Are You A Hawk, Dove Or Fence-Sitter?

An executive director recently asked me if I had any Relevant thoughts about allowing digital-only news publishers to become members of newspaper trade associations. 

I do, and my view is based on a continuing education about what associations face when changing — and maneuvering through board deliberations and approval.

I know this from my conversations: Hawks, doves and fence-sitters are involved. One embraces risk. One avoids it. The other could be roadkill. 

(An added perspective: When it comes to major change, there are originators, conservers and pragmatists. Translation: There’s always someone eager to take the hill first, others to protect the status quo, and another group to see validity in both sides of the argument while knowing there is a better solution to shape.)

To me, being accepted by a state or provincial association as a member is like a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for trusted media. It’s a valuable endorsement from keepers of integrity and excellence in publishing.

That’s why associations should operate from that position of strength to expand the membership tent.

I’ve written about new member amendments approved by associations’ voting members in the last year. The expressed goal was diversification, with an emphasis on welcoming publications owned by people of color and those serving foreign-language communities. 

The blending of print and digital publishers carries more financial angst, depending on the state or province. Add in complicating factors such as broadband quality in rural areas, advocacy and social media, concerns about protecting journalistic trust, and the surprising number of print publishers who still struggle with whether to add a worthwhile website.

Everyone agrees that a growing and healthy membership is vital to the sustainability of associations. Anyone want to bet the ranch on double-digit increases coming from printed newspapers? Is that a hand in the back or are you just stretching?

It’s the “how” that keeps directors up at night, I’m told. 

So this is how I answered: If the organization’s mission is to strengthen local news, advocate for the public’s right to know, and foster trusted local journalism, then by all means consider news providers regardless of the media platform they use to distribute. 

We all know the trends, the economics involved and the decisions publishers face in keeping a news provider viable.

We’re already hearing expectations that the pending postal increase will push more community newspapers to drop print and move all of their products online, or at least into a hybrid setup. 

With a blended membership orchestrated by the association, legacy newspaper operators could learn from digital entrepreneurs and digital sites could learn from ink-stained publishers packing experience that’s invaluable. That’s the biggest reason.

Readers and viewers win. 

Initial concerns can be tempered by updating the definition of a legitimate news operation. (Plenty of aspects can be considered: funding sources; consistency in publishing; local ownership; requiring some sort of print publication at least once a year, etc. Installing a rigorous review process can avert unintended consequences as well.)

I’ll spare you a list of concerns by print members since association directors know them well.

My main concern for executive directors would be being left behind as our industry in general and news-reader behaviors continue to change. 

It’s an understatement to say that the longterm future of news distributions starts first with content that’s read and viewed on computer screens, iPads and smartphones.

Why ignore innovation that could help publishers transform their businesses? 

The upshot: It’s as much a teaching moment as it is a purposeful shift in the ole business model.  Onward to growth. 

-Tom Silvestri

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