AAJA program guides line the table behind the registration desk on Wednesday, August 12th.
By Patrick Lee, Jackie Watanabe and Yowei Shaw
There is an air of uncertainty at this year’s AAJA Convention.
Amid a slimmer job fair, fewer attendees and not quite as many cocktail parties hangs a hint of fear – not only about the future of journalism, but the future of AAJA itself.
“Yeah, there’s worry, and it’s based in reality,” said AAJA National Treasurer Candace Heckman. “I’m not going to sugar coat anything, the industry’s in trouble.”
AAJA will likely end the year with a deficit of more than $100,000, Heckman said. Funding for some programs already has been cut. Further cuts may be on the way, and some members are talking of fundamental changes to AAJA programming.
Last November, AAJA foresaw the probable shortfall and scaled back its revenue projections for the coming year. But even anticipating a $38,000 deficit when planning its annual budget has proven insufficient to keep the organization’s financial projections on track. AAJA is now looking for more money from non-media companies.
Maya Blackmun, interim executive director, believes finances have not yet gotten to the point where drastic changes are needed. The group’s endowment, currently $930,000, can provide a cushion as a last resort, she said.
Members, however, have already felt some effects of the budget crunch in ways big and small at this year’s convention – from the lack of free tote bags usually given out at registration to a drastic reduction in funding for Voices, the convention’s student-produced publication.
“Everything is at risk of being cut. Everything,” said Heckman. “But I don’t think anything is at risk of being eliminated.”
But there are signs of hope as well.
J Camp, AAJA’s multicultural high school program, received an unexpected donation of $25,000 this year to seed an endowment. The program’s directors, Clea Benson and Angie Lau, said AAJA national board members have assured them financial support will continue. Other initiatives, including some scholarships, cannot be eliminated because of legal requirements from trusts and donors. And the Executive Leadership Program for mid-career journalists kept most of its regular programming this year, cutting only its annual reception.
The hardest-hit program so far has been the student news project. In past years, the project’s budget has exceeded $100,000, said Janice Lee, outgoing deputy executive director. This year, AAJA chopped the budget by more than half, resulting in a shorter project schedule, minimal funding for professional mentors, less equipment and no technical support.
“We appreciate what we’ve gotten, but we’ve sacrificed a lot, too,” said Marian Liu, the project’s director. “Seriously, why else would you work your brains out for free? … It’s a passion project.”
A controversial proposal was recently sent to the advisory board, recommending that AAJA downsize Voices to a less expensive mentoring program with no news training. The plan – drafted by Thomas Lee, a reporter for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, and Janice Lee – argues that because of tough times and less student interest, the program’s budget should be cut by more than one-third, to $15,000. They were scheduled to formally present their plan to the advisory board Saturday morning at the Seaport World Trade Center.
In reaction, some have formed a letter-writing campaign to save the project.
Thomas Lee defended his plan. A former Voices student and editor for eight years, Lee said the project helped him profoundly, but his goal is to get AAJA members thinking about concrete responses to this and future years’ budget woes.
“Feelings are not a policy proposal,” he said. “AAJA has to start making some hard decisions. I think, up until now, we’ve been sort of nibbling around the edges … you need a strategic plan.”
No such plan currently exists. AAJA’s last five-year strategic plan ended in December, and board members said they can’t draft a new plan until it hires a permanent executive director. The unexpected departure of recently hired Executive Director Ellen Endo has compounded AAJA’s problems, raising questions about the organization’s direction and pointed questions about transparency among its leaders.
Even the best-case scenario for finances this year – where AAJA breaks even on the convention and receives all of its outstanding donation pledges – is fairly grim. Since AAJA depends on the convention as its big money-maker, barely covering its costs in Boston will result in an overall loss for the year.
One possible revenue source is increasing non-media sponsors. AAJA’s fundraising policy prohibits government sponsors and controversial groups, such as alcohol companies. But such decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Census Bureau, for example, bought a job fair booth this year, and Bud Light has sponsored AAJA’s karaoke night for several years.
Both the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists accept non-journalism sponsors, although NABJ makes a point not to take money from government agencies. NAHJ, however, accepted $50,000 this year from the U.S. Army, and its top eight sponsors this year were non-media.
“Just because these government organizations may sponsor you, it would be stupid to think our members are not going to cover them fairly,” said Ivan Roman, NAHJ’s executive director. “We have a very strong policy of donors or sponsors not dictating anything.”
Even seeking non-media companies, however, may not be enough. ELP Director Dinah Eng said she asked Bank of America this year but was turned down.
“Everything will have to be re-evaluated,” Heckman said. “And we’re going to have to make some serious decisions about how to scale back.”