How the ASJA Plans to Stop Being a Dinosaur

By Estelle Erasmus June 15th, 2016

“We must attract members who are younger and more diverse. Otherwise, we risk extinction.”

So wrote Randy Dotinga, the outgoing two-term board president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), in his post-mortem “Exit Report: A Better ASJA, But More to Do.” Appropriately, the story ran in the latest issue of ASJA Magazine—the organization’s print publication that was upgraded during his watch.

Faced with an aging membership, the venerable institution is dealing with nothing less than an existential crisis. And Dotinga’s parting article as president of ASJA was a desperate cry for action.

ASJA is a membership organization known for representing the top echelon of freelance writers. According to ASJA’s official mission statement, “ASJA is the professional association of independent nonfiction writers. Since 1948 we’ve been giving entrepreneurial journalists the confidence and connections to prosper.” It was founded as the New York-centric Society of Magazine Writers in 1948. In the early 1970s, its name was changed to the American Society of Journalists and Authors to reflect its inclusion of nonfiction book authors.

Full disclosure: I have been a member of the organization since 1997, with various levels of involvement. I chaired the Program Committee in New York, contributed a chapter to The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, spoke at the 2016 ASJA Conference and co-moderated a panel, and have been asked to run a Special Interest Group Forum for members this summer.

When I joined, the requirements were vastly different than those of today. For one, I had to produce recommendations from two members. That is no longer necessary. My magazine editorial staff experience didn’t count (it would now), and I only could submit print clips because digital was seen as a black sheep (it clearly no longer is).

But even as blogging and digital took off, many of the old guard of members who joined in the ’70s, 80s, and 90s maintained their position: Print was the only real path to success.

As a result, it’s been a Sisyphean task for ASJA to transition to an age where more Americans work for online-only media companies than newspapers.

“We are seeing a huge evolution in the business models for freelance writers,” said Dotinga, “and we have to make sure that ASJA remains more and more relevant.”

An ASJA for the 21st century

Today, ASJA has more than 1,100 members in almost every state. Approximately 65 percent are women, and the membership is “overwhelmingly Caucasian,” though exact numbers on ethnicity are not tracked. The membership high-water mark was in 2012, but it has receded since then.

Dotinga, who will stay on the organization’s board after he steps down as president, believes that younger members may not see the value of joining associations. He said other journalism groups are struggling with similar issues—namely, an aging and monochrome membership.

Alexandra Owens—who, discounting a brief hiatus, has been ASJA’s executive director since 1985—attributes the reduction in membership to an upswing in the economy.

“Membership tends to drop a bit when freelance writers are doing well. While that is great for the writers, [it] actually hurts ASJA,” she said. “Our message is that ASJA membership is valuable all the time, during highs as well as slow periods—because a professional writer’s need for connection, knowledge, and industry information never wanes.”

As a result of the decline and concerns about future irrelevance, ASJA has made some major changes in order to expand its membership. One of the first was transitioning from the organization’s New York centricity. Since 2013, regional conferences have supplemented the annual ASJA Writers Conference in New York. The first was in Chicago in 2013. In 2014, they were held in Chicago and San Francisco. And in 2015, ASJA had a regional conference in Washington, D.C. The next one will be in Atlanta in early November.

ASJA has turned to outside companies for help as well. In July 2014, ASJA hired Kellen, a management firm that works with “more than 125 trade associations, professional societies, and charitable organizations.” The company provides resources and support that Owens said they couldn’t provide themselves. Owens has even joined Kellen’s staff directly; she is responsible for carrying out the Society’s mission and the Board’s directives, as well as managing the administrative team assigned to ASJA.

In addition, there have been a number of additions and changes to membership benefits. Since 2015 the organization has offered writers Virtual Client Connections, which introduce writers to editors and project managers via live video chats. Other members-only offerings include forums, webinars, and the ability to find work through a feature called Freelance Writer Search, a talent network that offers the services of ASJA members. The organization has also reemphasized advocacy for copyright protection. A volunteer lobbyist and pro-bono attorneys lobby on Capitol Hill and at the White House on behalf of ASJA.

Despite the progress, there are major gaps that need to be filled, Dotinga told me. One includes improving education on writer’s rights. He is spearheading the Indemnity Clause Project, which is meant to inform writers about the threats that lurks inside their contracts—and what they can do to legally protect themselves. The organization is also about to begin a research project to understand the chilling effect that indemnification clauses can have on investigative journalism done by independent writers.

Dotinga also hopes to play a major role in expanding ASJA’s Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which he calls “an invaluable program that provides no-obligation financial support to independent writers in need.”

Another major focus is bringing diversity into the organization.

“We are strategizing about how to diversify the organization itself, perhaps by offering scholarships to minority independent writers who are starting out,” said Dotinga. “We need to be welcome and open to everyone so that people don’t feel there is an inner sanctum they can’t access.”

In 2014, ASJA used its regional Chicago Content Connections conference to connect with diverse journalist groups, such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

Still, the organization readily admits that its efforts so far have done little to actually improve diversity within the organization.

Sherry Paprocki, ASJA’s incoming president, said that she plans to appoint a “Diversity Advisory Council” once she takes office. “ASJA is making a concentrated effort to bring more diverse voices into our conferences and publications,” she said. “I don’t have patience with this issue and feel a sense of urgency to do more.”

Forging a path into content marketing

Perhaps the most radical move ASJA is making is one away from the kind of traditional journalism and non-fiction writing that has defined it for years. Now, the organization is increasingly focusing on helping members find work for brand clients—not just media companies.

Joanne L. Cleaver is the first development chair of the ASJA Educational Foundation, which was founded in 2010 under the ASJA Charitable Trust. She was responsible for launching the the first regional conference in 2013 in Chicago, called Content Connections, which focused entirely on content marketing.

According to Cleaver, content marketing is a new name for a traditional format: the custom magazine. “Freelancers have long coveted lucrative assignments with airline magazines, alumni magazines, and corporate magazines,” she said. “Now, content marketing represents both print and digital forms.”

Cleaver has arranged for ASJA to partner with IZEA/Ebyline, a talent-network software that works mainly with freelancers, to host a freelancer’s salon on September 7 during Content Marketing World in Cleveland, Ohio. There, an ASJA panel will present strategies for clients looking for freelancers.

A survey is being sent to members to collect information for the 5,000 clients that will be in attendance. It will cost writers $1,500 to attend. Cleaver defends the high price of admission. “These clients have budgets. If you can make appointments and work the conference, it will pay off,” she said.

In order to support that premise, she is conducting a survey this summer—which will be released before the conference—to learn more about how much its members make from content marketing. “We hope to learn what formats, types of clients, and types of content represent the best avenues for growth for our members,” she said.

A recent membership survey this spring found that a vast majority of ASJA members are doing content work as part of their businesses. And later this year, Paprocki hopes to do a membership survey that focuses entirely on income amounts and the actual dollar amounts ASJA members are earning in various categories.

The organization maintains that the new focus on content marketing has been relatively well received.

“For the most part, members have really welcomed our decision to focus both on traditional journalism and content marketing,” said Dotinga. “We have to meet the needs of our members, and many of us are devoting at least part of their careers to content marketing. In some cases, content marketing helps us to subsidize our traditional journalism work.”

Cheryl Alkon, a member since 2010, agrees with Dotinga. “I think ASJA’s efforts to focus on more content marketing is a smart way to remain both useful and relevant to members who want to continue making a living freelance writing. Content marketing companies typically pay better than traditional journalism clients, and seem to be a growing segment in the writing world that is seeking, rather than laying off or ignoring, writers.”

She also added that editors at media publications increasingly don’t see ethical concerns with brand work, and that she and others are using the work to fund journalism projects in the face of stagnant rates.

Some members, however, see content marketing as a corruption of journalism, and are critical of ASJA’s decision to expand its focus.

“To me it seems a hybrid of news publisher and ad agency, and that boundary is growing increasingly fluid,” said Liane Kupferberg Carter, who joined ASJA last year. “I’m kind of old school about maintaining journalistic integrity and objectivity. Maybe that makes me a dinosaur! I’m not entirely comfortable that ASJA is focusing more on it.”

Susan Shapiro, who joined ASJA in 2010 and teaches at The New School, sees the benefit of diversifying, but she still has strong reservations.

“I always advise my students to find a way to pay the bills that doesn’t depend on getting freelance writing checks,” she said. “But I personally am not interested in copywriting for clients or brands and I don’t have any interest in hearing anyone talk about it. I did not join ASJA to learn how to do copywriting and I do think it will water down an organization for journalists and book authors.”

Charlene Smith, a member since 2010 and the authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, completely rejects the move.

“Content marketing is simply a new word for that despised 20th-century tool: advertorial,” she said. “Writers and journalists were [once] among the most heroic in any society; we pointed to wrongs, and wrote about them without fear, but today we meekly accept pathetic earnings, or write for no pay. I’d rather get a job at Target so there is no lie about what I am.”

Dotinga is well aware that not everyone will be happy with the direction the organization is heading in, particularly the old guard.

“But we have to think about our survival,” he said. “To thrive as an independent writer you need to be educated and you need to have connections—we are redoubling our efforts to provide both.”

Image by Shutterstock and ASJA
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