By John Ensslin | May 19th, 2008
Catch the post-graduates. Focus on young and online journalists. Appeal to people who belong to more than one journalism organization. Convert journalist leaving the business into associate members. Track members who switch job.
These were just some of the ideas that came out of a May 9 meeting of the SPJ membership committee when we discussed a recent survey of why members opt to leave SPJ.
In March, the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University conducted the survey of 515 SPJ members who did not renew their membership.
The study found that most of the people surveyed cited a change in jobs or a departure from journalism as the most frequently cited reason for dropping out of SPJ.
The survey also found that two-thirds of those people left SPJ within 5 years of joining and 40 percent left within the first two years.
By and large, membership committee members said those results jibe with their experience. Both Ellen Mrja of Minnesota State University at Mankato and Sarah Bauer of Minnesota Pro said they’ve noticed that people who leave their chapters do so within 2-to-5 years.
Since many Minnesota State University students head to the Minneapolis area looking for jobs after they graduate, Mrja agreed to share a list of the next class of graduating SPJ members with Bauer to help the pro chapter recruit them.
Joe Skeel, who recently took over the job of coordinating SPJ recruitment and retention efforts, reminded the committee that SPJ does send letters to all graduating SPJ student members congratulating them and encouraging them to join their local pro chapter.
We discussed the possibility of systematically putting the names and contact information for these graduates into the hands of membership activists with the pro chapters.
Ellen also suggested we address the perception of “high dues”, which were cited by 21 percent of the survey respondents.
Several committee members said they were glad to see the survey’s finding that many of the departing members left with a high opinion of SPJ’s work in areas such as ethics, freedom of information and shield law advocacy.
Given the good marks that SPJ got, John Hopkins of Miami suggested that perhaps some of the members who are leaving the business could be persuaded to continue as associate members.
Hopkins also focused on another interesting fact. The survey found that more than 60 percent of the respondents reported that they belonged to at least two other journalism organizations besides SPJ.
Journalists are notorious for not joining organizations, but it would appear, based on these survey results, that SPJ members tend to belong to more than one outfit.
That fact lends some credibility to two membership-building proposals that the committee has recommended: trading ads with other journalism-related magazines and trading exhibit tables at the conventions of comparable journalism groups.
Joe advised that we be careful not to appear to “poach” members from other organizations. However, he agreed to explore the possibility of swapping booths at conventions.
John Ensslin noted that SPJ has been able to keep its membership levels relatively steady despite the exodus of some 2,400 journalists who have left the business within the last year.
Ensslin suggested that one implication of this finding is that SPJ should concentrate on recruiting more young journalists and people who are working for online news outlets.
In Denver, for example, of the 40 or so people who accepted buy-outs from the city’s two daily papers last year, only one was an SPJ member (albeit a former chapter president.)
Meanwhile, Colorado Pro has nearly doubled it membership rolls within the last two years. In part, that’s because the chapter’s growth has been in student, post-graduate and online journalists.
Some committee members who were unable to attend the meeting e-mailed their views of what the survey means for growing SPJ membership.
Bill Bleyer of New York suggested that we need to do a better job of tracking job changes and trying to match moving journalists with new chapters.
Bill also wrote, “There’s not much we can do about those worried about hard times except lowering dues, which isn’t likely.”
John Huotari of East Tennessee noted how the survey found departed members were more satisfied with SPJ nationally more than their local chapters. John offered the following suggestion:
“It looks to me like (former) members value networking and would value networking and would like more local chapter activity.”
“I guess my “take-away” is figuring out how to have more ethics programming and networking, probably particularly at the local level. Maybe this will help retain members and make the “high dues” less of a concern.
Several members also had some questions that the survey did not answer. They were puzzled by the fact that when asked what SPJ could have done to retain the former members, about 80 percent of them supplied no answer. Ensslin agreed to explore this question more with the survey’s author.
SPJ by the numbers
Membership this week 9,391
Membership one month ago 9,216
Membership one year ago 8,810