The biggest challenge for an association publication is how to provide information that is relevant to the industry, reliable to the public, and maintains journalistic integrity.
Association communications professionals joined other media practitioners in a panel discussion of the future of news at the Activism + Media + Policy Summit, last week in DC. The discussion was moderated by Huffington Post’s Peter Cherukuri.
Jim Barnett, in-house advisor to AARP Bulletin, discussed the rise of the nonprofit model in journalism. “As legacy models are crumbling, nonprofits – new and old – are jumping into the business and they’re doing news,” Barnett said. He asked the question that many critics of association news outlets are asking: “How can we have [objective] news within an advocacy organization?”
“An organization has to decide immediately: do you want to support journalism,” Barnett said. If the answer is yes, Barnett acknowledged that associations face the same issues the rest of the media industry is succumbing to, including funding challenges and organizational politics. He suggested that “the case for philanthropy [should be] attached to a mission for journalism” that furthers the association’s purpose. He also stressed the importance of reporting on issues that might contradict the association’s interests, to maintain credibility.
Chronicle of Higher Education editorial director Jeff Selingo suggested that part of the new industry model is a decentralized news organization, which is heavily reliant on contributors and freelancers, and in which news and commentary is shared across multiple platforms – a scenario with which many association publications are familiar.
Referring to mobile devices, Journal Register Co. social media director Steve Buttry said, “The tools of publishing are in everyone’s hands, so the community is creating content.” He said the job of the publication editor now is to gather content from the community and determine what to do with it, though industry professionals are still trying to work out the vetting process.
Barnett emphasized that, particularly for advocacy organizations, such as associations and nonprofits, transparency is increasingly more important. “Technology is accelerating the need for transparency,” he said. “People are willing to see you as a source, but they want to know where you’re coming from.” He added that it is permissible to have multiple voices write on behalf of one association, but authors must identify who they are and their interests in an issue.
Buttry added associations must concentrate on reporting within their own public service or industry niches, while localizing bigger stories to make the issues relevant to the audience. “Cover your slice, and cover it well,” he advised. Establishing the association’s publication as an authority on a specific issue or perspective will create credibility and position the organization as a reputable source on the issue.
Selingo had tips for organizations looking to monetize content. He proposed that some content be free – 40% in the case of The Chronicle for Higher Education – such as opinion pieces, which disseminate the association’s stance on a specific issue to a broader audience. Teaser articles to promote data-driven content also should be in front of the firewall, as should breaking news, which is likely available for free on other sites, anyway. But hefty data and survey results that are valuable to industry professionals should be kept behind the pay wall, requiring subscription or some other pay-to-view model.
All of the panelists agreed that organizations need to ensure content is good, trustworthy and not available elsewhere.