When I took over as president of our professional chapter last summer, I knew that one of my duties would be to boost membership. I learned quickly, though, that such a goal is not so easily accomplished. The conventional phone tree and bullying of friends and co-workers were largely ineffective in signing up new members. As my term as president nears an end, I’ve found that innovative, diverse programs that will reach a broad audience are the best tool you have for drawing new members into the fold.
Probably one of our most successful programs was a recent Internet seminar we conducted that featured two Web gurus who taught us how to better navigate cyberspace when researching stories. We used our chapter grant money, supplemented with funds from our treasury, to bring these two speakers to San Diego from Los Angeles and the Florida area.
We were able to attract a number of people who were not SPJ members, and several told us they were so impressed with the program and its usefulness that they intended to join.
As we do at every program, we had membership materials available at our sign-in desk, and we always make a membership pitch at the beginning. We also host a half-hour reception that allows people to mingle, drink and eat before the actual presentation begins.
More recently, we had a panel discussion in which we featured two journalists from Baja California. They gave us their perspective on what it’s like to practice journalism south of the border. Living as we do so close to Mexico, the program seemed like a natural fit, and yet we had never thought of it before. Most of our programs germinate at board meetings where we brainstorm ideas.
The timing for this particular event was especially ideal, given all the recent attention to immigration reform and, more locally, continued crime and corruption just south of the border.
For planning purposes, I will typically delegate the task of organizing whatever program we are hosting to the board member who seems to have the most interest in or knowledge of the subject. On occasion, I will take that job myself. Because we have a diverse board, from broadcasters and online journalists to print reporters and journalism professors, we’re able to draw from our own interests and expertise to come up with interesting programs.
One of our board members, J.W. August, who works for a TV news station that recently debuted a Spanish-language news channel, proposed the idea of inviting Mexican journalists to come speak to us. He worked with a Latino journalist at the station where he is managing editor to round up some panelists, who come from the print and broadcast world.
To get the word out, we sent fliers via e-mail to our members, as well as to the members of the other journalism organizations in town, including the San Diego Press Club, and we posted fliers in our newsrooms and on college campuses.
The program, though, did not go off without a hitch. Our town-car driver got confused on the time and never showed at the appointed meeting place.
Thanks to a co-worker of mine who is fluent in Spanish and knows one of the panelists, she was able to convince two of the three to wait at a border restaurant for the limo driver, who rushed over to pick them up after we contacted him about the mix-up. The program got started about 25 minutes late, but our panelists and guests stayed a half-hour later because the subject matter was so compelling and there were so many questions to be answered.
Our two panelists — Dora Elena Cortez, a 30-year veteran in radio and print, and Juan Guizar, who covers cops for Mexican network Televisa — confirmed for us that Baja California can indeed be a dangerous place to be a reporter.
The journalists stressed that as long as they are fair in their stories and do not take sides, they can generally feel safe. Homicides, they say, have become commonplace, an outgrowth of the drug trafficking that feeds the demands of U.S. consumers.
“When I haven’t even opened my eyes, my phone starts ringing letting me know there has been a shooting,” said Guizar. “It’s my job. That’s how I see it. Tijuana is going through a civil war, it’s fighting for a spot to sell drugs to the U.S.”
While residents south of the border are aware of the lawlessness of the area, many would prefer not to see it on the news or read it in the papers, the journalists told us.
“Very frequently, we are told that we should do more positive stories,” said Cortez. “People think if we don’t publish this it won’t happen. They say, ‘Stop covering that.’
“We would like to leave it behind, but we can’t do that. It’s there.”
Bottom line, any SPJ chapter can score with a compelling program that has wide appeal and plays off issues in the news or timely topics in the journalism industry.
If executed successfully, these kinds of programs can become a very effective tool in recruiting new members. I know that in the last year, we’ve had 18 new members sign up, many of whom I’m sure were impressed by our programming.
With those kinds of numbers, I know our chapter will be even more motivated to sustain this level of monthly programming. We’re already talking about reprising our Mexican journalists panel for next year. It was a hit worth repeating.