Whither NLGJA?

The leading professional organization for LGBT journalists is facing a crisis that threatens its very survival. In a changing media landscape and a tough economy, how does a small nonprofit live up to its mission and retain members?

BY Christopher Lisotta

December 20 2008 1:00 AM ET

 MISSING PUZZLE PIECE X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Steinberg
explained that two major sources of cash for NLGJA have
pretty much dried up: grants from news companies and
convention revenues. A decade ago NLGJA could rely on
big checks from big media players like NBC, Gannett or
the now-disbanded Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.

“They
wanted to support their employees,” Steinberg said,
“but a lot of the companies have reduced their
funding or gone out of business.”

Steinberg noted
that NLGJA had been ahead of the curve on sponsorships,
going to LGBT-savvy companies like JetBlue and a variety of
hotel chains to diversify its funding, but even there
NLGJA had issues; one previous funder was automaker
General Motors, which has major financial troubles of
its own.

The annual NLGJA
convention had always been a steady source of money, but
the 2007 convention in San Diego and this year’s
convention in Washington, D.C., saw dwindling
attendance, which cost the organization money.

“We signed
contracts that committed us to certain room blocks at
certain prices,” Steinberg explained, noting
that conventions are contracted out years before with
host hotels. “No one really foresaw the degree the
industry was going to be hit.”

There was a time
when NLGJA could expect 650 people to show up for a
convention, but with that number down to around 500 or even
less, the organization is scrambling to renegotiate
the terms of its 2009 convention, which is scheduled
to take place in Montreal.

“If those
rooms don’t sell, we are still contractually
obligated to pay for it,” he said.

David Barre,
NLGJA’s executive director, noted that attendance was
greater at the D.C. convention than at San Diego, but
attendees were less likely to book at the host hotel
and instead find cheaper lodgings or stay with
friends.

“The big
question is if the convention is going to be the central
thing going forward,” Barre said. “Over
the next two years we’re coming up with new
game plans, things that are a little bit more reliable when
things are tough.”

Barre said the
organization has been changing since he arrived in 2006.
Mostly through attrition, the organization has gone from
having seven paid staffers to two, which has saved
money. But the overall downward trend in membership is
alarming. At the beginning of 2008 there were about
1,200 members. As 2009 approaches, that number is down
to about 1,000.

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