By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
It’s a small group with an imposing name, an unpronounceable acronym and a nameless newsletter, but the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors showed at its annual conference last week that it’s a resilient and inspirational bunch of journalists who uphold the finest ideals of the craft.
A record 107 people attended the conference in the Black Hills, and as many as a third of them (including this writer) were at their first ISWNE meeting. And unlike most gatherings of editors and publishers, the conference included no sessions on how to sell more papers or more advertising, or even on how to deal with the Internet. The society is about journalism, and mainly about editorial leadership in community journalism.
It was founded in 1955 with the goal of improving editorial pages at weeklies, and the only awards it gives are for editorial writing, with one exception – an award for public service through aggressive reporting and interpretation of local government. But even that award requires reverence for language, for which its namesake, the late Eugene Cervi of the Rocky Mountain Journal, was known.
This year’s winner of the top editorial-writing award, Lori Evans of the Homer News in Alaska, echoed the comments of many other attendees when she said the conference recharged her batteries. “Our papers may be very small, but I believe our spirit may be larger than most of us imagine,” the editor of the Morris Communications paper told the awards-dinner crowd.
At the heart of each annual conference are editorial-critique sessions, originally intended to make up for weekly newspapers’ lack of editorial boards. They have expanded to critiques of the editorial and op-ed pages, and sometimes other parts of a paper.
The give and take is often among editors and publishers who know each other well, but they welcome new blood – essential in a group that has about 200 dues-paying members. “ISWNE is a small organization, more like a family than an organization,” said Dick Lee of South Dakota State University.
But even if that is still the case, it’s a far-flung family. Many of those at the conference were from Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the group often meets outside the U.S. Years ago, a British editor endowed a bursary, or stipend, to bring an editor “across the pond” for the conference and give a speech. This year’s recipient was Moira Sleight, managing editor of the Methodist Recorder, an independent paper that is published for Methodists in the U.K. but has a global readership.
Sleight told the audience about her paper and the current state of independent community journalism in Great Britain, which she said may be threatened by “hyper-local” publications that major newspaper chains have started for “small rural areas and city neighborhoods,” typically with a free circulation of 6,000.
Even the British Broadcasting Corp. has gotten into the act, creating Web sites with similar agendas that threaten local papers’ sites, prompting strong lobbying by the newspaper industry against it. “No local paper has the resources to compete with an organization like the BBC,” Sleight said. “If it goes ahead, it will have a very negative effect on many community newspapers.” For Sleight's full prepared remarks, click here.
The learning experiences at ISWNE conferences are not limited to journalism. Tours and local presenters give attendees a taste of the locale, broadening editors’ perspective. The Black Hills gathering included an obligatory trip to Mount Rushmore, but an even more extensive visit to Crazy Horse, where a much larger memorial, this one to the legendary Native American leader, is slowly being blasted out of a mountain.
The group sat in on the most extensive interview ever granted by Ruth Ziolkowski, 81, widow of Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor who started the project in 1948 and died in 1982. The interview was conducted by Jack Marsh, diversity vice president of the Freedom Forum, who also moderated a panel discussion with Native American journalists.
In South Dakota, a state with a large Indian population, Marsh and Larry Atkinson of the Mobridge Tribune have created a journalism diversity program like none in any other state. Their annual conference at Crazy Horse attracts 150 or more Native American students and 35 to 40 mentors, and the American Indian Journalism Institute brings Native American students to University of South Dakota for one of four courses, then places them in internships.
“Native Americans are the most under-represented group in journalism,” Marsh said. Of the 58,000 journalists at U.S. daily newspapers, only 300 are identified as Native Americans, he said, and the number who are actually enrolled as tribe members – which requires at least 25 percent Indian blood in many tribes – is probably about 100.
Back at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, headquarters for the editors’ conference, one agenda item for the group’s business meeting was “Future of ISWNE.” The outgoing president, retired editor Harry Hix of Oklahoma State University, said the group is “making progress” after doubts about its survival a few years ago. Membership topped 200 this year, thanks in part to trial memberships and other recruitment efforts of Chad Stebbins, director of the Institute for International Studies at Missouri Southern State University, who is the group’s executive director.
Stebbins said the organization has improved its publications – a monthly newsletter and the quarterly Grassroots Editor magazine – and is providing more services, such as a hotline for members to ask each other questions about issues that arise at their newspapers, few of which are chain-owned. “The people who have sent in their questions have been amazed by the responses they’ve received,” often as many as 50 in a 24-hour period, Stebbins said.
The hotline also helps maintain a sense of community among the widely scattered membership. For rural journalists, often hampered by the isolation that defines rurality, ISWNE can provide valuable networking and inspiration. For more information, go to www.iswne.org.
(Originally posted to The Rural Blog July 2; for item on editorial awards, see July 1.)