July 30, 2012

Knight-Ridder Newspapers hired me straight out of college. Paying my membership fees to professional journalism associations and covering costs to annual conventions was a perk in the company’s recruiting package. But Knight-Ridder is no longer with us, and it’s been years since a company offered to pay my professional membership dues, let alone pay my way to a journalism convention.

Recently, a young journalist approached me to ask how to choose the right journalism association. As a struggling, recent college graduate, she said that she couldn’t afford to belong to them all.

Neither can I. Especially not now that I — like many other veteran journalists in this retracting industry — have to invest my own hard-earned dollars.

Up until the past year I belonged to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and its local chapter affiliate, the Online News Association, and the National Association of Black Journalists and its local chapter affiliate. Unfortunately, I had to let three memberships lapse; I remain active with ONA and the national chapter of NABJ.

Why joining an association is “a combination of head and heart”

Joining a journalism association isn’t easy. After all, there are so many to choose from. The Council of National Journalism Organizations lists 65 associations and affiliated groups — everything from the Association of Food Journalists, to a group for college media advisers, to several associations for journalists of color. (FYI: You don’t have to be of a certain race or ethnicity to join any of the organizations for journalists of color.)

Professional associations allow journalists to make connections, and get story ideas, training, mentoring, job leads and more.

I joined NABJ — an advocacy organization for black journalists and the largest organization for journalists of color — when I was a journalism student at the University of Georgia working to address the record number of black students who were being denied admission into the college’s journalism school. I’ve been a part of the organization ever since because it feeds my soul, and its members (many of whom I consider friends), help remind me why we do what we do.

A couple of years ago I joined the Online News Association after one of my NABJ friends gave me tickets to attend the organization’s conference workshops in Washington, D.C. I knew then, as I know now, that ONA was at the forefront of the future of journalism and that I needed to be part of it.

Joining a professional organization is a combination of head and heart, said Jill Geisler, senior faculty member with The Poynter Institute who specializes in newsroom management and leadership. “First you decide with your heart what group really relates to where your passion is,” said Geisler, who is also the author of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.” That includes organizations for traditionally underrepresented individuals in newsrooms and in communication, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, NABJ, NAJA, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, she said.

But joining a professional association is also a strategic business decision. The Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS) is perhaps less known than more traditional organizations, but is highly powerful, Geisler said in a phone interview. Female journalists are likely drawn to the organization by their hearts and desire to support other women in journalism, Geisler said, but the organization’s strengths are networking and sharing of job opportunities.

“They network to beat the band. When one person hears about a job opportunity, they will post it on an internal list serve and tell everybody else about it. They have meet-ups that are informally hosted around the country. They are just incredibly supportive,” Geisler said. “That’s important because so many journalists are in transition; JAWS supports a lot of people who are in non-traditional journalism organizations as well as people who are in traditional organizations.”

The perks, challenges associated with conferences

My affiliation with journalism associations has helped me stay current on industry trends. It has also enabled me to collaborate and commiserate with others who share similar experiences and can understand the unique challenges present in the workplace and in the changing media landscape.

If I have one complaint about journalism associations, however, it’s poor planning. Nowhere is this more evident than with scheduling annual conventions.

First, there are too many. Second, because there are so many, they often overlap with one another. ONA’s 2012 convention will be in San Francisco, the Associated Press Media Editors annual conference will be held in Nashville, and a convention jointly sponsored by SPJ and the Radio Television Digital News Association is scheduled in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. All will take place around the same time in late September. Even if participants could afford to attend all three events, they couldn’t because they can’t bi-locate.

It’s a problem, acknowledged Benet Wilson, the program chair for this year’s NABJ Convention, which took place last month in New Orleans. “There does need to be more collaboration to better serve journalists,” said Wilson, who thinks associations can do a better job spreading out conferences throughout the year.

This year I could only afford to attend one conference; I plan to be in San Francisco in the fall. It hurts to miss out on some of the unique programming and camaraderie that NABJ conventions always provide, but in terms of career advancement, attending ONA’s conference makes more sense for me.

Wilson, though, is one of the lucky ones. The former online managing editor for McGraw Hill’s Aviation Week is now director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Both employers covered the cost of her professional association dues and convention registrations. She has faced logistical challenges, however.

Wilson recalled being among a group of journalists last year who had to leave the ONA conference in Boston early in order to fly directly to New Orleans for the Excellence in Journalism conference hosted by RTDNA and SPJ. “Most people can’t just turn-around like that,” said Wilson, who is also a freelance journalist and chairwoman of NABJ’s Digital Journalism Task Force.

Combining conventions the way SPJ and RTNDA is doing speaks to the fact that many participants are no longer being underwritten by their employers. Joining forces also benefits the organizations.

The combination hasn’t necessarily resulted in significant savings for RTNDA and SPJ, said SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel. But it has meant more bargaining power when the associations negotiate with convention hotels and other vendors — savings that are ultimately passed on to members. It also allows the associations to combine resources.

RTNDA and SPJ came together more so out of philosophical reasons than financial, Skeel said.

“There’s a lot of redundancy in the type of programming associations provide to their members. So it only made sense that, if we were teaching both sets of members the same thing, we combine our efforts,” he said by phone. “We got together and said, ‘let’s not ask journalists to choose.’”

Julie Asher, president of the SPJ-DC Pro Chapter who attended last year’s joint conference, said more variety and richer programming is an added benefit to the joint conference. “It also brought people together that you wouldn’t normally meet,” she said by phone.

Collaborations don’t always work out, however. Case in point is NABJ’s recent separation from UNITY due to revenue and governance issues. NABJ decided last month that it would not return to the alliance.

Even when it comes to the way members work together in individual associations, harmony isn’t always easy. Dissent seems to be standard operating procedure lately within the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, where the current election process has been marred by questionable practices and embarrassing disputes. (Richard Prince, writing for the Maynard Institute, has been following NAHJ’s election issues closely if you want to read more about it.)

Making your decision

Whether it’s joining the Association of Health Care Journalists or the National Press Photographers Association, you really have to determine for yourself what professional organization is best for you. Here are a few broad guidelines to follow:

  • Check out the mission statement for each group.
  • Ask leaders about their vision for the association; ask members what kind of skills or career opportunities they have received as a result of their membership.
  • Compare membership dues for each organization and do a cost/benefit analysis. Is it worth it?
  • Check out the organization’s website and organizational chart. Find out what some of the leaders do and where they work. (If no website exists or if the website isn’t updated, take this as a sign that you’ll want to think harder about joining.)
  • Every organization has its own unique culture. Check it out to see if you fit in. If possible, attend a convention before investing in a membership. Convention rates are usually higher for non-members, but normally you can purchase a day-rate that might be less than the cost of a membership and full conference registration.
  • If you can’t afford to attend a convention, most chapter affiliates host mixers, receptions or workshops throughout the year that non-members can attend. (If chapter affiliates don’t do this, then you might want to take this into consideration when making a decision about whether to join.)
  • Follow your passion, as Poynter’s Geisler suggests. And, if possible, find an organization that can satisfy both your heart and your head.
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