Wednesday, February 20, 2008

About Those Job Fairs UPDATE

A number of updates and changes..

While I've been trying to fend off pneumonia or bronchitis or some combination of the two, several excellent bloggers have been diligently deconstructing Alan D. Mutter's question, "Can Newspapers Afford Editors?"

For the moment, let us set aside the question of whether newspapers are really drowning in red ink or simply not measuring up to Wall Street's ridiculous expectations even though, to my mind, that is the essential question.

In defense of editors, we have had the quality argument (if you've spent more than an hour on the copy desk, you know that Star Reporter isn't necessarily Star Writer or even fully equipped to provide all of the basic elements of a story). And we've had arguments over internet vs. print standards, the writing-is-everything argument and so on. But Doug Fisher lays out an argument that is well worth reading and provides lots of links to other equally thoughtful blogs that further explore the matter. All points are worth discussion.

I just want to address one point that Doug raises, while saying he's partially right. But since it has to do with the early days of ACES, I want to set down the facts before an incomplete account becomes part of the record. It's also important to separate past from future and make clear that I'm primarily addressing statements about the group's early days, though I agree with what Doug says about the future. I also feel, after reading some further discussion tonight, that I've stepped into some previously invisible debate. Perhaps I'm wrong.

Doug writes about ACES:
The dynamic may be glimpsed in the reason it does not have a job fair at its annual meetings -- it implicitly, if not explicitly, has promised not to do that for fear that newspaper managers will not let copy editors come because of the concern they could be lured away. I understand entirely how this came about, but if it is going to be a truly effective organization, it's going to have to reconsider the changing times and the "please, master, may I have some more" orientation.

Here are the facts: As we were establishing ACES, we did indeed choose not to have a job fair and one--but only one--reason was a very clear message from the people funding the startup that having a job fair would keep some companies from sending employees or even allowing them the time off to attend. That was reality. Having been a recruiter and having listened to infuriated editors who had covered the costs of sending people to other conventions, only to have them find jobs and quit, I knew that ACES wouldn't get off the ground if we were seen as simply a hunting ground for recruiters. We had recruiters salivating at the chance to find copy editors. We heard stories about people having to pledge not to job hunt if the papers allowed them to go. (And by the way, many copy desk people attended on their own dime, unlike other conventions.) We made semi-sarcastic jokes about it--if you're so worried about your employees getting out the door that you're going to try to keep them locked in, maybe you're doing something wrong. We also knew that copy editors didn't need ACES to find a job.

But, and this is extremely important, a bigger factor in that decision had to do with what we were trying to accomplish. A job fair has a way of becoming the focus for too many people attending conventions. We were very determined to make the ACES conference--and we insisted on calling it a conference to differentiate ourselves from other groups' conventions--about serious skills training and journalism topics. That educational mission was a reason that, time after time, senior editors who came to our conferences marveled at how people were in workshops, not standing around in the hallways chatting up recruiters but rather focused on improving their skills. That, along with not devoting a lot of energy to promoting social events, set the tone of the conference, in my opinion. A recruiter who attended an early ACES conference tells an amusing story about sitting in the bar with another recruiter, waiting for people to turn up at his elbow and start pitching themselves, the way they would at other newspaper conventions. Instead, a bunch of copy editors walked in, introduced themselves to the recruiters, ordered drinks and went off to a separate table, completely uninterested in sucking up to the recruiters. Copy editors were there to improve themselves.

We knew that recruiters would attend and if people wanted to find one, they could. We also knew that the market was such that people didn't need job fairs to find work. It would most likely find them. But recruiting could not and would not be a primary piece of the conference.

I cannot speak to what ACES can do now or should have done since I haven't, for family reasons, participated in the organization, beyond the educational fund, for a long time. Certainly in the decade since the group got going, the industry has changed radically. And there's an open question in my mind as to whether all the journalism organizations, who best represent the people who are getting clobbered by the cutbacks and overall changes, ought to be working together to find some solutions.

But I'm not sure what a job fair has to do with the state of the business now or what it is a fair can do to help any single organization fix the current situation we confront now.

Now I'm off to fight the aforementioned illness that is sapping my energy this week (and the need to prepare for little Ms. Anna's 15th birthday Friday).

Further update: Doug came by and raised another point; I responded on his blog and have altered the original penultimate graf because I hadn't written what I'd intended. Also, I want to emphasize again that the second part of the reasoning on the job fair was the more significant.

It would certainly be interesting to see what impact adding a job fair would have an ACES conferences. I don't know if what corporate money remains would dry up or more registration money would come in because more copy editors would attend because of the job fair. There has always been a certain moral component to corporate funding of minority journalism conventions that ACES could not claim. And I do believe the character, thrust and tone of the conference would change. But it is for current ACES leadership to discuss this; I'm just trying to set the historical record straight before people's partial understanding become confused with fact.

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