By Kate Prahlad
APME President Karen Magnuson promised 500 great ideas from this year's conference. As of Tuesday, she had 442.
"But I'm happy to report that we're close to 500 before the conference even started," said Magnuson, who is also editor of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle. "We'll far surpass the goal with all of the ideas that will come through handouts at general sessions."
Although the official theme is "Fast Forward to the Future: 500 Great Ideas for Staying Ahead and Producing Great Journalism," optimism in the face of adversity seems to be the unofficial theme of this year's convention.
"The theme urges the conference to focus on being practical, to make our lives and papers better," said Andrew Oppmann, chairman of the 2007 conference and vice president for audience management at The Tennessean. "We've got to get a bead on what the future holds on us."
Maria Lettman, Naples Daily News managing editor and multimedia director, agreed that "Fast Forward to the Future" was a pertinent theme for the industry.
"It's not enough for people in our business to celebrate what we've already done, or just build on the fundamentals that we're already good at," Lettman said.
"We didn't want the conference to be a gathering where we all sit around and moan and drone about how awful things have become," Oppmann said. "We wanted it to be a statement that the future is possible, obtainable and bright."
The possibilities for the industry are limited only by imagination, said Maria Stainer, assistant managing editor at The Washington Times.
"The door is really wide open," she said. "That's a very freeing thought."
Editors come back from the conferences charged, said David Ledford, the incoming APME president and the executive editor at The News-Journal in Wilmington, Del.
"It's a great time to be a journalist because we've never before had so many different platforms from which to reach readers," he said.
But with the unbridled optimism comes a healthy dose of fiscal reality: Members will consider instituting membership dues for the first time in APME's 74-year history.
Dues are long overdue, Ledford said, put off only partly out of tradition.
"With everything that APME is doing, like NewsTrain which needs consistent funding, the dues even aren't going to be enough to run it," he said. "We'll still have to raise money."
He is hoping the membership approves the modest dues.
"We have to have a bit of infrastructure deeper than what we've got," he said. "Besides for the ongoing operation, we need a little dough."
Stainer said she can understand the reasoning behind the dues.
"If that money can help us continue organizations like APME, it's $150 well spent to continue my membership," Stainer said. "I'd see it as an investment, but I also can definitely see that that might be a struggle for some people."
The conference opens today with a tour and reception at the Newseum, the Freedom Forum's 250,000-square-foot interactive museum of news. APME attendees will be the facility's first official visitors, touring the interactive newsroom, ethics center and other displays.
"The whole reason Washington, D.C., was chosen is that we were hoping to have an exclusive preview at the Newseum," Magnuson said.
The effort to meet in Washington started years ago, said Suki Dardarian, past APME president and managing editor of The Seattle Times.
"It's a completely deliberate celebration of APME's relationship with the Freedom Forum," Dardarian said.
"It's really cool to get into the Newseum before anyone else does," Lettman said. "We love that as journalists."
APME Executive Director Mark Mittelstadt even credited part of the rise in conference attendance to the draw of the Newseum. Although membership has remained steady at about 1,400 in recent years, conference attendance this year rose by about 30 people to an estimated 225.
In an update to the schedule, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will address editors at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, a session that Mittelstadt hopes will address the frustrations of editors about the current business climate and more restricted freedom of the press.
"From homeland security to restrictions on information about toxic chemicals in their own neighborhoods, even to what can be classified, and all the actions taken to weaken the Freedom of Information Act" might be concerns of attendees this year, he said.
On the lighter side, editors can relax a bit in the evenings at a reception at the Newseum, a night at the ESPN Zone, a Wine & Words reception, and an auction with a live band. Comedian Chris White, a former Washington Post editor, will perform at 8 a.m. Thursday.
"APME has a reputation of both working hard and playing hard - with the emphasis on working hard, of course," Magnuson said. "But we've got some really great events at night for editors to let their hair down."
Mark Bowden, editor of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said both work and play events are beneficial.
"You have to do three days of work to take three days off, but it gives you some breathing space, a chance to enjoy some good food and fellowship, and really zero in for a minute why you're in this business," he said.
Dardarian said editors often compare war stories and share recruiting advice.
Lettman values her APME membership for both the learning and the networking opportunities.
"In our jobs, we don't have a lot of time every day to seek out other people and ideas," Lettman said. "It's a great excuse to get away from the daily grind of newsroom, and just think about the future, share ideas and steal a couple."