lead continued to call the powerful, both public and private, to account; engaged broad swaths of community through journalism of the spirit; and brought the sun to shine in city halls, county board rooms and state houses from sea to shining sea. America's newsrooms were on their game.

ASNE took the game plan for a cancelled convention and transformed it into a foundation for a summit of many organizations, not just a gathering of one, assuming our rightful place as multiplatform news leaders. The result has been this very successful summit, proudly displaying the new face of ASNE—more contemporary, more energetic, more multifaceted, yet still true to our core values and principles. We've got a new attitude, and a new game.

No, the crowds here this week weren't as large as before.

The revenues are not as plentiful as they once were—and to be honest, we might not even make budget. But those who thought we were irrelevant and dying, who thought that ASNE had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, well—as they say—if that's what you thought, you've got another think comin.' ASNE is back in the game, with momentum on our side.

We leave here today, thinking about tomorrow. ASNE will be an organization that interacts with its members far more frequently than in the past, with useful and practical information to help you lead. The new technology will not just something we talk about, but something we do—regularly and at times, almost exclusively. There will be an ongoing online program to move us into the faster pace of communication today. More of our members will be involved through a more interconnected organizational structure, more active board members, and an expanded array of active committees focused on key needs and issues. Our Web site will be a more essential and lively destination. As an organization, we will learn to function even better in times of less. And we'll very consciously do a better job of tooting our own horn about all the many essential and often unique things that we do.

A year from now, we will convene yet another ideas summit, this time in San Diego, this time with the Inter American Press Association and any others who would join in this historic conclave of journalists and news leaders from all over the Americas. Under the leadership of Gregory L. Moore of The Denver Post, the planning committee will offer yet another collection of general sessions and practical workshops to keep pace with the latest and most important developments, and even get ahead of the curve on some. And that will cap a 12-month period when ASNE will continue to prove its worth as a most essential organization for America's news leaders.

Four score and seven years ago this month, right across the street at the Willard Hotel, whose lobby, by the way, so robustly hosted those trying to influence the policies of President Ulysses S. Grant, that they, their kith and kin, came to be and still are known as “lobbyists,” the American Society of Newspaper Editors—news leaders who were our founders—held their first convention in April 1923. Their early 20th-century constitution proclaimed the basic principles that guide our organization even now as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

“To promote acquaintance among members, to develop a stronger and professional espirit de corps, to maintain the dignity and rights of the profession, to consider and perhaps establish ethical standards of professional conduct to interchange ideas for the professional ideals and for the more effective application of professional labors and to work collectively for the solution of common problems."

That remains the basic mandate, as we lead those responsible for the essential substance of newspapers, news sites, news magazines, news photos, news graphics, news analysis, news enterprise, news information, news commentary, news blogs, news mobile, news and news gathering on social networks—news by whatever name, by whatever means, on whatever platform it may be.

That is the role that we must continue to assume, protected by and fighting always to maintain a free press, a free press that both nurtures and watch-dogs that government of the people, by the people and for the people, and is an indispensable part of a democracy that delivers the blessings of liberty to ourselves, our posterity and every community we serve.

It's time to lead America's newsrooms.

See you in San Diego.

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Address by Milton Coleman, incoming ASNE president