RIP, American Press Institute

From W. LAWRENCE WINTER, American Press Institute President/Executive Director, 1987-2003: As one of Romenesko’s readers reported today, one of America’s longest-serving and most impactful journalism organizations is set to die tomorrow. Quietly. Without fanfare. Without the sendoff it has earned.

The media executives who oversee it have decided that the American Press Institute has outlived its usefulness. They’ve fired the entire staff. They’re abandoning the Institute’s historic Marcel Breuer building in Reston, Virginia. Under the guise of a “merger” with the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) Foundation, API is simply disappearing.

Let’s be honest. This is not a merger. This is a takeover. And, from the ashes of API may someday rise a new NAA training organization of some kind, featuring, probably, Internet-based learning activities. But whatever it is, it will not be API.

The brainchild of Providence Journal Publisher Sevellon Brown, API opened in 1946 in rented space on the campus of Columbia University in New York City. From the start, the Institute attracted newspapering’s best and brightest as discussion leaders, board members and seminar attendees.

The operating principle was staightforward: There was to be no “API way” of doing things. Rather, the Institute welcomed as seminar members newspaper women and men from throughout the country and around the world, and brought in as guest discussion leaders a stream of leading figures from media, management consulting, business boardrooms and the academy. All those “DLs” were given a simple charge: Challenge the attendees; shower them with great ideas, with best practices; send them home energized, inspired and ready to do great things. Discussion leaders typically spent dozens of hours preparing for each three-hour session, critiquing the attendees’ newspapers, noting strengths and challenging inferior work./CONTINUES

API called all this a “total immersion” in a “university of ideas.” From the start – the first API seminar was for managing editors and news editors, September 30-October 18, 1946 – the Institute’s one constant was that it inspired attendees to think deeply about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they might do it better so as to improve their newspapers as essential information providers within our democracy.

Through February 2012, the Institute had welcomed an astonishing total of 42,000 media practitioners to its seminars, workshops and tailored (single-company) programs. Many of those attendees attest today that their most important professional contacts – their key networks of friends and colleagues – were established through API seminars, that their best ideas grew from the discussions and debates in the Institute’s conference rooms , at group meals, and in the hotel hospitality suites where newspapering was the continuing topic and lasting human bonds were forged.

There is no stronger evidence of API’s quality and impact than the list of those who served as the Institute’s discussion leaders and/or board members. Bob Maynard was an API discussion leader, as were Turner Catledge, Scotty Reston, Kay and Don Graham, Orage Quarles III, Jeff Greenfield, Ellen Goodman, Caesar Andrews, Red Barber, Jim Batten, Ben Bradlee, Dorothy Gilliam, Barry Bingham Jr., Mike Gartner, Mario Garcia, Edmund Arnold, Univision’s Guillermo Martinez, Dave Lawrence, Tom Curley, Gerald Garcia, Roy Johnson, Larry Jinks, Ernest Tollerson, Catherine Shen, Cynthia Tucker, Seymour Topping, Dewayne Wickham, Gene Patterson, Sandra Rowe, Clark Hoyt, Jack Germond, John Seigenthaler, Jay Harris, David Broder, management gurus Alan Weiss and Tom Peters, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, political consultant Lee Atwater, New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and . . . well, you get the picture.

Oh, and Yogi Berra.

Yes. Yogi Berra was a discussion leader at the American Press Institute. One can only imagine the linguistic confusion he left in his wake.

Arthur Sulzberger Sr. was a board member at API. And Arthur Jr. and Otis Chandler, Bill Taylor, Charles Pittman, C.K. McClatchy, Barry Bingham Sr., Joe Pulitzer Jr., Don E. Carter, Milton Coleman, Ruth Holmberg, Bob McGruder, Louis B. Seltzer, Paul Miller, James H. Ottaway Sr., Madelyn Jennings, Burl Osborne, George Irish, Al Neuharth, Eugene Pulliam, Tim Hays, Frank Batten and many others who led great newspaper companies.

The Institute, in short, was a key thread in the rich fabric of American journalism for more than six decades.

Now, suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, API is gone.

As the operating head of API from 1987 through 2003, I had the great privilege of seeing the Institute work its magic on thousand of seminar atteendees. I listened to discussion leaders such as Seattle Times Editor Mike Fancher attest that they had learned as much in carrying out their DL duties as had the attendees they taught. I watched with pride as our associate directors developed sessions on workforce diversity for every single one of our seminars, and recruited persons of color to showcase their brainpower and their professional skills as DLs throughout our learning programs.

I had the great fortune of following API executive directors Floyd Taylor, J. Montgomery Curtis, Walter Everett, Mal Mallette and Frank Quine, all of whom cherished the Institute’s role as facilitator of learning, as shaper of better newspaper people, as champion of the role in our society of newspapers large and small, national and local.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. The poor economy of recent years and publishers’ pullback from sending people out of town for training put strains on API’s budget that could not be ignored. No doubt, API’s board and their counterparts at NAA considered all of that with some care. What they decided, it seems, was to fire everyone and start over.

Inexplicably, the deeply experienced staffers at API – experts in the construction of effective training programs for midcareer media professionals – apparently were not asked to contribute ideas for the operating form or program offerings of whatever new entity may be constructed to take API’s place. Or, at least that’s what persons close to the Institute are reporting. The API staff – make that the soon-to-be former staff – is not talking.

So, I guess that’s it.

RIP, American Press Institute.

You done good.

Jesus, you done good.

–30—

W. Lawrence Winter, Ph.D.
Naples, Florida
API President/Executive Director, 1987-2003

Comments

comments

15 comments
  1. Bob Giles sent me to an API Sports Editors seminar in 1976 while I was at Akron Beacon Journal, and I can truly say the experience was career changing.
    I’m also proud to say that API associate directors Mary Glick and Mary Peskin were kind enough to donate a large portion of the library to George Mason University’s Fenwick Library. I hope journalists will visit GMU in here in Fairfax,Va., to share in these treasures.

  2. Walker Lundy said:

    This is one of those decisions that is symbolic of the newspaper business in the 21st Century, where training of the employees is no longer affordable. How terribly sad.

  3. My wife and I both have led API groups. We’re sad. I remain in mourning too for the newspaper I loved, Bob Maynard’s Oakland Tribune, which at its peak had a couple of hundred editorial employees and now has about a dozen. There are forces at work here that are much larger than executive mediocrity or business-orientation of news. America has a thousand fewer daily newspapers today than there were a century ago. A thousand.

  4. Larry Beaupre said:

    How sad. API seminars were critical starting points for being an editor. I was privileged to go on and lead almost two dozen discussions, which were critical to my continued development. The friendships, contacts, experience, knowledge, enthusiasm, professionalism — not as cheap as a webinar, but far more valuable.

  5. After attending a number of API sessions, I can say it was the best training I’ve ever gotten in 33 years of work in newspapers. My first was “management of the community newspaper” in 1982, and it was so impactful. I have always appreciated the new world of understanding API opened up for me early in my career. RIP indeed.

  6. Anonymous said:

    It’s interesting that NAA cites API’s finances. API had an endowment of about $14 million and remarkable real estate. NAA’s fortunes have fallen dramatically in recent years, along a staff that dwindled from about 140 to around 25. Think deeply when you read about the recent spate of journalism “mergers” and new “partnerships.” They are all takeovers and there is always a winner and loser.

  7. Glenn Proctor said:

    I had the pleasure of being an API participant several times and a dozen leader nearly 20 times over a decade. Thank you API.

  8. Sherry Brown said:

    I was an associate director at API for about seven years and watched Bill Winter raise millions for the institute.

    I am deeply skeptical of the API board’s decision to turn over that money to the NAA, foundation or not.

    The API staff deserves a huge hat tip – they kept the place glued together in recent years.

  9. Frank Quine said:

    As a young associate director working at API at Columbia University in the 1970s, I remember standing on the grassy knoll at the API site in Reston with architect Hamilton Smith as he decided how to angle the building. After conducting more than 90 seminars, and spending seven years in Reston as API’s executive director, I can attest to the impact this illustrious training center had on the newspaper executives it touched. After 23 years as an assistant dean at the University of Maryland journalism school, I’m retired now in Reston and live not far from the API building. A visit there this week with Carol Ann Riordan before the shutdown was an emotional walk down memory lane.

  10. William B. Brown said:

    As one who both attended API seminars and led discussions, I am saddened to see that an institution whose sole purpose was to improve our profession — or craft, if you will — is regarded as so dispensable. It is a commentary on the state of journalism as it is practiced in the United States.

  11. Phil Nesbitt said:

    As both a DL in the 70s and 80s and later an Associate Director, I can’t begin to imagine our craft – even in its present state – without the American Press Institute.

  12. Sad and sudden ending a long time in the making. Attended two API seminars early and later a discussion leader, contract developer and deputy director (principally on the computer-assisted Executive Development Program). API was a remarkable and unique island in an industry with an unfortunate bent towards eating its young. We know how that turns out in nature.

  13. Nancy Imperiale said:

    Well said, Walker Lundy. And may I add that it’s indicative of the way old warhorse journalists are treated these days — kicked to the curb for no crime except being experienced.

  14. Bob Burdick said:

    The loss is staggering. API’s mission remains relevant, even if the organization is relegated to the scrap heap. Why? API dealt with how to find and identify relevant content, write stories, edit stories, evaluate stories and manage journalists (if not bosses). It had far less to do with how to deliver such to customers, whether by dragging huge sheets of paper through giant presses or transmitting it via broadcast or the web. The true API function is needed, perhaps more than in a long time. Damn.

  15. Anonymous said:

    API website gone http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/ takes you to NAA Foundation and its meager offerings. All the pages that dealt with API resources, studies, programs and history get a 404 error. Like it never existed. Except for the transfer of millions and a building to be sold. Ruthless.