Sure, it would be fun to wax serious about industry issues in this, my first Quill column as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. But I’ve got something far less highbrow — and yet far more vital to the Society’s future — on my mind: membership.
We need to grow it — and we will if we focus, embrace new ideas and increase our activity level in smart ways.
These aren’t pretty numbers, but I really think you need to see them:
* 12 states have no active professional SPJ chapter.
* As of late July, SPJ had 9,289 members, a loss of 592 members compared to July 2005.
* SPJ reported 9,881 members in late July 2005. Today, nearly 3,300 of those people are no longer members. Retention is a big issue for us.
* Journalists working in newsrooms have dropped their membership at a faster rate than any other category of SPJ member (such as students and retirees). We lost 388 professional members from July 2005 to July 2006.
Take heart. SPJ is hardly the only professional organization suffering membership losses. It’s just that we’re the only one in the United States that can truly lobby for the interests of journalists and free-press rights at a time when our tireless advocacy work is desperately — and I mean desperately — needed. I’m particularly concerned about membership right now because it translates into influence that helps us protect our cherished freedoms, promote the free flow of public information and ethical journalism, open public meetings — and so much more.
Why aren’t the Society’s membership rolls bursting? There’s no one, easy answer. People have limited time and even more limited money. So, when they make room in the schedule and budget to join the Society, they certainly expect something in return.
What are we giving them — and, for that matter, all of American journalism? Plenty. Look no further than SPJ’s recently redesigned Web site. We can see the amazing work the Society manages to get done in only a week. It is truly impressive.
But is it truly personal? We must make it so, and that’s where SPJ’s local chapters could save the day.
Journalists are telling us that they don’t have the time and resources to stray too far from home very often. They’re looking for fewer panel discussions and more hands-on instruction. They want to hear about SPJ’s work across the nation. They want to help the Society as long as its leaders provide them a clear mission and a set of tasks that have a fixed beginning and end. They want interactivity and fun. They like to trade war stories and business cards over beer and burgers. They’re not fussy, and they’re not looking for slick productions that require a lot of time to coordinate and cost a whole lot of money.
Smart, local events that consistently involve membership outreach and information about SPJ’s importance and great work will grow our numbers dramatically. Promise. SPJ’s weakest chapters have one thing in common: They rarely host events — and fail to include any efforts to recruit members when they do.
SPJ’s national leaders and headquarters staff are working hard to develop new initiatives and services to help chapter leaders as they’ve never been helped before. Here are just a few:
Marketing materials and templates to help with the production of polished newsletters and program fliers are available for downloading from spj.org.
Our Web site also explains where chapters can find financial support from SPJ. We’re developing guides to help with fundraising and will post those soon.
A list of effective program ideas is being compiled from annual chapter reports and will be distributed via the Web site.
National At-Large Director Molly McDonough has spearheaded the development of “programming in a box” that will take a lot of the guesswork — and footwork — out of the production of regional conferences.
We’re also revisiting some of the tired, old rules and “traditions” SPJ has in place that make it difficult to reactivate chapters, establish new ones and grow the ones we’ve got. I am particularly interested in seeing more chapters develop statewide approaches and networks that take SPJ into areas where it now has no presence.
I am confident that SPJ will grow its membership this year if we get back to basics. Those basics include contacting me early and often. I need to know how SPJ can serve you better. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line.