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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Legacy trade group to disband

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: December 16, 2023, 6:03am

One of the things I like about my job is that there are very few out-of-town business trips. While I enjoy vacation travel, I’m not one for conventions.

But it was sad to learn this week that what once was the largest trade group of U.S. news editors is disbanding. The News Leaders Association announced it is dissolving on or before June 30, 2024.

News Leaders has only been around since 2019. But its roots can be traced to two important journalism trade organizations of the 20th century: the American Society of Newspaper (later News) Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors. These groups were so influential that U.S. presidents regularly came to address them, hoping to win their editorial support. Their annual conventions filled some of the nation’s largest hotels and meeting halls.

I attended precisely one News Leaders convention in 2018 in Austin, Texas. There were maybe 125 of us, and, while it was worthwhile, I could already sense that this group’s heyday was past.

The reason, of course, is that the news business, particularly the newspaper business, remains in serious decline. The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University has already counted 130 U.S. newspaper closures this year, or an average of about 2.5 per week. By the end of next year, a third of all U.S. newspapers will have failed.

A lot of survivors are owned by large chains controlled by investors, who have cut newsroom staff to the point where many newspapers don’t have a local editor in charge. Even fewer have a travel and training budget.

Medill Local News Initiative Director Tim Franklin blames two things for the decline in U.S. newspapers. First, many independently owned newspapers have given up after years of struggling financially. Second, large chains are selling or closing papers to maintain profits as they face declining revenue and large debt burdens.

Although The Columbian’s news staff is about half of what it was at its peak, we consider ourselves to be fortunate. Thanks to the Campbell family ownership that wants to sustain the business into the future, we still employ about 30 people in our newsroom, including five reporters whose salaries are funded by charitable donations.

That’s likely more than double the staff we would have if we were part of a chain like Gannett. Gannett’s Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Ore., used to employ many more reporters, photographers and editors than The Columbian. This week I looked at the Register-Guard’s online staff directory. It listed eight employees, and only three of them were news reporters.

The News Leaders group will attempt to hand off its most important programs before it shuts down. The Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida is now officially in charge of Sunshine Week, an annual event that spotlights the public’s right to know and challenges public officials who would seek to curtail that right.

The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit that is involved in journalism education, will coordinate and sponsor the News Leaders Association annual awards program.

A new champion is still needed for the News Leaders’ efforts toward diversifying journalism, including its annual newsroom diversity survey.

I realize this column has been all gloom and doom, so I want to close with my more optimistic personal take. I think there always will be a place for journalism and an appetite for local news. Enough people will pay for it, at least around here. So there will be roles for journalists to gather, verify and present curated information.

The future will look different, but the essential role and function of journalism must and will continue.