Whither NLGJA?

By Christopher Lisotta

Originally published on Advocate.com December 20 2008 1:00 AM ET

On December 16
the board of directors of the National Lesbian and Gay
Journalists Association sent out an e-mail to its members,
who are mostly working writers, editors, and
photographers in outlets as varied as national
magazines and local radio stations. The e-mail was not a
Happy Holidays message or even an electronic pep talk
to its many members working at media companies who are
facing layoffs, budget cuts, or worse.

The e-mail did
not “bury the lede,” to use a journalistic
term that describes putting the big kicker at the end
of a story. “We need your help,”
NLGJA’s national president, David Steinberg, wrote
bluntly. “Today, we ask all NLGJA members to
join together to show support for our mission and
programs by making a gift of at least $25 by the
year’s end.”

The money will be
used to help fund NLGJA’s ongoing education program,
a newsroom outreach project, internships, and its
Rapid Response Task Force, which works
behind-the-scenes to ensure fair and accurate coverage
of LGBT issues. In years past NLGJA had the money to cover
all these programs through dues plus corporate and
foundation grants, but in today’s economy
that’s no longer possible.

“It’s been rough, no question about
it,” Steinberg said on the phone a few days
after the e-mail went out. “I don’t think it
was a surprise to many of us -- we’ve been
in a recession for a year. And next year is going to
be really tough as well.”

First off, some
disclosure; I am a former NLGJA Los Angeles chapter
president and I serve on the local chapter’s board.
NLGJA was an important organization for me when I
began to write full-time about eight years ago.
Founded in 1991 by the late Leroy Aarons, NLGJA was an
outgrowth of a survey Aarons did for the American Society of
Newspaper Editors of LGBT journalists in newsrooms
(Aarons, the senior vice president for news at TheOakland Tribune at the time, publicly came out
when he presented the report). In 1992, NLGJA held its
first national convention, where The New York Times
announced it was adding domestic-partner benefits.
Over the years the annual NLGJA conventions have been
must-attend events for networking, socializing, and even
newsmaking; major media players like Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw,
Judy Woodruff, and Harry Smith showed up to moderate
and participate in panels. And along the way NLGJA
helped develop style guides and worked with media
companies as they added nondiscrimination policies and
addressed domestic-partnership issues.

As a working
journalist who freelances for a number of different outlets,
I’m more than aware it’s a tough time in the
media industry. Thanks to the explosive success of
websites like Craigslist, there has been a precipitous
decline in classified advertising revenue at big daily
newspapers, devastating the bottom line of outlets from
The San Diego Union-Tribune to The New York
Times.
Add to that the general advertising
malaise, which has depressed revenues in not just print but
also TV and radio media. The current issue of TheNew Yorker noted newspaper readership has been
dropping modestly for decades, “but the Internet
helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout.”
The Advocate has not been immune to
changing times; as part of a major redesign the print
magazine is going from biweekly to monthly publication.

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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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“Since
jobs in newsrooms are being cut, our members are going in
different directions,” Barre said, explaining that
whether they wanted to or not, many NLGJA stalwarts
have become part-time journalists, begun blogging,
shifted into PR jobs, or left the industry completely.

“Our
challenge now is, How do we serve swaths of
membership?” he said. “If we
don’t offer them anything, why do they stay?”

Barre is trying
to offer different kinds of options to a changing
membership. NLGJA has loosened its membership guidelines to
include part-timers, launched a career watch
newsletter, and instituted distance learning calls,
where a dozen or so members can talk part in a
phone-based seminar on different subjects. In terms of
revenue, NLGJA has debuted OutNewsWire, an opt-in news
distribution service that charges firms interested in
getting their message out to LGBT journalists.
“We’re not forcing it on our
members,” Barre said. “We’re looking at
other things like that, that don’t take as many
resources on the staff side.”

Alex Davidson,
the NLGJA chapter president for New York and New Jersey,
said if the organization wants to survive the transition, he
and other local leaders need to do more fund-raising
and membership retention. He’s also been
thinking about having a one-day regional conference.
“We can’t assume anymore people are
going to come to our events,” he said, adding
that NLGJA is more relevant now than ever. “If
you need a job, this is an organization you need to be
a member of.”

“Chapters
need to be more proactive, and I’m excited about
that,” he added. “It’s making
lemonade out of lemons, and that’s how we’re
looking at that.”