As a publisher, I welcomed Sunshine Week in March.
It was always a valuable opportunity to account for indispensable news coverage and commentary that shined the light on government actions and documented specifics on where improvements in transparency were needed.
It also invited a healthy exercise to explain newspapers’ role in exposing abuses of power, to recognize officials who do the right thing, and to reflect on the hard but necessary work ahead.
Not every newspaper is comfortable in touting its freedom of information success, so they might think of Sunshine Week as an option or novelty. “Our work should stand for itself,” more than one editor told me. “We’re not in the business of marketing.”
That’s outdated thinking, given the challenges newspapers face and their resiliency to stay relevant to the communities they serve. Consider:
How will the public realize that if it weren’t for a curious journalist with a nose for news, or a frontline editor who keeps pushing for facts, or a publisher sweating to finance a newsroom’s quality journalism, or the legal notices published in the newspaper, transparency would be left to government to decide.
And we know how that movie ends.
Looking back on those Sunshine Week stories, I realize we left out one organization to credit, one that usually flies under the radar to complete its mission.
The press association.
I wonder how many readers know the trade organizations for newspapers in the 50 states as well as the 10 provinces in Canada are responsible for pushing for more openness in government and better access to information by working with public officials who share the same conviction. (That often means confronting those who don’t.)
Lobbying or advocating these days in the statehouses on behalf of newspapers isn’t easy. It’s a tough, often mind-numbing assignment.
But press associations press on by alerting publishers and editors to key legislation making its way through the chambers and staying in contact with decision-makers. Press associations employ a point person, often the executive director, to make sure there’s a presence during law-crafting committee and subcommittee meetings when it’s important that newspapers working on behalf of the public are heard.
It’s the press association that orchestrates member collaboration and task forces on issues like public notices to ensure newspapers plan, upgrade strategies and keep themselves up-to-date throughout the year — not just when a legislature is in session.
The press associations are also an important resources for training journalists on how best to gain access to public information and how various laws impact journalists. Some even have annual freedom-of-information awards to highlight individual excellence or a newspaper-wide portfolio showing extraordinary commitment for protecting the public’s right to know.
An added treat for participating in the government process occurs when legislators have been the subject of news coverage that, let’s just say, didn’t go over well with that elected official — even if it resulted in well-deserved criticism. I lost track of the number of legislators I visited who wanted first to talk about the paper’s treatment of them. “Happy” to listen and discuss.
That’s what makes having the press associations as the newspapers’ representative an important service. They can act as a buffer, convener of many voices, respectful advocate, or timely mediator, because ultimately we all want the same thing:
A fair, open and accessible government, right?
In Virginia, during my time as publisher, we also were blessed with outstanding legal counsel who had the deep knowledge and sharp insight that led to improved laws. A tip of publisher’s hat to these colleagues whose advice strengthened the effectiveness of local newsrooms.
It’s unlikely the public hears from newspaper trade associations. What they say or do is usually directed to their member newspapers. Trade association directors would rather work behind the scene and let the publishers, editors and advertising directors be the public face of newspapers.
But in the case of perceptive associations, out of public sight doesn’t mean a lack of relevance to a robust free press and an informed citizenship.
During Sunshine Week, let’s cheer newspaper trade associations and their tireless efforts to help strengthen local journalism and democracy. Keep up the good work and just make sure the sunshine spotlight is fully charged.
Tom Silvestri is the executive director of The Relevance Project, an initiative of Newspaper Association Managers that involves trade groups in the United States and Canada. He is a retired publisher, and his first job after college journalism was a beat reporter.