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Sept. 28, 2023, 4:51 p.m.
Business Models

The Society of Professional Journalists faces a “dire situation”

“If we don’t change our thinking, the next incoming president will be the last president.”

The Society of Professional Journalists, known for decades as the oldest and largest professional organization for journalists, is facing an identity crisis on top of a financial one.

The flow of membership and conference revenue has slowed to a trickle and the organization’s outgoing treasurer describes the financial situation as “dire.” Maybe more importantly, SPJ is grappling internally with its role as journalists seem drawn to more niche professional organizations, the field involved in First Amendment advocacy has grown more crowded, and a sprawling state-chapter system appears unsuited for the digital age.

SPJ has 4,136 current members — down from the “nearly 10,000” still cited in places on their site — and just 2,246 are professional members. (The total figure includes 812 students, 338 retired members, and 317 non-journalist “associate” members.) The organization lists more than 20 “newsroom members” but the most recent membership numbers — sent to the SPJ finance committee last week — show there are only two active newsroom members. The 2022 convention resulted in a deficit after “every revenue line…came in below what was projected” and less than 500 people registered for the 2023 conference happening now in Las Vegas.
Add it all up and the SPJ is on track to end the year $391,000 in the red, according to an audit prepared by an external accountant and dated August 2023.1 The audit found “complete, serious focus needs to be on increasing revenue, reducing expenses, and implementing efficiencies.”

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To that end, the board voted 7-1 Wednesday to cancel its 2024 conference in Indianapolis and acknowledged more cuts were likely in the 2024 budget. The staff, which was 13 full-time employees pre-Covid, has already been reduced to seven as the organization has left some vacated roles unfilled to cut expenses, said interim executive director Jennifer Royer.

SPJ will open voting for its national election Thursday evening, and politicking has helped spread news of the financial crunch. A candidate for SPJ’s board sent an email (subject line: “SPJ is Broke”) suggesting SPJ has been hiding the extent of the problem from members. The current treasurer of SPJ, Israel Balderas, said that’s just not the case.

Balderas pointed to several times that SPJ officials have brought financial and strategic issues to membership. He’s voiced the concerns publicly several times himself, including a public meeting where he laid out the “dire economic situation” and another where he cast the lone vote against a budget that did not include the layoffs he saw as unavoidable to balance the budget.

“If we don’t change our thinking, the next incoming president will be the last president,” Balderas told me. “I’m predicting this next election may be the last.”

Hours before that election kicked off, I caught Balderas between classes to ask about the financial issues facing SPJ. (The Emmy Award-winning journalist now teaches First Amendment law, among other topics, as an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University.) Excerpts from our conversation, edited and condensed, are below.

Sarah Scire: It sounds like you’ve been ringing the alarm bell for a while. Is it just that people have not been paying attention?

Israel Balderas: For context, I joined the SPJ board as an appointed member in the fall of 2021. When the budget from the previous year, from ’20 to ’21, was presented to the board, the budget was — and I’m estimating — about $110,000 in the black. I was very concerned and I expressed my concerns then to the public. Because we had just come out of two years of Covid, we had gotten a loan from the government through the PPP loan, we cancelled two conferences, which means our expenses were cut by half, right? We weren’t traveling. We weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t spending money on the conferences. We did have virtual conferences and people registered, so all of that should have been revenue. And we were only showing, you know, positive numbers around $100,000.

I expressed concern saying we should be way above that, and my concern that, look, I think we’re running hot. I think there’s some kind of expenditure that we’re not looking at. And when I went through the budget process as treasurer this year, my concern was the expenses that we had in what I would call day to day operations. So salaries, benefits, 401k, health care.

We had generous salaries that previous boards had passed, but the revenues from other sources like membership and conferences wasn’t meeting those expenses. So, yes, it’s been a long time that I’ve been raising this concern. And as treasurer, this is something that I told the board and the members. In December, I told everyone we face dire economic situations. Those were the first words out of my mouth.

Scire: From a little poking around, it seems like SPJ remains the largest professional organization for journalists even as these membership numbers have dwindled. [Note: With further poking, it turns out Investigative Reporters and Editors has taken that title. IRE has more than 4,600 members and the Online News Association has 2,031 members, the organizations confirmed this week. Affinity organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists also have around 4,000 members each.] You’re talking about layoffs among the headquarters staff. Is there another proposal people have come up with when you’ve presented the dire economic situation — a membership drive or anything else?

Balderas: Back in April, we were estimating $350,000 in revenue in membership money, and I said there was no way we were going to make that money. If you look at the membership for SPJ, it’s at 4,136, but it’s the professional number that is really dragging these numbers. Professional members are down to only 2,246.

We’ve said this for eight to 10 years — there was a memo written by an executive director a decade ago — we cannot be an organization that is primarily driven by membership. And that’s for two reasons. Over the last 10 to 15 years, journalists have been let go, they’ve lost their jobs, they move on to PR, right? We’ve lost people in the industry. That’s one problem. The other problem, though, is that we have other organizations out there that have more niche in what journalists are doing. So if you are an investigative journalist, you’re going to go to IRE. If you are an online journalist, you’re going to go to ONA. If you’re Latino, like me, then you’re gonna go to NAHJ. We may be broad, but members are now saying, look, I want to go hang out with investigative reporters or [other journalists] with like-minded beliefs.

The other thing, too, is our mission to defend both the First Amendment and ethical journalism. There are more organizations now that are doing work in First Amendment law. There’s Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, there’s Student Press Law Center. If people want to donate to a cause, they can donate to a cause that maybe tailored fit for them [whether they’re saying] I want to protect student press or I want to protect the First Amendment. Then, finally, the thing that SPJ is known for, the SPJ Code of Ethics, has taken a hit over the last 10 years because there’s been a shift in how journalists think of ethics and objective reporting. It was last updated in 2014. People have said, look, people need to be driven more by moral clarity rather than objective truth telling.

All of these things have really just been the perfect storm for SPJ over the last 10 or 13 years to start declining in revenues. It was drip, drip, drip, drip until this thing exploded over the last two or three [years].

When you look at our mission — and our mission is to promote ethical journalism and to defend the First Amendment — well, there’s a lot of people in the arena that are doing those. If we’re an organization driven by donations, driven by people coming to conferences to get educated and to be trained, well, the problem is there’s a lot of conferences now, right? There’s NABJ, there’s NAHJ. There’s NAJA. There’s conferences for RTDNA. There’s conferences for students. That pie is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. But we haven’t shifted as an organization. We haven’t shifted to say, we can no longer rely just on conference revenues or membership revenues.

Scire: Thank you for laying all that out. Do you have a sense for — or a strong opinion about — what the direction should be?

Balderas: I do. SPJ functions as two organizations. There’s the SPJ Foundation and then there’s the SPJ.

The SPJ as an organization decided to become a 501(c)(6) because we wanted to be an advocacy organization. What we mean by that is not [that] we want to be advocate journalists, but that, look, we might want to be in Washington, D.C., we might want to go to Capitol Hill. We might want to advocate for legislation that protects the First Amendment or champion anti-SLAPP legislation to protect journalists. The people back then said we should have an organization that can be an advocate in Washington for legislation that would protect our members, but we still need a tax write off for people who donate to us.

The 501(c)(3) foundation currently has about $14 million in the bank. That’s money that has been donated by SPJ members, by other organizations. The idea is that we sometimes share expenses…they also give a large chunk of our revenue. Right now, if you look at our budget, they are one of the largest providers of our revenue. It’s not membership and it’s not conference money. It’s actually the foundation giving grants to SPJ for different kinds of programs, for education purposes, those kinds of things.

So what I’m saying, what I’m championing, is that it doesn’t make sense that we have a 501(c)(3), and a 501(c)(6) when we’re not doing any advocacy work. We haven’t been doing advocacy for years and years. All the money goes to the foundation and then we have to go to the foundation and ask for money. The problem with that is you get into internal politics, right?

What I advocated is that we have to rethink who we are as an organization, which means we’ve got to blend together both the foundation and SPJ and come together as one. Right now, the foundation gives grants to others. And that’s fantastic. I’m glad that the foundation is giving grant money to other groups who agree with the mission of SPJ. But if your own house is burning, you don’t go and pay for lawn care of your neighbor. You try to save your house.

If the foundation and the board merged, then certainly our deficits would go away. We would have to shift our mission and our purpose. We have to rethink who we are. But the financial crisis would be over. We’d be a new organization, and we’d now be a 501(c)(3) so people could donate to us.

The interim executive director — even though we raised the cost of membership earlier this year — decided to offer a discount [if you register for the SPJ conference.] But guess what? It didn’t work the way people thought it was going to work. They thought a membership drive [might help] or hiring an outside contractor to raise money from philanthropic organizations, from outside groups.

I think these are ideas that might have worked 3, 4, 5 years ago, but we’re not there anymore. We’re in a different market. We’re in a different place. Journalism is in a different place. And so it’s going to require SPJ to think radically about who it is and what it wants to do. And all the other efforts, I think, are just tinkering on the margins.

Scire: What else should I know?

Balderas: The only thing that I would say is: If ever there was a time to need and have SPJ it is now. More journalists are being attacked than ever before. We saw just a couple of months ago when there was a sheriff out in Kansas that raided a newsroom — and not just the newsroom but the home of the publisher — because they didn’t like the reporting.

There’s money from the legal defense fund we have as part of SPJ, and we came out immediately and we said that we’re going to give the newspaper Marion County Record $20,000 so they can hire an attorney, and they can fight this injustice, because we believe in the First Amendment. Our best day was that day. I would say we need SPJ; we just need SPJ to evolve.

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  1. One reason I was able to report this in so much detail is that SJP is admirably, almost astonishingly, transparent and makes this information publicly available on its site. []
Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Sept. 28, 2023, 4:51 p.m.
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