A satellite falling out of orbit

It is a big deal, or at least it used to be, when the nation’s publishers and editors gather at an annual conference to talk about business, craft, the role of newspapers in democracy, information technology, and the future. The latter has dominated the conversation lately so the mood has been decidedly somber.

But the despair of recent years seemed muted last week when about 1200 leaders from the news industry came to Washington at a joint conference of the Newspaper Association of America, American Society of Newspaper Editors and a newspaper production and technology exhibition.

Resignation filled the corridors of Washington’s drab and confusing convention center as publishers and editors contemplated the demise of the printed newspaper amid the emergence of digital media. The annual sessions with political leaders, as well as the opening of the industry’s $450 million museum, provided the only energy for a satellite falling out of orbit.

For that matter, there was little enthusiasm for the session on social media in which I participated. About 60 people attended our session. My slides are here.

The conference exposed troubled and turbulent times for newspapers. The technology hall was deserted, a stark contrast to the high-energy, shoulder-to-shoulder exhibitions that other sectors hold. One major publisher held a high-profile retirement party for a news exec getting out while the getting is still there. Editors shared painful stories about change, layoffs, finding news jobs, and dreams deferred. Some, already retired, returned to spin tales of better days gone by.

As with all their conferences, NAA and ASNE made and spun news. Highlights from a strange, sad week.

— At a luncheon for the editors hosted by the Associated Press, MediaNews founder and CEO Dean Singleton quizzed Sen. Barack Obama about whether he would send more troops to Afghanistan, where “Obama bin Laden is still at large?” “I think that was Osama bin Laden,” a somber Obama answered.

— Two reporters covering Sen. John McCain greeted their-favorite-senator-running-for-president with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and sugar-coated questions that brought groans from fellow journalists. “We even brought you your favorite treat,” said AP’s Liz Sidoti. “Oh, yes, with sprinkles!” replied the candidate, who ate it up.

— A glass elevator in the Newseum stocked with colorful cocktails lifted news execs to seven floors of digital exhibits and sumptuous spreads prepared by Wolfgang Puck. In a city of free museums, the public must pay $20 for the privilege, drinks not included, of appreciating the Constitutional amendment that guarantees citizens free speech and a free press. Happily, the best of the Newseum is free: the daily, front pages of newspapers displayed as posters outside the building.

— The Newspaper Association of America issued a press release boasting that newspaper-owned web sites earned more revenue than all local media companies combined. Reason to celebrate, I suppose, if you ignore the pure-play Web sites that now have a 44 percent share of the local online ad market, eclipsing the share held by newspaper sites, currently about 27 percent and sinking. Which is like saying that Sen. Clinton is the leading the Democratic candidate if you don’t count Sen. Obama.

— The American Society of Newspaper’s annual census showed that the number of full-time journalists working at America’s daily newspapers shrank by 4.4 percent in the past year, the largest decrease in the past 30 years. Given the performance of newspaper moderators at the candidates’ sessions, it appeared as if the best journalists had either left their jobs, were laid off, or didn’t attend the newspaper conference.

See Also: The Burn

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