An open letter from the CAJ

mary Agnes WelchLike many news-based organizations, the Canadian Association of Journalists is in crisis, writes Mary Agnes Welch. Faced with dwindling funds, drooping media sponsorship and a dearth of journalist interest, the CAJ has never needed your help more than right now.

The Canadian Association of Journalists, the voice of reporters for more than 30 years, is in crisis.

There’s no point mincing words. The last year has been our toughest one in 15 years, and certainly the toughest since I joined the board nearly five years ago. The same financial turmoil that resulted in well over 1,000 layoffs at newspapers and broadcasters in Canada has also battered the CAJ. We’re at a crossroads.

The national board has begun working on ways to fix ourselves, but we can’t do it alone. We need everyday journalists to recognize the value of what the CAJ does and help us improve and better serve journalists. If the CAJ is to survive, it requires a will among journalists who care about their craft. Here’s the reality: Financially, the CAJ has been hit with declining membership, loss of sponsor dollars and the uncertain status of local chapters, which has made holding conferences a challenge for a volunteer national board. How bad is it? John Dickins, whom many of you know as the CAJ’s long-time executive director, has been reduced to part-time hours.

We’ve always operated with meagre funds. We’ve only ever had one national staffer, cashflow has always been a juggling act and our good ideas for training and advocacy have always outstripped our means. Few journalists are natural fundraisers and the CAJ board is no exception. But, in the last year, membership roles that once hovered close to the 1,500 mark are now down to about 950. We could live with the cut in revenue that each $75 membership ($40 for students and low-income reporters) brings in if sponsorships from big media giants hadn’t dried up, too. Normally, companies like the Toronto Star and the CBC have been very generous sponsors of our national conferences, giving us cash and paying to send reporters to attend. Many are still giving what they can, but in a much reduced capacity. In addition to providing journalists some of the best and only training they get, our twice-yearly conferences were also key sources of revenue that sustained the CAJ for months. On top of John Dickins’ part-time status, the board hasn’t met face-to-face for more than a year and we’re only now caught up on bills.

The CAJ board is also seriously understaffed, largely because we’ve lost some excellent people, some workhorses and some fine minds in the last year or so. Some have resigned because of new family responsibilities or new, demanding jobs. Other have left journalism altogether. That has left a small cadre of about nine people on the board. Revitalizing the CAJ is a huge task and there are simply not enough of us, all volunteers with full-time jobs as journalists, on the national board left to do it.

There are also long-standing structural issues within the CAJ that have been exacerbated by the downturn. 

The CAJ’s chapter system has always been hit and miss, and now it’s mostly miss. Without a single-minded champion in a given city  – like the Globe’s Bill Curry in Ottawa or farm journalist Ron Friesen, who staffed the Winnipeg chapter for years –  the scut work of organizing workshops and panels and bull sessions just doesn’t happen. The board also misses hearing about local issues that we ought to be speaking out about – cops seizing cameras or a reporter in court trying to protect her sources. Many local reporters figure there’s no real benefits to a CAJ membership and they don’t join. This has always been a problem, but especially now, and weak or non-existent chapters give us little grassroots strength to draw on.

And, for people who communicate for a living, the CAJ has never been great at telling reporters what it’s up to. We’ve made some improvements in the last several years thanks to board member Hugo Rodrigues, but often the board chugs along organizing conferences and putting out statements but members and non-members don’t always hear about it. We’ve been slow to embrace new ways of communicating and without champions in each newsroom, we often feel like we’re working in a vacuum.

All this makes it hard to convince workaday reporters of the benefits of spending $75 on a membership, even though most other professional organizations charge exponentially more. My own podmates at the Winnipeg Free Press, who hear me talk ad nauseum about the CAJ, aren’t even members, and I imagine that’s the case in most newsrooms. Reporters question the CAJ’s relevance.
Despite all this, the news is not all bleak.

In January, we hosted a one-day conference in Toronto on online media and news innovation. It was a total success – tonnes of people, great speakers, a relaxed but focused vibe. A real shot in the arm, thanks largely to Toronto journalist Saleem Khan, the organizer.
We’re also gearing up for our big annual conference in Montreal May 28-30. We’ll be talking about everything from new libel defences to new media to the violence that has struck our colleagues to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s iron grip on the flow of information.
In the next couple of weeks, after almost comical delays, we will launch our new website. Our current one is old, ugly, impossible to update and frankly embarrassing. The new one will be simple, pretty and current.

Our blue-ribbon ethics committee, chaired by Ryerson University’s Ivor Shapiro (the man behind J-Source) is another bright spot. It’s meant to be the clearing house for the ethical quandaries we all argue about in our newsrooms, and it’s just released a paper on news blackouts like the one in place during CBC reporter Mellissa Fung’s kidnapping in Afghanistan. The committee is now working on a set of guidelines to help reporters as they grapple with online and social media. That draft may form the basis of an interactive session at our Montreal conference.

And, our advocacy hasn’t waned. We’ve been involved in most of the major court battles affecting the state of our craft, including the landmark “responsible journalism” case at the Supreme Court of Canada. We’ve spoken out repeatedly about the damage lay-offs do to the quality of local reporting, about cops who seize cameras or impersonate journalists, about source protection and about access to information and the public’s right to know.

And, we’ve ensured that this year all our CAJ Award-winners get paid on time. Last year, because money was so tight, it was months before some award-winners received their $500 prize in the mail, which caused us frustration and embarrassment.
We’re also working on plans to reinvigorate the CAJ.

Former president Paul Schneidereit has just finished going through the budget with a red pen, trying to cut costs and do more with the funds we have. I recently asked CP reporter and CAJ board member Murray Brewster to assess our current state and lay out ways to move forward. Out of his report, and the board discussion that ensued, grew the idea of making the realities of our current state clear to journalists and asking for help. We’re also planning to spend some time at the Montreal conference talking with members about where the CAJ should go next, and we’re actively looking for committed, hardworking national board members.

We also want to do more of the targeted, one-day workshops in more regions in Canada and we’re thinking about ways to improve our fundraising.

It’s been a crappy couple of years to be a journalist – with hundreds of colleagues getting laid off, ownership structures in flux, newsroom budgets for investigative journalism in the tank. At a time when journalists need a strong national voice, excellent training to give them new skills for a new era and a bit of pride in their craft, the CAJ is at its lowest ebb.

But we need help. If the CAJ is to continue to push for excellence in journalism and the public’s right to know, there must be a will among reporters to keep it going and a commitment of time and resources. We need a few good journalists to step up and help keep the CAJ going and make it better.

If you are not a member, please join. If you want to volunteer, please contact us. If you want some specific training in your region and want to help organize it, please let us know. If there is something we’re not doing that we should be, please tell us how to improve.

The CAJ is only as strong as you make it.