Admission Committee Must Be Gatekeeper

I appreciate Marty Levine’s balanced, thorough, and exceptionally long article on the AAN admissions process, but I’m not sure the process is as controversial as the top of the story implies. Two things . . .

First, the people complaining are connected with papers that were rejected. While the committee has had many rejected papers actually thank us for constructive criticism, we understand that some rejected papers will be bitter – including well-executed papers that we recommend against because they failed to meet some requirement for admission stated in AAN’s bylaws.

Second, if you re-read last year’s recommendations, you’ll see that most of the juicy, over-the-top comments quoted in Marty’s piece came from our write-ups of two papers: the Independent Florida Sun and the Beverly Hills Weekly.

The Sun, it turned out, was indeed a “vanity press for a smart, ambitious, and potentially dangerous cabal” led by right-wing MSNBC Scarborough Country host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough. And the Beverly Hill Weekly, undoubtedly a real money-maker, had (literally) nothing to do with journalism (which the committee had pointed out, somewhat more kindly, the year before).

Neither application deserved to be taken seriously, although the committee did spend time reading them and discussing their quality. Having fun with them was just that – fun – plus a chance to reinforce some basic AAN values with hyperbole.

The rest of the recommendation critiques are tame, balanced, and constructive to the point of being dull reading. The applicants may not agree with what was said, but believe me, nothing was said lightly.

So from where I sit, we have a manufactured controversy over a couple of vehement critiques (of papers that should never have applied) being fueled by a couple of publishers of rejected papers. I’ve been the go-to guy on AAN admissions for several years, and, honestly, I haven’t heard anyone inside the organization calling for a revolution.

Sure, there’s lots to discuss and hairs to split, but no change in policy would admit Beverly Hills Weekly. And if it did, AAN’s mission would be so diluted that membership would be worthless.

So don’t be distracted by the committee’s violent negativity toward a few editorial miscreants. And don’t let rejected papers use that negativity to justify themselves or to characterize the Admissions Committee. You’re all journalists; smell the smoke-screen. Applying papers that deserve to be taken seriously are taken very seriously. I’ve never seen a group work harder (or care more) for money than the Admissions Committee has for free. And we’ve been good gatekeepers.

Applying papers should remember that mandatory criteria stated in AAN’s bylaws specify that member papers must have general-interest (i.e. not just news; not just arts) content. The committee cannot ignore that and will continue to reject papers that don’t meet specifications, regardless of their quality. (Rolling Stone and The New Republic, for example, would be rejected.)

But as I said to Marty, when he interviewed me, rejecting the unreconstructed community papers and the niche papers is easy – as is recommending in favor of a fully formed alternative. It’s evaluating the papers that are trying to do the right thing but not doing it very well that constitutes the challenge. And it’s not easy to sort them out – especially when you know a paper is hampered by market, budget, and the size of its local talent pool. This is especially difficult since we know that AAN’s potential growth now lies in small-market papers.

Also remember, that if the Admissions Committee is hard-assed and cranky, it’s hard-assed and cranky on behalf of the Board and the membership who have charged the committee with maintaining the integrity of AAN.

To that end, the Board and the committee welcome any comments and suggestions from inside the organization. Does AAN want to let shoddy papers from small markets into the organization – just because they’re from small markets? That may be stating a blunt extreme, but it’s a serious question. AAN membership cuts both ways – AAN represents its member papers, but its member papers represent AAN.

Clif Garboden
AAN vice president and former admissions chair