By: George Garneau
At the rejuvenated Atlanta Press Club, boozing is
pass?, and journalism programs are de rigueur sp.
THE ATLANTA Press Club lacks a bar ? but not members.
Despite its nondescript headquarters ? a couple of rooms in the CNN Center shopping mall, down the hall from a convenience store ? the club is resurgent, a glaring anomaly at a time when press clubs around the country are fading into oblivion, victims of shrinking city press legions and changing journalistic culture.
The 30-year-old Atlanta Press Club, on the other hand, boasts a record 555 members ? two-thirds of them working journalists. The rest are public relations practitioners, students, academics and retirees.
The prosperity is relatively recent, however. It took a “revolution” to turn the club around, said past president Maria Saporta, a business columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
By the late 1980s, the club was floundering. “It had become a PR club, as opposed to a journalists club,” Saporta said. “No self-respecting journalist would be caught in the press club,” she said, not even her.
Then the journalists arose, led by Anita Sharpe, a Wall Street Journal reporter. They raised dues for PR members to $150 a year, five times the $30 journalists pay, and revoked voting rights of PR members, two of whom sit on the club’s 18-member board.
And the club was lucky to find a benefactor in CNN president Tom Johnson, a refugee from print journalism who has been a strong supporter and allowed the club free office space.
The club’s new strategy hinged on hiring an executive director, rejecting the idea of a costly bar operation, maintaining a ratio of two journalists for every PR person, holding down dues for journalists, and a strong agenda of programs.
While a lot of PR people initially fled, plunging membership to about 200, the ranks have since regenerated.
“It’s become a true journalists club,” Saporta said. “Most PR people will tell you that it is a far more valuable club because they have true interaction with journalists.”
There is no bar in the club proper ? because journalists simply don’t booze it up as much as they once did ? but in deference to the drinkers, the club also meets at its unofficial watering hole, Manuel’s Tavern.
In the main, the drinking life is part of “the old press club of the past,” said president Karyn Greer of WGNX-TV. “Now people want to get something. They want to better themselves.”
So the club has become “more program-oriented.” Programs involve print and broadcast journalists, PR people, and the growing ranks of minorities.
Club presidents alternate between the print and broadcast media, and, as in the city known as the unofficial capital of African American culture, the club is diverse. Greer is black, as are five of the 18 board members.
Recent activities included a discussion of how to cover issues sensitive to African Americans and a meeting with the Public Relations Society of America and Atlanta bureau chiefs.
It is planning an anniversary of the celebration of racial diversity in journalism (Unity 94), a study of employment practices at local news organizations, and a guide to the city for journalists covering the 1996 Summer Olympics. It is also trying to organize a presidential debate with CNN and Georgia Public Television.
The club has reached out to local news organizations to become corporate sponsors of scholarships and programs. And where once a few members involved themselves in activities, “now there are a lot of worker bees,” Saporta said.
Then there are also more traditional activities like Atlanta Braves baseball tickets reserved for members.
Finances are rebounding, and the club’s reserve has grown to nearly enough to cover a year’s operating expenses, Saporta said. “People are really high on it, print, broadcast, black, white,” she said. “It’s really developed into quite a news community. The goal, she said, is to be to Atlanta what the National Press Club is to Washington, D.C. ? a place newsmakers seek out to break news.
The secret, Greer said, is listening to what members want, and so far that has helped “to make us a more close-knit community.”