When the Nieman Lab tweeted yesterday that it had published my journalism predictions for 2011, I couldn’t recall what all I had predicted. I had sent my forecast a couple weeks earlier, in response to a request from Lois Beckett. I remembered predicting a few things off the top of my head, but didn’t immediately recall what I had forecast.
One of the predictions made a stronger impression with some of my tweeps:
We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.
The Twitter reaction:
I responded (with a typo; I meant “thought,” not “though,” of course):
Scott Leadingham of the Society of Professional Journalists answered:
So here’s that post:
Journalism organizations are in peril. Their leaders need to make tough decisions about what roles they need to serve for the future and how they need to refocus, reorganize, update, merge and share resources to perform those roles.
I take no pleasure in writing this. Good friends and people I admire have lost their jobs already as journalism organizations made difficult decisions. And I know many more will lose their jobs before the surviving organizations reach sustainable positions. I don’t write to advocate that anyone should lose their jobs. I write instead in recognition that people are already losing jobs and no one is close to stopping the bleeding. I see organizations that appear more inclined to make drastic incremental moves in hopes of outlasting a crisis rather than transforming dramatically for a world that won’t be turning back.
Before I elaborate, I should disclose that I have had associations with dozens of press associations, journalism organizations and institutes as a board member, employee, member, consultant, guest speaker, panelist and job candidate. I’ll disclose in more detail at the end of this post. Perhaps most significantly, I spent three years working for the American Press Institute, from 2005 to 2008. Nothing that I write here reflects any inside information I have from or about any organization. But I think I’m close enough to see what many of these organizations generally need.
All of these organizations rely on multiple revenue streams for the operations that serve their members and constituents: individual donations; foundation grants; corporate support; dues; employer reimbursement for dues and programs; individual investment in programs; fees and tuition for programs, contests and services; exhibitor fees for conferences; advertising sales; selling books, news content and other products; rent; investments and certainly a few I am forgetting or never knew about. As traditional news media have contracted and cut jobs (more than 30,000 at newspapers since the start of 2008, according to Paper Cuts) and as the economy has slowed and the stock market dropped, virtually all of those revenue sources have declined (and in some cases, they probably vanished).
Some consolidation of organizations and their efforts is inevitable and is already happening. The once-competing New England Press Association (weekly newspapers and small dailies) and New England Newspaper Association (larger dailies) merged last year. The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Inland Press Association and Suburban Newspapers of America are holding joint events (I spoke at one in May).
The American Society of News Editors (of which I am a member) called its April convention a “summit” (the most overused word in journalism conferences these days, especially odd in this case since President Obama dissed the editors in favor of an actual summit). The stated goal was collaboration with other organizations, but a secondary fact was that ASNE, which canceled its 2009 convention, could boost its attendance if it attracted a few leaders of other organizations. It did bring in some presidents and directors from other journalism groups, but even so, the crowd was notably smaller than past ASNE Washington meetings.
Afterward, former ASNE President Tim McGuire called on the organization (which last year changed the N-word in its title to from Newspapers to News) to merge with the highly redundant Associated Press Managing Editors (I suggested an ASNE-APME merger last year, with McGuire’s agreement, and former ASNE President Ceppos called for a merger in 2008).
In the 1990s, organizations serving racial and ethnic minorities decided to meet jointly every few years and formed a new organization, Unity: Journalists of Color. The original purpose of Unity was, well, unity. But maybe that conference will meet more often, even annually, to share conference costs among the member organizations. Financial problems at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists led to speculation last year about a possible merger of Unity groups.
In happier times, separate organizations developed for different types of reporting specialties – investigative reporters, religion writers, health reporters, agricultural reporters, statehouse reporters, environmental journalists, food writers, military reporters, outdoor writers, obituary writers, travel writers, science writers, sports writers on different beats – plus copy editors, designers, editorial writers, columnists, cartoonists and photojournalists, not to mention the umbrella Society of Professional Journalists. Most, if not all, of those organizations are suffering now, as growing numbers of members can’t afford to renew dues and attend conferences, and fewer members attending conferences means fewer exhibitors and sponsors supporting them, too. The website of Criminal Justice Journalists doesn’t list a conference since 2008. It’s not uncommon to see contest deadlines extended, in hopes of getting a few more entry fees from journalists looking for an award to list on their resumes.
Among the essential services these journalism organizations provide for their members these days is assistance for those who have lost their jobs. The Education Writers Association announced earlier this year that it is changing from a paid membership organization to an “open community.”
The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism is thriving with heavy grant funding, and providing some shelter in the storm for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
I don’t know what’s the best future for these organizations, but it seems clear that if they can’t find significant grants (and the big ones an organization would need are hard to come by) the only ways to continue serving their members are some sort of significant transformation or sharing of resources such as administrative overhead and conference costs. They may merge. They may continue as separate organizations with shared administration and joint conferences: separate presidents but a shared executive director and staff; some shared general sessions at conferences, some specialized breakout sessions, but shared hotel commitments and registration/promotion costs.
Despite the interest showed by my tweeps (admittedly just a few, but some of them are leaders of some of these organizations), none of this is exactly a revelation. Poynter’s Steve Myers detailed extensive problems last year among journalism nonprofits and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote about cutbacks at the Newspaper Association of America and ASNE before their meetings in April.
I haven’t heard of a major journalism organization folding yet (I might have missed one), but the World Press Institute suspended operations in 2007. It resumed programs the next year. The Society of Metro Editors, formed in 2005, appears to have vanished without ever finding its legs. I was part of an informal newsroom trainers group that never became an official association but operated a website and a listserv and had an annual conference, first at the Freedom Forum and later at Poynter. It doesn’t meet any more, though journalists need training more than ever. I fully expect a formal organization with a long and proud history will go out of business soon, perhaps several.
State press associations seem prime candidates for mergers. Only one important function of state press associations – statehouse lobbying – needs to be conducted in state capitals. In geographically large states, conferences may need to be conducted in individual states (if attendance remains high enough to justify conference costs). But other functions such as advertising services, conference planning and administration could be conducted more efficiently on a regional level.
I was pleased to be involved this year in one collaborative effort by state and regional press associations. At one time, many of those organizations conducted robust training programs, traveling to different cities to present seminars. But depleted staffs are having trouble freeing members even to drive a couple hours to receive valuable training. So the Online Media Campus is offering webinars, a collaboration of the Iowa Newspaper Foundation and Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, supported by 32 other press associations. Participation in my three webinars was strong.
Webinars are a small example of the kind of innovation that journalism organizations need to explore to survive and thrive. Seminars at API and the Poynter Institute used to be career-boosting experiences, when journalists spent a week (sometimes more) with peers, networking and learning at a depth you couldn’t match in quick workshops. Both organizations offer fewer and shorter programs now. API used to present seminars practically every week without a holiday. Now its website lists no 2011 seminars less than two weeks before 2010 ends.
I was involved last spring in an effort to update and revitalize API’s Executive Development Program, once a nearly essential training experience for aspiring publishers. I hope the new EDP gives API an essential program for preparing media executives to lead their organizations through the changes ahead.
Poynter remains relevant largely through its vibrant web site and through live chats, webinars and online instruction through its News University, a grant-funded program with minimal program costs for participants and no travel cost or time. It offers more on-campus programs than API, but still notably reduced from just a few years ago. Poynter’s popular National Writers’ Workshops, once held annually at several locations around the country, hosted by local newspapers that paid the costs, have almost vanished. I haven’t spoken at one since 2007. I think I was invited to one in 2008. I can’t recall any being promoted last year. I thought they had been dropped entirely, but Poynter hosted one in St. Petersburg in December.
Journalism organizations need creative and courageous innovation that goes deeper than adding workshops in video editing and social media to conference lineups. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but if I were leading one of these organizations, this would be my highest priority, more important than all the other urgent matters combined. They need to serve members through social media, webinars and blogs, but that’s barely a start. They need to innovate in structure and outlook. They need to align to the new jobs and needs of the industry. They need to help members see a future brighter than today, or journalists and organizations worried about the future won’t invest their time and money.
The American Press Institute thrived in 2007 because of the vision and optimism of our Newspaper Next project. That was a difficult year for the industry, but a stellar year for API because we developed something that was exactly what our industry needed. I was too close to N2 to say how much we failed to advance that vision and optimism or how much the newspaper failed to respond boldly enough. But N2 did not lead newspapers to their next business model. They remain rooted in their failing model and API has faded from the prominent position it enjoyed at N2’s peak.
The Online News Association had one of the few robust journalism conferences this year, because the organization and its members see a more vibrant present and a more prosperous future.
An organization that can’t blend optimism with realism and tangible value won’t last long.
Disclosures: I am a former board member of the Omaha Press Club and Mid-America Press Institute and in my first year as a board member of the Religion Newswriters Association (and the related Religion Newswriters Foundation). As mentioned, I spent three years working for API. I am a member of ONA, SPJ and ASNE and a former ASNE committee co-chair (I just received my solicitation to renew my ASNE membership and I haven’t decided yet whether I will). I am a former member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and RNA and a former president of the North Dakota Associated Press Managing Editors. I have been a guest speaker for more than 60 press associations and journalism organizations in the United States, Canada and Latin America. I have been a candidate for executive positions with some journalism nonprofits. I write this as a friend, wishing prosperity and happiness for colleagues and clients and for organizations that have served journalism well.
I won’t disclose details of what I did or didn’t do to advocate for transformation of any of the organizations where I have played key roles. But it would be a valid criticism to say that I was in some instances passively involved and did not provide the voice for change that those organizations need now from their leaders. Where I was a voice for change, I was not persuasive enough to succeed in leading significant change.