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SABEW, national business journalism organization, at a crossroads

October 9, 2013

Posted by Chris Roush

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the largest group of business journalists in the country, had its annual fall conference in New York last week.

More than 255 journalists registered for the two-day program.  It was the best turnout in the four years since SABEW revived a fall training event in 2010. In addition, executive director Warren Watson reports that the non-profit organization will finish the year with a financial surplus.

However, the organization, which was founded 50 years ago and is headquartered at the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, is at a crossroads. There are some on its board who believe that the group needs to overhaul itself from top to bottom if it is to survive, while other board members believe that only some minor tweaking should occur.

The impetus for the navel gazing is a report called “SABEW Strategic Assessment 2013-15” presented to the SABEW Board of Governors at the New York event last week that proposed widespread changes to the organization, including a total revamping of its membership structure and its pricing, re-doing its five-year-old website and improving in its fundraising and evaluating its training efforts. “The organization seems stuck looking in the rear-view mirror rather than implementing changes that will catapult SABEW forward,” the report stated.

kevin_hall1Kevin Hall, the chief economics correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers and the current SABEW president, believes that the report is too negative.

“Our board reflects a broad and changing media landscape, and our assessment, which is in its initial stages, demonstrates our Big Tent approach,” he said in a statement provided to Talking Biz News on Wednesday morning. “Any major changes that might be proposed as a result of this strategic assessment would be presented to the full membership and put to a vote, as required by our bylaws.”

At stake is the future of an organization that boasts 3,744 business journalists as members but only gets less than a tenth of them to attend its annual conference. Still, in the past, SABEW has been a unified voice for the business journalism community, speaking out in favor of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation Fair Disclosure more than a decade ago and urging metropolitan newspapers not to cut standalone business sections. It also wrote the first code of ethics tailored specifically for business journalism.

SABEW’s future success will likely determine how business journalism is perceived in media circles. A more-prominent and better-funded organization will give business journalism — and the media outlets that report business and economics stories — more cache.

Why should you care?

Why do I care? I believe in business journalism and its positive effects on society. I also believe in SABEW’s mission. I have been a member since the early 1990s and served on its board from 2007 to 2009. From 2009 to 2012, I was the organization’s research director. Before that, I ran its website and wrote its Biz Buzz column. I’m also the co-author of The SABEW Stylebook for business journalists. This past year, I spent about 250 hours helping to build a history of business journalism website for SABEW as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

I also believe that every business journalist in the country — and I estimate that  there are about 10,000 such journalists — should care about SABEW and what it does. So this is a story that covers SABEW just like a business journalist would cover a news story about a company. This story is important to the readers of Talking Biz News.

The Strategic Assessment report came about as a result of SABEW’s need to establish a fundraising program. SABEW’s fundraising has been spotty, at best. It received $29,000 in donations through September of this year and $23,823 in donations in 2012 and $36,935 in donations in 2011, but had $67,267 in donations in 2010. (In comparison, the website you’re reading now, Talking Biz News, has received $120,000 in donations in 2012 and 2013, more than double what SABEW has raised during the same time period.)

LisaGibbsA year ago, then-SABEW president Jill Jorden Spitz of the Arizona Daily Star asked former Forbes senior editor Mark Tatge to join the SABEW board and help jump-start fundraising. Shortly thereafter, board members Lisa Gibbs of Money magazine and Beth Hunt of American City Business Journals joined Tatge, who teaches business journalism at DePauw University in Indiana, to do a formal assessment of SABEW’s fundraising capabilities and develop a strategic plan.

In February 2013, the SABEW executive committee agreed to engage professional fundraiser George Engdahl to offer advice and make recommendations. Many of his ideas are incorporated in the report.

The report notes that SABEW has posted an annual deficit in three of the past five years and claims that journalists who might have once joined SABEW are instead turning to more digitally focused journalism organizations. “It is not a stretch to say that left untended, SABEW faces an uncertain future,” the executive summary stated.

SABEW has tried to land “big-ticket” donations, but failed because of an inconsistent fundraising strategy that changes every year when a new president takes the helm, the report noted. In addition, the organization’s mission statement is too long and needs to be refined to help with fundraising, the document added.

One of the problems that SABEW faces with fundraising is that the organization does not collect basic data about its members. Its membership database often does not include home addresses or demographic information. The report calls for a dramatic overall of its fundraising efforts.

The report compares SABEW to other journalism organizations, noting that Investigative Reporters and Editors gets a quarter of its members to attend its annual conference, has an annual operating budget of $1.1 million compared to $400,000 for SABEW, has a larger staff and also has a robust training program.

And then there’s membership. Large media organizations with dozens of business journalists can join SABEW and pay a fraction in annual dues of what SABEW would collect if each journalist joined separately. (For organizations with more than 25 members, the fee is $345 plus $15 per person.) Reuters (496) and Bloomberg (487) are the two largest SABEW members, paying a combined $12,907 in dues.

Changing dues

The report suggests that SABEW could increase its revenue — money that could be used to expand its membership offerings — if it went to a dues model where most individuals paid. This recommendation is opposed by many members of the SABEW executive committee, who fear alienating some of its largest members.

However, there’s concern that some media organizations are cutting back on their memberships. Reuters has told SABEW that it will not pay for as many members going forward, and last year told SABEW that it shouldn’t count on its regular, end-of-the-year $5,000 donation.

The report also called for SABEW to do more internationally. It currently has 120 international members, most of them from Canada, and that number is far below projected international growth during the company’s last strategic plan under former president Dave Kansas. And SABEW needs to attract freelance business journalists and bloggers. “If SABEW doesn’t seek to serve them now, they will affiliate with other groups more tailored to their needs,” said the report.

As far as training, the report said “SABEW is woefully underequipped to meet the challenge. This has never been the organization’s strong suit.” (As an aside, I did a training session for the Donald W. Reynolds National Center in Business Journalism in Milwaukee, Wisc., last month where I overhead two Chicago Tribune business journalists agreeing that they don’t attend SABEW events any more because of the lack of training sessions they’re interested in.) The Reynolds Center now provides free business journalism training across the country, including at SABEW events. Other journalism organizations also provide business and economics news training.

The overarching question that the report raises about SABEW is what members get out of the organization if they don’t attend its conferences or enter its Best in Business contest. Without providing more, the report stated, “SABEW faces an inexorable decline similar to that experienced by its once-loyal membership whose ranks are thinning due to retirements, buyouts and layoffs.”

A difference of opinion

That is not an assessment shared by other members of SABEW’s executive committee or Watson, its executive director. In response to the report, Hall wrote, “It to me gives the misleading impression that we face slash-your-wrists circumstances. We do not. We do face challenges to be sure, but we have made many strides towards repositioning ourselves in a changing media landscape.”

Hall noted that SABEW holds regular tele-training events and has had training sessions during its fall conference and annual spring conference. “I disagree with the conclusion that SABEW has been looking in the rear-view mirror, especially given our strides in international programs and the expansion of categories” in the Best in Business contest, he added.

Watson argued that the report should not compare SABEW to the Online News Association, Society of Professional Journalists and IRE, and should instead look at smaller groups such as the Society for News Design, the Religion News Writers Association and the Association of Health Care Journalists. But he added, “The assessment is a perfect launching pad for study and reflection as we look at all operating aspects or our organization, its governance, strategy and tactics.”

EJ580DavidMilsteadHowever, SABEW treasurer David Milstead, a freelance business journalist in Denver, believes that the report is an accurate representation of the situation and endorses it “almost without reservation. I think we have a serious problem with member engagement.” He later added, “SABEW’s Board of Governors has demonstrated an awesome capacity to discuss and study and not actually do things.”

Former New York Times business journalist Diana Henriques, who is also on the board, also agrees with the assessment report.

“I’m not persuaded by the observation that SABEW is a niche organization — that, somehow, compared to other niche organizations, things do not look so bad,” she wrote in response to the report. “My understanding is that niche organizations — the religion writers, the education writers and so forth — are in even more trouble than we are. If we are indeed a niche organization, our plight is worse than the report suggests, not better.”

Henriques argued that the business news now influences all types of journalism today, and that there is nothing “niche” about business news anymore.

She wrote: “It is why SABEW deserves to survive; it is why this report, when refined, deserves the board’s committed support.”

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