Challenging Times for Conventions of Color

By: Shawn Moynihan

NABJ, NAHJ and other groups re-evaluate strategy for membership and annual confabs

It’s no secret: Times are hard, especially for journalists of color. As newsroom staffs are continually downsized, the percentages of minority employees dip ever further. Many of those journalists, looking to tighten their belts, these days can often find themselves questioning whether they want to keep paying member dues to professional organizations — and in some cases, either decide to skip an annual convention either because it’s not in their personal budget, or because their employer is no longer going to pay their way to go cover it.

As a result, those journalist groups suffer, for those conventions are in many cases one of their largest sources of revenue. Lowered attendance at journalist confabs and losses in membership are facts of life in the Great Recession — and present a major challenge to the financial future of several organizations.

“I would like to say it’s cyclical, but it certainly is the new reality,” says Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “The reality check is we have fewer members, because of the state of the industry.”

NABJ’s convention this year in San Diego in late July was a financial success — “It took a lot of work, a lot of promotion and a lot of energy, and it worked,” she says — but when the organization hosted its 2009 convention in Tampa, Fla., attendance fell far short of projections and NABJ was hit with $121,000 in hotel attrition penalties — a tab the group is still paying.

That expensive lesson, paired with membership losses (down to 2,739 from 3,707 in 2008) and a dip in corporate donations, a challenge shared by many journalist groups, has NABJ adjusting its strategy — and re-thinking its entire approach.

One of the first tasks: getting its membership back. “We know the prospective numbers are there. We expect to exceed 3,000 by the end of the year by introducing new online services, and we’ll launch an aggressive membership campaign in October,” says Times. Also on the agenda: finding new ways to generate new income, particularly online, and possible emphasis on regional programming.

“Our business model is going to continue to evolve,” she says, and that means asking some hard questions about NABJ’s very identity. “Do we re-brand ourselves as a for-profit entity?” she ponders. It’s a possibility, but in the meantime she’s excited about working with some new partners she could not yet reveal — and NABJ’s 2011 convention is already booked for Aug. 3 to 7 in Philadelphia.

NABJ is also part of the UNITY: Journalists of Color convention hosted every four years, the other participants being the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association. Its 2012 convention is set for Aug. 1 through 4 in Las Vegas.

At that convention, 20% percent of the total revenues go directly to UNITY, while 40% is split equally among the four member organizations. The groups all get a piece of the remaining 40% based on attendance.

Such a split can make some of the participating groups ponder additional partnerships with other journalist groups in order to share a convention space, if not resources. NABJ, for one, has talked with the Society of Professional Journalists. Could more such conventions co-hosted by several groups be on the horizon?

Richard Prince, a longtime champion of newsroom diversity and author of the newspaper diversity-themed blog “Journal-isms” for the Maynard Institute, thinks so. “I think this is one of those times when practicality trumps all else,” he says. “All of the journalist-of-color organizations seem to realize that meeting jointly might be a cost-saver. It can be done in a way that maintains the individual identities of each organization. There is a precedent with Unity.

“Each of the groups has already taken steps to stress the teaching of skills as a way of making the conventions more relevant to journalists on pins and needles about their future,” he continues. “We just had a moving discussion on the NABJ listserve about what the organization means to our psyches. That’s not to be underestimated; it means a great deal. We just need to make sure our finances are up to the task.”

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) will host its 2011 Multimedia Convention & Career Expo in Orlando, Fla., on June 15-18 at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. It’s a shrewd move: Michele Salcedo, the association’s president, points out that many journalists who might otherwise consider passing this year but didn’t really want to miss the event could combine it with a family vacation.

NAHJ has had its own share of financial challenges, both in convention attendance and in membership loss (down to 1,532 as of September 2010, from 2,292 in October 2008). Until recent years, its two biggest corporate sponsors were the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder — one of which remains in bankruptcy, and one of which no longer exists. Corporate sponsorship for the group’s 2010 convention in Denver came in at $392,500, lower than in previous years. Attendance at the event was lower than expected, but the group didn’t have to pay any hotel penalties.

“We’re facing some pretty stark realities,” Salcedo says of the new landscape in which NAHJ now finds itself. “We’re looking closely at what needs to be done.”

The group’s conventions are planned by staff and volunteers, who spend anywhere from three to six months working on events and programming. The question then becomes, as Salcedo puts it, “Can we put this amount of staff time in an event that is not producing the amount of revenue that is required? Is the investment of time that it takes to plan these national events worth the revenue that we get in return, or do we need to focus on other ways of doing that in order to continue our work?”

Member dues, she says, “never covered a huge chunk of our budget. We never have and never will be able to sustain ourselves through that.” Corporate sponsors, to whom she says NAHJ is continually grateful, are needed to help sustain the organization.

“Members understand the challenges that are before us, and they have been there to help sustain us,” she adds. “But at the same time, we’re going to have to find ways to make those programs we provide pay for themselves.”

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