Use NNW To Launch THE Community Forum

Relevant Note: This commentary is part of the National Newspaper Week package of material shared in advance of the Oct. 3-9 celebration by its sponsor, Newspaper Association Managers. Learn more at the NNW site.

By Tom Silvestri
The Relevance Project

It’s now or never. Local newspapers should use National Newspaper Week to start a vital conversation about Relevance.

Theirs, and the communities’ role in supporting the trusted news provider. What’s at stake is the opportunity for newspapers to get back Relevance for a sustainable future by becoming THE Community Forum. 

Here’s the Bigger Idea:
Many local conversations turn into a national dialogue, where forums are being held throughout the country — Canada, too. One conversation leads to another. And another. Newspapers, working with their trade associations, report on their discussions and the findings are then woven into a dynamic narrative about the state and value of local news.

The insights spark positive change and valuable momentum. 

After nearly two years of dealing with a stubborn pandemic and continued political division, all of us who love newspapers would benefit from learning about ground-level trends, new opportunities. and audience advice that combine to better power a transformation of local news media.  

The Relevance Project, an initiative of Newspaper Managers Association, stands ready to help advance community newspapers. In its second year of operation, The Relevance Project is working with associations across North America to help their member newspapers become THE Community Forum.

The Forum represents an umbrella strategy to improve connections with a newspaper’s overall audience. Its chief catalyst is the use of town halls to foster civil, civil discourse. 

Live exchanges.

Intense listening. 

With respect. 

The overall strategy has three goal for newspapers:
Reassert Relevance: Use every opportunity to remind people about the value local journalism brings to our society and democracy. Don’t assume it’s known. 
Broaden Connections: Think intensely about ways to reach the entire community. Not just traditional newspaper readers, who already should be your best ambassadors.
Refresh Credibility: Use newspapers’ trusted reputation, its expertise in reporting on a community and its established information-gathering framework to expand Relevance to new audiences and reassure longtime loyal supporters.

The conversation sparked by National Newspaper Week should be about newspapers. If the Community Forum is a new strategy for a newspaper, consider framing the dialogue along one of these questions:
*How can we improve our mission?
*What is the future of local newspapers?
*How can we better serve you, our readers?
*How do we build greater trust with our news coverage? (Or: Why should you trust us?)
*Here’s how we cover the news: How can we strengthen our report?
*And my favorite: How can we be more Relevant to you?


If a newspaper and its community want to build on an ongoing conversation about local journalism, then here’s an additional batch of topics to consider:
*How can we improve our community’s news literacy? (It is important to a vibrant democracy.)
*You say “The Media.” We say, no, we’re Local News. Who is right?
*The Disinformation Era: The myths and facts about local news coverage. Are you concerned?
*How do we stand up for the truth? (Is there more we can do?)

And this:
*Open Mic: We want to hear what you think about us. Better yet, tell us YOUR story.

The newspaper as THE Community Forum is the definition of Relevance.

The newspaper as moderator of purposeful civil, civic discourse is the caretaker of an enlightened democracy.

This National Newspaper Week, dig in with conversations about newspapers. Then, with experience using the Community Forum strategy, orchestrate and moderate dialogue that nurtures improving communities. 

That’s Relevance at its best. 

Start the conversation.

Be THE Community Forum.

Take action.

And, remember this brutal fact:
Silence is deadly.

Tom Silvestri is Executive Director of the Relevance Project, an initiative of a coalition of regional, state, provincial and national newspaper trade associations. When he was a longtime publisher in Virginia, he conducted 78 community discussions on issues of importances to the state’s capital region. The Public Square was nationally recognized as a model for how newspapers could foster civil, civic discourse. For additional information about orchestrating a Community Forum, read his Relevant Points blog on www.relevanceproject.net

KEEPING TRACK: The Relevant Points blog includes a series of commentaries and explainers about The Community Forum. We hope to publish a few more soon. Thank you for supporting The Relevance Project.

CF=R*

Part of a Continuing Series

*Be THE Community Forum is the essence of Relevance. Community newspapers and local news media, think here:

Execute the strategy in three parts, using Forum or town-hall formats:

Part 1: Explain the mission of your news organization and its reporting. Collect suggestions and advice on how to strengthen community connections. Elaborate. Ask. Listen.

Part 2: Deepen the news literacy of your community. Confront misinformation. By fostering more knowledgeable consumers, attract a growing audience with trusted journalism. Expose. Correct. Encourage.

Part 3: Examine community problems and explore game-changing solutions. Enlighten democracy by demonstrating the importance of the local news media as a moderator of civil, civic discourse. Welcome. Preside. Respect.

*Community Forum = Relevance.

–Tom Silvestri

Relevance Note: Special thanks to Darrell Davis and the team at Metro Creative for the continued graphics support. Most appreciated.

Director Q and A: New NAM President Beth Bennett


Beth Bennett is a tireless advocate for community newspapers.

She also is a first.

Her election last month as president of Newspaper Association Managers (NAM) makes her the first person to succeed a spouse as the leader of the North American coalition of state, provincial, regional and national trade associations. David Bennett served as NAM president in 1996, when he was the executive director of the Illinois Press Association.

Beth Bennett’s achievement capped NAM’s 98th annual summer conference, which the executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association hosted in her state’s capital, Madison.

NAM President Beth Bennett


A collaborative champion for her member newspapers, Bennett has been at the helm of the Wisconsin group since 2010. Before leading the way in the Badger State, she was the director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association.

Bennett also has distinct roots in community newspapering. Her family published four newspapers in central Illinois, serving as her introduction to the industry. That history carries over in her role as a director of the National Newspaper Association.

The Relevance Project appreciates Bennett’s participation in the monthly question-and-answer feature. Read on and you will discover a unique aspect of her newspaper association and why Bennett can see the forest for the trees.

Congratulations on being elected to lead the Newspaper Association Managers. What are your priorities as president?
My priority is to connect with all NAM members, and to facilitate outreach on issues of interest or concern.

Can you introduce us to your association in Wisconsin?
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association has been working on behalf of Wisconsin newspapers since 1853 by providing advocacy, resources and education. Our mission is to strengthen the newspaper industry, enhance public understanding of the role of newspapers, and protect basic freedoms of press, speech and the free flow of information.

What makes your association different from others?
Each newspaper association is unique.  It is always interesting to learn about the history and the laws surrounding the newspaper industry in each state. For as many differences, there are just as many common threads to the newspaper industry in each state. 
A unique fact about the Wisconsin Newspaper Association is that it owns and maintains a forest in Eagle River, Wisconsin.  Known as the Press Forest, the land was purchased and is maintained by Wisconsin newspaper publishers as a destination for industry leaders to gather.
Every year, newspaper professionals from across the state head to Eagle River for what is known as the “Trees Retreat” to participate in one of the association’s most treasured traditions. The annual Trees Retreat is a time to connect, reflect and be inspired. The history of the Press Forest is chronicled here.
The development of the Press Forest led another unique tradition —- the construction of the WNA Publishers Memorial Pylon.  The Memorial Pylon contains the names of deceased Wisconsin publishers.  The names were originally printed on press plates and hung from wooden structures. Families, friends and members of the newspaper industry continue to gather annually for an engraving ceremony to pay tribute to publishers who have passed away during the previous year.
Over time, the names on the press plates began to fade. In 2014, a more permanent monument was erected on the Trees Retreat campus. The WNA Memorial Grove now consists of five granite pylons and several benches that provide visitors a place to reflect.

What do you like best about your job?
Networking with the membership and improving upon the rich traditions of the Wisconsin newspaper industry.

Least?
The ongoing legislative battles to fight off attempts to obstruct the public’s right to know.

What is your proudest career moment?
To date, the defeat in 2016 by the legislature to repeal all laws requiring the publication of public notices in Wisconsin newspapers.
I am also very proud of overseeing the fundraising and construction of the new WNA Publishers Pylon that memorializes deceased Wisconsin publishers.  The new granite memorial replaced the deteriorating wooden structure located in the WNA Press Forest in Eagle River, Wisconsin.

What are your association’s priorities?
To provide the resources necessary to support the needs of the membership . 

How has the pandemic changed your association and members?

The WNA and its affiliated foundation and services corporation have yet to return to in-person functions. The WNA cancelled its 2020 convention and held a virtual convention in conjunction with the Iowa and Minnesota Newspaper associations in 2021. 
November 2021 will mark the two-year anniversary of the last time that the WNA and WNA Foundation boards of directors met in-person.  Whether we will return to an in-person annual convention in 2022 is an unknown.

If you had unlimited resources to advance our industry, where would you invest your time and money? 

I would invest in staffing devoted to building turn-key websites for WNA members. 
My personal challenge is to encourage weekly newspapers to transition their business model from that of a weekly print newspaper to that of a daily news source via their websites.
Shrinking staffing and financial resources stand in the way of moving the weekly newspaper model forward.  Having the support of the newspaper association in developing easy to maintain websites could make the difference in the future viability of community newspapers.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I look forward to the rare days when there is nothing on my calendar.  I enjoy spending that time with my family and my dog Howie, who is my best buddy. 

How would your best career advice to a newcomer to newspapers? To a veteran with 10 to 15 years until retirement?
To a newcomer I would stress that understanding the role of the newspaper in the ongoing welfare of the community is vital. To a veteran I would — and do — encourage them to recall and rely on the reasons they chose the newspaper industry as a profession.
I believe that the rich history that newspapers play in the daily lives of their communities helps in sustaining both new and veteran newspaper professionals. 

-Tom Silvestri

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association was “created by newspapers for newspapers.” It consists of three entities: Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the not-for-profit trade group; Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation, a not-for-profit organization; and WNA Services, a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary.

WNANEWS.com

Community Forums For States And Provinces

Imagine a world without newspaper trade associations and their loyal members advocating at state or provincial capitols. 

You know, transparency in government, ample notice and alerts before legislative or administrative decisions are made, First Amendment freedoms, and access to public information. 

Go ahead and shutter at what obstacles would be sprung and what idiotic edicts would be issued. 

Fortunately, staying ahead of trouble is a hallmark of a proactive association.

That’s why the Community Forum strategy is so important. Readers of this blog know it’s a frequent Relevant Point.

Becoming THE Community Form allows associations and their newspaper members to improve effectiveness when they engage legislators, in what selected formats they use, and how they master collaboration.

Cheers to the associations that already organize events that put legislators and local media in the same room to discuss issues, identify problems, and begin crafting solutions that uplift democracy via Relevant local media. 

Threats are real in this era of toxic politics. Newspapers can’t afford to be on defense.

Still, nothing is more frustrating than those tireless drills of being surprised by proposed legislation or a development that requires publishers to call or email legislators at the last minute and then appear at hearings where the time is always short and oppositions often vengeful.

Some state and provincial association do in fact orchestrate events where a program is held before the start of a legislative session. Standard fare include panel discussions on expected issues.
That’s great. Keep it going.

But please do this: Upgrade by using the Community Forum strategy in two ways. 

One, the association should set up “Introductions To the Press” for all new members of a legislature.  Do it in the spirit of congratulating their achievement and stressing how working with the press is part of the job. Give them a foundation to understand us.  (Disclosure: I had an outstanding discussion with an association executive director at the recent NAM conference about this very approach. It inspired.)

Don’t assume newly elected officials know how local news operations work. And don’t assume there are channels that flow back and forth to ensure communications are open and productive. 

Second, use the Community Forum to foster opportunities where every leader at a legislature — be it a role leading a body, committee, subcommittee, study group or program initiative — is introduced to all newspaper members of an association.

Build working relationships.  Create connections.

I’m not talking about those painful receptions where people go to eat and drink to make small talk. Rather, organize a series of programs — forums! — where legislators get to know the press, where there’s an energetic format to discuss issues ahead of a legislative session, and there’s a better awareness of what can be done to better inform taxpayers and voters. 

By meeting directly with the various leaders you are putting on the record a coherent overview on what’s important, allowing disclosure on various positions, and extending an open invitation to followup discussions. 

Also:
By using the Community Format format, you are safeguarding civil, civic discourse ahead of deliberations that improve awareness, deepen understanding and secure a commitment to good government and trusted journalism. 

Citizens win.

Use the Community Forum approach to make a bold statement.

Consider:
The (State or Province) Forum: Where Legislators And Local News Media Advance Democracy.

Be THE Community Forum.

–Tom Silvestri

Note: The Relevance Project includes U.S. and Canadian perspectives because its sponsor, Newspaper Association Managers, represents trade groups throughout North America.

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

A Relevant Word Of The Wise For Customer Service

I wish I received a dollar for every time readers or advertisers complained no one at “the newspaper” responded to their calls, emails, letters or online comments.

I could buy a lot of newspapers.

Short-staffed departments, outsourcing, bad systems, and centralizations that put leadership far from the local paper have made matters worse.

So much so, it was a recent topic of conversation among executive directors of newspaper trade associations who are very concerned about what’s happening.

Simply put: How can our industry advance itself if it can’t get back to loyal customers motivated to engage with reporters, columnists, editors, sales reps, ad directors, and publishers?

In what could be a message from heaven, I came across a Proverb that rewards any operation that demands excellence in customer service.

Solomon says:

“A person finds joy in giving an apt reply — and how much good is a timely word!”

Amen.

–Tom Silvestri

Relevance 101: How To Plan A Community Forum

Part of a Continuing Series

My experience in conducting town halls is in Richmond, VA, with an initiative called the Public Square. This picture captures a discussion about the opioid epidemic.

The Relevance Project offers workshops on how newspapers and their trade associations can be THE Community Forum.

The Community Forum is an umbrella strategy to attract and connect with a growing audience. Its centerpiece action is the town hall (in Richmond, where I moderated 78 civil, civic Community forums, they were called the Public Square; sample it here).

In both the strategy and the big action, the desired result is elevating your Relevance, a key goal in any transformation or reinvention.

This month, I presented “How To Become THE Community Forum” to publishers and editors from press associations based in three states — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Thanks to the associations for the invitation and to the attendees who showed up to learn — on a Friday, no less.

A frequent question from workshop participants is how to plan a town hall. I offered advice on the Zoom calls. But in this Relevant Point, I sketch in detail a planner that defines the steps that go into thinking, planning, plotting, organizing, conducting and reporting a Community Forum.

The model below assumes a town hall is conducted quarterly. It also works for an annual program.

After reviewing this approach, build your own tracker that charts required steps and results. Adjust as you see fit.

I am contemplating a separate Relevant Point on how to moderate a town hall. (Note: there’s a series among the Relevant Points that reports my Public Square experience. Let me know if you’d like a shortcut to read them.)

In the meantime, here we go:

TOWN HALL/PUBLIC SQUARE “DRILL”
Based on 4X a year (quarterly) model.


AT THE OUTSET
Create a written plan detailing the Town Hall’s role and how the initiative advances the newspaper’s Mission. Place a great emphasis on the newspaper’s Relevance to its community and the importance of modeling civil, civic dialogue in a divisive society battling misinformation. 
INTRODUCE your initiative in a publisher or editor column.
Mention this is part of a strategy to become THE Community Forum. 
REMEMBER: Planning and practice better prepares you for success. Wing it at your own risk.
A WORD TO THE WISE: Invest in technology (especially sound) that provides the best possible experience for participation and understanding. 
If you are able, announce all four topics that make up the year cycle for your town halls. If you can’t, at least start the planning 90 days out with firm deadlines on what to accomplish. 

90-60 DAYS OUT
Organize the Planning Team to brainstorm, collaborate on required actions and manage details. Make sure each member has a key role/responsibility: Consider: Invitations/registration; room/technology setup; news coverage; promotions; speaker coordination; program moderator and management; guest welcome; security; afterward thank-you gestures. 
Decide how often the Planning Team should meet. I suggest every other week 90 to 60 days out. Weekly 30 days out. Put these check-ins on the calendar so they don’t get lost. You can always cancel them if there is no need.
Decide if you want people to register or just show up. Think security and how to avert hecklers/disruptors. 
Identify the location to hold the town hall. 
Plan on the town hall to be 90 minutes. 
Set a date. Confirm the location. 
Pick the topic (assumes you are not playing off breaking news). Write a nut or context graph on why people should care about this topic and why you are focused on it. Be strong. 
Compose the topic in terms of the strongest question that will attract the biggest potential audience. (If you have trouble writing a captivating question, rethink the topic.)
Identify the format (debate, presentation, panel discussion, one main newsmaker, etc.) and guest speakers. Secure their commitment.
NOTE: Make sure you leave ample time for audience participation. There’s the 30-30-30 (30 minutes for presentation; 30 minutes for moderator questions; 30 minutes for the audience); or 45-45 (45 minutes for the presentation and guest speakers; 45 minutes for the audience).
Update the timeline/tracker on what needs to get done from now until the program occurs. Make sure the planning team has the tracker with clear directions on who does what. 

60-45 DAYS OUT
Announce the program with a news story and explain how the public can participate. Send the story to broadcast media to see if they’ll also promote it. 
Begin to think who would be best to supplement the guest speakers by being in the audience willing to speak. Create a list of invitees and make the effort to invite them by including a copy of the news story and promotions. (For example: In Richmond, we tried to invite college classes and professors studying the topic. Also, we tried to make sure those involved in the issue knew about the town hall and acknowledged that not everyone was a subscriber who saw our promotions.)
Create a set of promotions that can run each week to gather new signups. If you have limited audience capacity, update with the latest availability of “seats.” Schedule publication and distribution.
Consider partnering with other media. 
Whenever a news story is about the topic, match it with a sidebar about the town hall.
Assign the big takeout story that will appear no later than a week before the town hall. Consider making it a special report in print and online.
Do an initial conference call or meeting with the guest speakers so they know what’s expected of them. Set up the next check-in call. 
Check on the technology to be used. 

45-30 DAYS OUT
Set up conference call or meeting with the guest speakers to go over their roles and answer their questions. Give them enough guidance so they are comfortable with what they will provide at the town hall. 
Decide how you will transcribe the program so you can publish an edited version in print and the full text online. (Note: In Richmond, we hired someone to do the transcript. It cost us about $200.)
Check the planned special report so it will be ready. 
Check on the technology to be used.
Check on the registrations to see if you have to adjust. 
Create a quality welcome concept to attendees that ensures you secure their email addresses. If the town hall is done in person, consider name tags for all participants and a check-in sheet that identifies every attendee. 

TWO WEEKS TO ONE WEEK OUT
Confirm who will cover the event. Make sure you are ready to at least get a head shot of everyone who speakers. 
The moderator should have a “script” of what to say to open, run and close the program. Included should be clear ground rules on what a civil, civic discourse involves. 
Check on the speakers.
Think about the best way to welcome invited guests and the public. 
Always test the equipment for sound. Being able to hear clearly is critical. 

AT THE EVENT
Have your guest speakers/subject-matter experts show up in advance to go over the room, where they will speak and any last-minute questions. Make sure their mics are working well. 
Have someone besides the moderator focused on welcoming attendees as they come in. Have a plan for those who show up really early or late. 
Moderator runs the program. Make sure it starts on time. Think carefully about the opening as it enthusiastically welcomes, explains why the paper is the host, goes over the ground rules, explains the town hall’s format, and thanks everyone for attending — with a reminder that this will be a civil, civic discussion. 
Always use at least two microphones and have a Planning Team member ready with the ability to turn off a mic. 
Record the town hall for posting online.

AFTER THE TOWN HALL
Post same day coverage of the event online. Fuller coverage in print.
Think through the online presentation. For example: Consider breaking up the recording into “chapters” for easier viewing. Also consider the town hall content as part of a rich archive about the news issue that was discussed. (Long term: the town hall approach has an identity as strong as the newspaper format.)
A week or two after the town hall, publish the transcript. Make sure you have the correct name and a picture of each speaker to run. 
Add an editorial/commentary that examines what the public should do next based on key findings from the town hall. 
Do a post-mortem with the planning team on what to improve. Consider rewarding them with a lunch/snacks for their efforts. 
Announce/tease the next program.
Create a promotional ad thanking the public for attending. Publish it a few times over the next 30 days. 
Consider adding a reminder with subsequent stories on the topic that it was the subject of the town hall and you can review online what was said then. 

NEXT TOWN HALL
Restart the process. Do it again. Lessons learned will improve the next program. ONWARD.

A Relevant Offer: Free feel to contact me if you want to further discuss. I’m open to helping you launch a Community Forum series. That would be a fun assignment.

-Tom Silvestri

‘Count On Us’ Joins The Election Series

A fourth promotion expands The Relevance Project’s “The Election Series.”

The latest house ad touts “Our Reputation Is The Difference” and is based on the results of a 2021 survey by the reputable Pew Research Center.

The well-earned Relevance and reputation of a news organization combine to become a top factor with readers and viewers as they decide whether a new story is trustworthy.

This promotion allows newspapers to proclaim “count on us” when covering politics and government.

The Relevance Project staked out election coverage to help advertising staffs secure political ads because newspapers do a better job of labeling and presenting these types of messages. The Election Series also salutes journalists for digging out the truth and facts during sometimes complicated and intense political races.

The Election Series appears in both the Revenue Resource and Support Local Journalism sections on www.relevanceproject.net. The promotions are available in print and digital versions.

The Relevance Project again thanks Metro Creative Graphics for its contributing design work.

–Tom Silvestri

We All Could Use A ‘Stamp Of Approval’

Good to see the LION roar in this commentary that newspaper/press associations are Relevant. 

“Pressure state press associations… to open their doors to our digital members…,” writes the executive director of LION Publishers, “which provides teaching, resources, and community to independent news entrepreneurs as they build and develop sustainable business.”

Interesting.

There’s an opportunity, for sure.

Consider:
Associations become the “good housekeeping seal of approval” for legitimate news organizations, regardless of media platforms.  

That’s a valuable future.

For local news, trade associations and democracy.

–Tom Silvestri

July Q And A: Kentucky’s David Thompson

David T. Thompson is a Hall of Famer who is fortunate to be alive.

The executive director of the Kentucky Press Association also is eloquent in his advocacy for newspapers — especially his all-in members — but realistic about the challenges and pace of change.

Talking with him about his impressive career leaves the solid impression he’s seen it all.

And this: You can’t find a better cheerleader for the Newspaper Association Managers.

In agreeing to participate, Thompson called it an honor to be featured in this month’s Executive Director Q&A.

Actually, it’s our honor.

Read on and you’ll know why. (Just don’t ask him about his “closest friends.”)

David, can you introduce us to your association?

KPA is the nation’s 10th oldest state press association and in 2019 we celebrated our 150th anniversary. Fortunately, that went better than the 125th in January 1994 when the week we had set to celebrate, Kentucky got its first blizzard in decades and the whole state was shut down for more than a week. So months and months of planning were taken care of with 17 inches of the white stuff. I’m proud that since 1993-94 we’ve had 100 percent of newspapers eligible to be full members as members. It hasn’t been much of a struggle to maintain that because if you offer beneficial services and do all that you can to help them, they will remain loyal to the organization.

We also have the largest board of any state press association with 29 voting positions. We have 14 elected directors, four State At-Large, five division chairpersons, five executive committee members and the chair of KIPA. We also have two representatives from the journalism schools/departments who are ex-officio.

KPA Executive Director David Thompson

KPA also welcomed a new division three years ago – the Kentucky Intercollegiate Press Association. That’s an organization of 13 to 15 student publications at colleges and universities. We have a long-standing relationship with those student publications so the KIPA members came to us a few years ago to ask that KPA run the organization for them. 

What makes the KPA different from other associations?

Our Board has a long history of making as many services as possible available to all members at no additional cost. One of our most successful services was the Kentucky News Press Service that we started in October 2010 and fully funded. That required a full-time staff member and we paid libel insurance coverage for the 95 or so newspapers in the service.

As I had warned members from the outset, KPNS is “free for the foreseeable future.” Well, when the foreseeable future arrived, we tried to get them to ante up. Only a handful did but far from an amount that could sustain the service. Still, we tried to keep it going by cutting back the hours of the director of the service. Then when the pandemic hit, we were no longer able to fund it and shut it down. That’s after about 70,000 stories were shared for all participating newspapers to use, plus another 6,000 to 7,000 editorials. All of those coming from the participating papers. We didn’t require them to upload stories; that was done by the director. But it was a costly endeavor that I hated to see us close down.

Now you: What’s been your career path? 

My father was sports editor of the Lexington Herald so I started working there as soon as we lost in the district basketball tournament in March 1965, my senior year. I stayed there until being drafted in early 1968 and got an “early out” from the Army in December 1969, because it was time for basketball to start and I applied for a “seasonal” work early out. And the Army bought it.

I had made the decision the month JFK was killed that someday I wanted to be editor of my local newspaper, the Georgetown News and Times. I got to live that dream in March 1979 and remained there until September 1983. I left because the company that owned the paper put it on the market and I wasn’t in a financial position to purchase it.

The same week, an ad came across my desk as publisher that KPA was looking for an Executive Director. I figured what the heck, I’m not qualified at that level but not knowing who the new owners will be, I figured no harm in applying. Ended up I got the job with KPA and am about to celebrate the 38th year!

How would you describe your position and role to someone outside the newspaper industry?

When my two daughters were younger, if someone asked them “just what is it your father does?” they would respond he opens the mail and talks on the phone. In all seriousness, it’s the best job ever if I didn’t have to worry about my 138 closest friends called the Kentucky legislature.

I’ve met scores of great people across the state who are newspaper owners and publishers and editors and ad managers, and just reporters and ad sales folks. I do have to lobby but don’t look at me like one of those pinstriped suit lobbyists everyone complains about. I’m in an advocacy position, advocating for newspapers but at the same time for regular citizens of Kentucky because of Open Meetings and Open Records and Open Government. It’s a lot of public relations, building up newspapers, helping the public understand why we (the industry) do what we do and how we do it.

What do you like best about your job?

Everything not involving my 138 closest friends.

Least? 

Anything involving my 138 closest friends.

What is your proudest career moment? 

2006, when I was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Ours is not operated by KPA but by the University of Kentucky, so that made it special. There have been many special moments in the last 38 years but that one I never expected I’d receive. I was honored with the Al Smith Award for Public Service through Community Journalism in 2019 and it’s special because only one person receives it each year.

What are some of the 2021 priorities for you and your association? 

We’re in the communication business. Strangely enough, communication is our President’s focus for 2021. And she’s pretty much on target. We take for granted that anytime we send an email, every recipient is going to read it. We are incorporating a program called Slack that allows us quick communication with our members and allows the members to ask questions of other members. Some of our newspapers were using this already within their own companies so it’s been fairly easy to move into Slack as a way of communicating with groups of our members or with individuals.

Our communication wanes during legislative sessions and we’re working on focusing in social media areas that will allow quicker and broader communications to our members. Things do get overlooked because of the vast number of emails our members get. We mark anything legislatively as URGENT in the subject line to draw their attention but it still doesn’t get the notice. 

We may have to depend on emails, texts and other communication resources to make sure the messages get out and get the attention we need. If not, it’s often too late for them to help us take action on supporting or defeating legislation

How has the COVID-19 experience changed your association?  Can you share any lessons? 

COVID and a financial hardship changed KPA and KPS at the very beginning of the pandemic. Within a month of the first case in Kentucky, we laid off four employees. One of them had been here more than 25 years. Two had been here almost 20 years. But the Executive Committee saw the opportunity to make changes in staffing that would tremendously help the bottom line so the layoffs took place.

We were most concerned that advertising would plummet because of COVID. After all, we were hearing that from our member newspapers. And I have to be honest. We didn’t know with the financial downturn already in place, if COVID would put the nail on the coffin of KPS, as the president of the organization at the time said. But the four remaining staff members went to work, focused on advertising sales, ended up with $1.137 million in political ad sales for the elections and 2020 ended up as one of the best years in the organization’s history.

What keeps you up at night when wrestling with challenges? 

A lot of times it’s just routine duties that will keep me awake, remembering that I have to do this or accomplish that and wanting to make sure I remember the next day to get those jobs done. But from January to April of each year, the nightmares are about the legislature. Thinking about testimony, thinking of ways to combat legislation coming to a committee, thinking about who can we get on “our side” to help stop or sufficiently change legislation. Going over testimony in my mind as I try to go to sleep. It’s hard to edit that way and then remember how to put it on paper the next day but by working it out in my mind as I try to go to sleep I can think of ways to say things differently that could make the outcome better.

If you had unlimited resources to advance our industry, where would you invest your time and money?

I’d spend it on staffing, to get the newsrooms and sales departments back to the level they were just a few years ago. I’d make sure each newspaper had an “investigative” journalist. That’s the part that’s lacking now that I hear so many people complain about newspapers. There isn’t the emphasis on investigative reporting as it used to be.

I’d buy the most modern printing presses and get them to the 28 newspapers that have shuttered their presses in the last few years. In 1993-94, we had 43 printing plants in Kentucky. That’s down to 15 now. We’ve got daily newspapers now that are printing out of state, way out of state. For them to get tomorrow’s issue back home for delivery, they have early press times and earlier deadlines. It’s hurting our industry but perhaps has the ulterior motive of getting readers to switch over to reading the newspaper online because the news there is up-to-the-minute. 

What is something most people don’t know about you? 

There are a few around – Dave and Beth Bennett, Mark Thomas, Bill Rogers, Felicia Mason and Robin Rhodes to name a few – in 1997 who know about this. I “died “four times on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1997, starting at 5:56 p.m. We were practicing handbells at church and I damped (to stop it from ringing) one of the bells on my chest. That set it off. The hospital was only about 2 miles from the church but in the time to get there, EMS personnel had to revive me four times. The bottom third of my heart is “dead” but everything else is ok. I’ve not had any more heart attacks since then – thankfully – though I suffered from atrial fibrillation twice in 2017.

What do you like to do outside of work? 

My wife got me a T-shirt for Christmas that states: “I have a retirement plan. I plan on watching my grandson play baseball.” Well, that’s true but actually it should read “grandsons” since the two oldest had been playing baseball for several years. Golfing used to be the pastime but with health issues it takes more effort now so I’m down to just a couple of times each year. The NAM golf outing at the convention takes priority for me in playing.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
How would your advice differ when offered to someone trying to break into the business compared with an industry veteran with 10 to 15 years until retirement?

Wow, you are going to get an education like you never thought you’d need. This industry is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. But you must because otherwise you’ll be left so far behind you’ll never catch up.

Anything else to add? 

Back to what my daughters always said when someone asked what it is their father does, only NAMers really know. Basically no other person in our state has any idea what goes on each day at a state press association. That’s why NAM is so very, very important.

To the ones who haven’t been in their position very long, NAM is the lifeline you need to help you grow in your job. We are all brothers and sisters in NAM and our commitment is to help our comrades in NAM as best we can. Make use of those friendships from day one.

David makes his weekly newsletter a personal note to members, with plenty of links, of course.

–Tom Silvestri