What must SND become?

I am reposting here, with only a few edits for style, comments I posted in a heated thread about the recent resignations of the president and executive director of the Society for News Design. As background, my own long history with SND includes several years on its board of directors, putting on its 1996 annual workshop in Indianapolis, rebuilding and managing its Web site, and providing first-ever live Web reports from the annual competition judging at Syracuse.

These days, I serve no official role, but remain keenly interested in the society's future, as my comments describe:

Friends,

I begin to think why Matt [Mansfield, former president] resigned, and why Elise [Burroughs, departing executive director] is leaving, and why it takes so long to answer all the whys, all quickly become irrelevant questions. No time to waste here.

The only relevant question is: What must SND become not only to survive, but to remain relevant — and help journalism thrive in whatever form it takes in coming years.

Some thoughts, more from outside than in these days:

  1. SND must represent the brightest thinking focused on innovation in communicating the news. Typeface du jour? Web width of the month? Hell, no. Attracting and engaging news consumers and enabling communities around the news? Oh, yeah! Can SND honestly say it holds any industry leadership position there? Ask your publishers. Ask your interactive leaders. Hell, ask your editors. I don’t think the answer will be what you want to hear from any of them.
  2. SND needs about half the legislative overhead — and about twice the revenue streams to reinvest in Item 1 above. That means: smaller board, more functional/less celebratory annual workshops (I’m living proof they’re possible), less charity on pricing at the high end (veteran professionals) so it can offer more charity at the low end (students and newbies).
  3. SND needs to recognize that “being international” does not require the financial and emotional drain of spreading workshops around the world. Global chapters can and do hold their own events, and they’re much more cost effective than all the trade-offs the society endures to move the big event away from its largest membership base in North America. We have entered an age of instantaneous global communications at incredible fidelity. Important strategic messages, best practices and just plain great work can be shared easily without face-to-face. All the offshore workshops do is put a very expensive exclamation point on the sentence that says “international.” The media business can't afford to waste time or money that way.
  4. Headquarters needs to be either in academic or professional quarters, probably wherever the new executive director resides. Negotiate leases with the nearest journalism school or nearest newspaper, either of which nowadays is likely to have office space and shared services at bargain prices.
  5. The interactive training and competition are, well, OK. But interactive is headed in a profoundly different direction than Flash graphics. And again, SND has almost no voice among the interactive leadership of most media companies. You get that when you start focusing on holistic user experience: news, information, advertising, community, interactivity, data, and then visualizations. Remember that while SND regulars worry about elaborate feature page spreads, the world has turned the basic unit of communication into 140 characters of text (a tweet or social status message). How does SND apply to that?
  6. SND headquarters needs respectable Web content management, tied to a respectable CRM system for membership management, tied to an enterprise-grade database management system for the competition(s), events, job bank, portfolios, all the stuff that sat in lil' ol' FileMaker all those years. I know it too well — a lot of it still looks like guts of the stuff I built on the fly in, oh, 1997. And that scares me, too.
  7. Which leads me to: SND needs to pay better than a living wage to its exec and staff, because managing all that stuff and cat-herding the board, officers and members (admit it, this is the most vocal and emotional group you'd ever expect to have to manage, right?) — well, that commands a salary and bonus plan that will attract top talent.

All right, I'm done. I still pay for my membership. And I'll keep paying, I think, because I genuinely like the people behind SND and want to see it thrive again. But please hurry. And waste no more time than necessary airing the laundry.

Thanks for hearing me out.