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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?

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.

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.

"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."

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Christopher Lisotta