By GINA CHERELUS
With about 65 journalism associations and groups in existence, there are so many to choose from when deciding possible memberships. When selecting strategically, being a member in organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and even the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) can give someone a serious advantage when it comes to networking, training and job searches.
However, attending a convention forces members to consider many factors – conference date, registration cost, travel cost, hotel cost, what is being offered on site and the possible advancement opportunities.
For members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the current price to register for its 40th Annual Convention and Career Fair is $380 before June 15. If you are a part of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) or the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), the cost to register for these events are $325 and $300, respectively, for members signing up before June 30. But the true rate depends on the date the registration is purchased and whether or not the attendee is a student, regular member or non-member.
Considering that these averages do not include the $900 estimated cost for airfare, hotel stay, meals and transportation, the cost to attend a journalism conference can be rather steep for everyone, especially the entry to mid-level reporter.
The Old Model Isn’t Working for the Modern Journalist
Former NABJ President Vanessa Williams started a conversation in the NABJ Region II Faebook group, where many users expressed their frustrations including financial burdens and a lack of training. Several members felt like the investment just isn’t worth it anymore.
“Years ago when I first started attending, news organizations would cover a lot of, if not all, of the expenses, because it could be justified as professional development, so it was easier to attended,” Williams’ said over the phone. “And with the certain cutbacks in the industry, a lot of people don’t have jobs or they don’t have full-time jobs at least, so they don’t have the means to pay their own way.”
Williams’ explained that with most conventions being almost a week long, and with people having to pay for the hotel, convention cost and meals, the idea that people are attending to see majority of panelists or “talking heads” isn’t enough from these organizations to be considered valuable to one’s career.
“The journalists themselves are having to foot the bill. We are having to go in and take money out of our pockets to pay for these conferences. For a while that was the case, people were willing to do so,” said Russell Contreras, the president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity.
“But now, because of the way the economy is and the uncertainty in many of our own jobs, we really have to assess is going to this conference helpful to my career, is it helpful to my bottom line, is it helpful to networking and job opportunities and the answer sometimes is no,” Contreras said.
UNITY is a strategic alliance that advocates for honest and fair news coverage when it comes to diversity as it applies to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity and sexual orientation. It recently canceled its quadrennial conference in favor of smaller regional summits in hopes of gathering in areas that are facing challenges and are often overlooked. It completed a successful summit in South Dakota last month and plans on visiting Detroit and Alabama next.
Contreras, a member of the NAHJ, NABJ and NAJA, explained that the convention model was created in the 1980s, and while change is always difficult, the original model is making it harder for organizations to generate income from it.
“Many of us attend these conferences because we believe in the organization and we want to help them financially. But that isn’t necessarily a strong revenue stream for many of these organizations,” Contreras said.
And because registration fees are not a strong source of income and companies are no longer paying for employees to attend, it has become very difficult to lower the cost and still offer many of the highlighted events.
Jill Geisler, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who concentrates on newsroom management and leadership, explained that because most organizations do not have big infrastructures to plan conventions like they use to, they rely on volunteers. And those volunteers contact professionals to volunteer as speakers or presenters.
“Those people want to do what they are going to do with a minimum of effort. So you end up with panels, which are usually pretty dull,” Geisler said. “And that format in this era of pretty sophisticated, with things like TED Talks and South by Southwest’s sexy content, it is less appealing and it is really a function of how these conferences are produced.”
Adjusting to a new convention model
Many organizations, along with UNITY, are making adjustments to its conference model in hopes of remaining current and providing the most it can to those that support it.
In efforts to bring new aspects to the convention model, Joe Skeel, SPJ’s executive director, explained that his organization shifted its Excellence in Journalism conference’s focus on more hands-on, skills-based training sessions than what was offered in the past couple of years.
“While we still may have panels here and there about a tough issue or a topic, we really try to have sessions with one or two trainers teaching a skill, so when journalist leave, they can use it in their work,” Skeel said. And because a large part of their revenue source comes from membership dues and not registration fees, SPJ has been able to accomplish its goals.
SPJ has even joined forces with the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) in 2011 and more recently, NAHJ in 2013, which has shown to be a huge benefit in member participation.
“When you look at the conference program offerings, they were all very similar, with the same trainers in a lot of cases, talking about the exact same stuff at two different times, in two different locations,” Skeel said.
Skeel said the partnership with RTNDA, cultivated out of philosophical reasons and including NAHJ, was a way for them to help the organization when it did not have a conference location at the time while fulfilling the desire to offer a larger, more diverse conference.
NABJ President Bob Butler clarified that conferences hosted by his organization, along with others like the Investigative Reporters and Editors or the Online News Association are not inexpensive, but they are an investment in journalists’ futures. “The training that we offer, the digital training [and] the skills that you need are offered at the conventions,” he said. And that kind of investment is something that journalists will have to determine if it’s worth it or not, he added.
“I will say that NABJ’s training is not the same as going to IRE or ONA (conferences) and that needs to be changed and we are changing,” Butler said. “It would be in our benefit to look at what’s being offered at these other conventions that seem to be very popular at NABJ too. We can do it, we just have to have the will to do it.”
In the end, each person must decide if a conference is worth the investment.
Gina Cherelus is an award-winning digital journalist, photographer and freelance writer. She previously interned for Elle magazine and the Miami Herald. She currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow her on Twitter @jeanuh_