By Sheryll Poe
There has always been a bit of tension between journalism and association publishing. After all, associations are beholden to their membership and its messaging has a specific focus, which is counterintuitive to the traditional tenets of objective, message-free journalism.
But with journalism under attack and the lines between traditional journalism and other forms of messaging blurring, there could also be an opportunity to reshape both journalism and association publishing.
“The question of the future of journalism has never been more relevant than it is today,” said AM&P President Christine Folz, as she kicked off the “State of Journalism in Association
Communications: Thriving or Dying?” breakout session at the AM&P 360 conference in June in Washington, D.C.
Here are four questions for association publishing professionals to consider when it comes to the future of journalism in their associations:
1. Is a journalism background necessary for association communicators?
Panelists Ruth E. Thaler Carter, a freelance writer and editor who serves the association community, and Marlene Hendrickson, senior director of marketing and publishing at the
American Staffing Association, both have backgrounds in journalism, having worked for local newspapers after college. “That experience made me a better, more careful writer when I went to work for associations,” Hendrickson said.
But while having a background in journalism is helpful for association communicators, the currently tight labor market means associations “don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing,”
Hendrickson said. “It’s all about the job market and the talent and right now, it’s a job seeker’s market. You can’t demand a journalism background. You’ve got to think creatively about this
2. Are association communicators obligated to provide both sides?
While every association has a mission and messaging it is trying to convey, association communicators should not abandon journalistic tenets to be fair and balanced, Carter said.
“There is a light and dark side to every story. For an association publication to be credible, we have to address the dark side. Your own members will lose trust in the publication if it’s just
sugar candy,” Carter said.
However, Hendrickson noted, membership publications have to approach negative or unflattering issues carefully, perhaps by reporting on how a member is navigating a tough issue. She suggested focusing on the solutions, playing up the association’s expertise and guiding members on how to do things the right way and where they can find association resources that
“It’s similar to service journalism, but in an association setting,” Hendrickson said.
3. Is it time to give up trying to “break news” and focus on synthesizing news?
While having the speed and agility to respond to breaking news stories might be out of reach for many association communicators, they do have specific role to play when it comes to reacting to a crisis situation, Carter and Hendrickson said.
“The urgency and speed you learn in journalism can help in a crisis communications situation for your association,” Hendrickson said. She suggested that digital could play a role in dealing with breaking news impacting an association’s membership, which can then give publishers breathing room to do the longer lead stories.
Many associations don't have the resources or drive to chase the 24-hour news cycle. What they do have is a depth of experts and industry knowledge that few if any can match. Tapping into their members in this way means associations don't have to chase the news and can instead break news by bringing attention to issues that other outlets wouldn't even think to ask about..
4. Does the current political attacks on journalism mean association should be more committed to traditional journalism?
Association publishing professionals and journalists should be working together in a sort of virtuous circle, Carter and Hendrickson said. Not only can associations be great resources for
journalists — “Associations have innate authority. We have the subject matter experts,” Hendrickson said — but associations can also be the hunting grounds for the next generation of
Carter recommended that associations look at the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Association for Women in Communications to find future communications employees.
“We have partner associations who are representing the people we want to work for us,” Carter said.
Sheryll Poe is owner of Poe Communications. Association Media & Publishing thanks Sheryll for her stellar job covering this session from the AM&P Annual Meeting for our members who were unable to attend.