Society of Professional Journalists board members voted Wednesday to suspend the annual 2024 journalism conference, a move that SPJ President Claire Regan confirmed was made as a cost-cutting measure.
Incoming President Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins said it is no secret that SPJ is struggling financially.
“We are trying to come up with different solutions to right the ship. One of those solutions is to take a year off from conventions,” Blaize-Hopkins said.
According to Regan, SPJ’s nine-member board members voted 7-1 Wednesday to cancel next year’s conference, with one member absent.
SPJ will instead focus on fundraising, programming, and advocacy in lieu of holding the annual conference. Blaize-Hopkins said she hopes this break could help alleviate some of the financial burdens the organization is experiencing and that it can reconvene in a joint conference with Associated College Press and College Media Association in Washington D.C. in 2025.
“This is really a way to make sure we are moving in the right direction when it comes to our finances,” Blaize-Hopkins said.
Alternatively, Blaize-Hopkins said she wants to explore the different opinions with her incoming board and potentially have big fundraiser events for SPJ’s upcoming anniversary.
“As my board comes in and we have our terms, we will begin having a conversation in public and also gain insight on what members may want as well,” Blaize-Hopkins said.
Blaize-Hopkins said not having an annual conference in 2024 could bolster the opportunity to hold regional conventions and give members the option to be in the communities in which they live and engage with local SPJ chapters.
Exhibitors, students, and attendees at the SPJ 2023 conference expressed concern over the cancellation and the effect it will have on the journalism community.
Nerissa Young, associate professor of instruction at Scripps College and exhibitor at SPJ 2023, has been attending SPJ conferences for 32 years and uses it as a recruitment tool to find new journalists and network with her fellow media professionals.
“If SPJ does not have a conference next year, I worry about the survival of the organization because if you fold up your tent, that is a sign to everybody else that you are in trouble. Why would anyone want to join an organization that is in trouble?” Young said.
For some, like student journalist Lilly Marohn, SPJ 2023 was their first journalism convention. Marohn hoped to use this opportunity to network with media professionals, set up post-graduation opportunities, and build her journalism community.
“It seemed like a really good opportunity. It brings in a lot of community and it seems like a really good place for journalists to work together,” Marohn said.
Kevin Olivas, news recruitment manager at the Sinclair Broadcast Group, has recruited at numerous journalism conventions, including SPJ, for the past few years. Sinclair was also one of SPJ’s largest sponsors in 2018.
Olivas finds attending the conference helpful because meeting potential talent in person lays the groundwork for how they communicate. “If you’re in person with somebody, you can get a feel for how good they are at talking to people they’ve never met before,” he said. “[SPJ is] bringing in the best of the best.”
Olivas said that, despite Sinclair’s year-round recruitment efforts, conferences like SPJ still matter in attracting potential employees. “We’re a national news organization,” he said, “so we have to create a pipeline of talent across the country.”
He mentioned that SPJ’s regional chapters could still provide opportunities in the absence of a national convention. “It would be nice to see if SPJ can take advantage of that presence,” Olivas said. “But that’s up to them.”
The conference cancellation isn’t surprising to Israel Balderas, the current treasury secretary.
As of Sept. 15, there were only 462 members registered for the conference out of more than 4,000 members, as shown in the email sent to the SPJ finance committee by Interim Executive Director, Jennifer Royer. However, the expense budget for the conference is projected to be as high as $126,000.
“My concerns were that the numbers were very lofty. [The committee] was looking forward and they were quite optimistic,” said Balderas. “We were still in a recession. Airline tickets are $700 instead of $400. My concern was that people weren’t going to be able to afford to go to a conference in Las Vegas.”
The overestimated conference registration number is only a fraction of the financial dilemma.
According to the Monthly Financial Summary, so far SPJ is positioned with a $96,000 deficit for the year. After the conference, a projected deficit of $191,000 budget is anticipated.
A big contributor to the financial dilemma is the dependence on membership loyalty. In the first quarter, SPJ earned $149,839 through membership dues, but that number plummeted to only one-fifth, $29,733, in the second quarter. So far, SPJ has ended up with $196,000 in revenue after taking account of July and August. On the other hand, the projected budget for membership dues is up to $350,000.
“When the board approved this budget, I informed the board that I didn’t think we were ever going to make $350,000. That was just unrealistic,” Balderas said.
Another reason behind the budget issue is the high expense of health insurance. So far, SPJ has spent $190,000 on 401k this year, which Balderas said it cannot afford. He said he has suggested layoffs to Royer before.
“There’s already been some layoffs throughout the year. I think there were two to three people left, and it only resulted in a surplus of $85. What I was suggesting is that you have to lay off people who have high salaries. For people who are making over a hundred, we can’t afford to have those people working at headquarters.”