By Joe Vaccarelli
Metro State College
Discussion of the Colorado Press Association’s membership policies sparked a large debate on what publications should be eligible for full membership versus associate membership.Currently, free-distribution publications or online-only news organizations are not eligible for full association membership, which is tied to a publication holding a periodical (or second-class) mailing permit.
The difference between the two types of membership may on the surface look small. Both levels of membership allow access to all the benefits the CPA offers – legal advice, training opportunities, legislative lobbying. Associate members can compete in the CPA newspaper contest as long as they in some fashion have a relationship with a full-member publication. But the main difference is that associate members cannot vote in CPA business meetings and can’t be represented on the CPA board.
For many associate members, this inability to serve the industry and the association doesn’t seem fair.
“Everybody’s voice likes to be heard,” said Steve Gall, publisher of the Vail Daily, a free paper.
The association held a meeting, as part of the State of Industry session at the annual convention, to discuss these policies and potential changes. Moderated by Denny Dressman, formally of the Rocky Mountain News, the discussion relied on the opinions and expertise of five newspaper leaders – three full members and two associate members, including Gall.
It took a while, but once it got going, it was difficult to stop the discussion of why some publications have full membership and some can’t get it.
“The way news is delivered is changing drastically,” said Wendy Norris of Colorado Confidential.com, an online news source. “Seventy-one percent of Americans now get their news online, which is earth-shattering in terms of distribution.”
Norris and other associate members with free publications maintained that even though their distribution model may be different, their publications are still held to the same rigorous editorial and ethical standards as paid-subscription publications.
“We hold the same values as paid publications,” said Steve Pope of Colorado Mountain News Media, a newspaper chain of both paid and free publications.
Others worry that opening up CPA membership to free and online publications could compromise the quality of member newspapers in the association. Bob Sweeney, publisher of The (Greenwood Village) Villager and a panelist in the meeting, spoke especially on the need to preserve the system.
“Everyone loves a free newspaper until you get one in your town that competes with you,” Sweeney said. “How do we differentiate on where to put notices and bulletins and who pays for all this? The local paper is the voice of the town and we don’t want to lose that. Every town should have a local, legal paper.”
Concerns about legal notices dominated the meeting. Current law states that governments must place public notices in a “legal” paper, which translates to a paid-subscription publication. This is synonymous to full membership in the CPA. Many publishers worried that if the CPA changes its membership policies to include free newspapers, then the state Legislature will have no problem amending the public notice law, potentially taking much-needed, reliable income from small, community “legal” newspapers.
Bob Moore, executive editor of the Fort Collins Coloradoan, called legal notices “the elephant in the room.”
One of the panel members said he could see changes coming, despite the importance of legal notices to community newspapers.
“Change is the word,” said Bob Burdick, former Rocky Mountain News editor. “We’re in the information business, not solely in the newspaper business. We’re not selling copies of papers, we’re selling information and credibility. But we need to make the distinction between us and gossip blogs. The parameters of this organization can be expanded.”
Dressman said the meeting was held to gather enough substance to put a vote to the CPA membership.
Time will tell if and how much membership parameters will be expanded, but one thing was evident in the meeting, there are an increasing number of free and online publications out there and they want a louder voice in their association.
“We’re being relegated to the kids table,” Norris said.
Corey Reynolds contributed to this report.
Photos by Tom Cooper
Cutline: Wendy Norris, managing editor of ColoradoConfidential.com., said online news organizations like hers are increasing their audiences through Internet usage.