Associations in 2021: What’s The Future?

Are newspaper trade associations underplaying their big-picture value to high-quality journalism and local news?

Is the modern-day association’s focus too inward in trying to help members shore up their businesses, rather than advocate more stridently for better practices and more sustainable operating structures?

Should the association be about stability or innovation?

Is there a bright future for trade associations and professional groups despite the newspaper industry’s decades-long retrenchment?

How does a state association change in the face of more niche groups, such as those focused on diversity, trust or specific advertising categories like branded content?

Seeking answers to those questions and understanding today’s issues is what attracted to me an academic paper by a group of University of Alabama researchers who assessed newspaper trade and professional journalism associations. The findings left the door open to additional examination on whether there’s a bigger or better role for associations to play during turbulent times.

For the record, I paid to download the report published in the Journal of Media Business Studies with the title: “Journalism’s backstage players: the development of journalism professional associations and their roles in a troubled field.” The authors are Lindsey Sherrill, Jiehua Zhang, Danielle Deavours, Nathan Towery, Yuanwei Lyu, William Singleton, Keqing Kuang, and Wilson Lowery.

The academics examined the history of U.S. associations, which includes those serving newspapers, broadcast, periodicals, and digital enterprises, and makes this distinction: “Trade association members are typically competing for firms … while professional associations members also include individual practitioners and managers…”

The article’s overall observations would be worth a discussion — or debate — at the August conference of Newspaper Association Managers — at least at the bar or on the golf course. There’s a lot of change going on in 2021 and I’m not referring to masks or vaccinations.

Consider the points made in the article’s executive summary, or “abstract”:

“Professional associations’ roles in shaping the journalism field have been understudied in the news industry research. Adopting a social population ecology perspective, this study provides an across-time analysis of the emergence, rise and variation of the population of U.S. journalism professional associations. In addition to the population demography, content analysis of current association websites was conducted to reveal associations’ patterns of development and adoption of roles. Findings suggest associations are turning inward, embracing roles that are internally oriented towards members, their financial struggles, and their identities, while there is less emphasis on externally oriented roles that serve field-wide needs.”

And then there’s this: “We argue that professional associations are important field-level actors. As in any organizational field, journalism needs stable agents for fostering interaction and learning; for negotiating and reaffirming best practices, norms and values; and for helping a field’s organizations reduce uncertainty in the environment.”

What I found particularly Relevant given the challenging times is the researchers’ ranking of salient — or prominent — roles performed by associations. The results might surprise you.

Here are the most salient, based on a review of 84 associations:
1. Education (Support training, professional development for members).
2. Product quality (Support improvement of news product quality).
3. Networking (Support connections for members’ career aims, work tasks).
4. Fostering community (Support exchange, camaraderie among members).
5. Maintenance (Support functioning, maintenance of association itself).
6. Ethics (Support professional ethics and service to society).
7. Legitimacy (Support public reputation, standing, influence of journalism).
8. Diversity (Support diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, identity).
9. Vision (Support visionary thinking and innovation).
10. Lobbying (Support efforts to influence societal leaders on association issues).
11. Intermediary (Support mediation of crises/controversies within profession).

I wasn’t surprised by the top half of this list that have the highest scores. But it’s the bottom half, which carry major impact for broader, positive change but ranked low, that gave me pause. Also, “no roles emerge as highly salient” in the researchers’ ratings. That’s fascinating. Mission creep?

The researchers provided a Discussion section, which cites other research findings as well. What they have to say is food for thought to provoke explorations about an association’s future:

“The organization studies literature emphasizes the association roles of providing knowledge for members (cognitive roles) and encouraging the profession’s cohesiveness, stability and standing (cultural roles) more than they view associations as tools for achieving instrumental objectives for the industry — such as lobbying for policies or repairing the industry’s reputation….

“Yet, the most salient roles — regardless of size, scope or age of association — also reflect attention to individual members’ everyday problems more than they reflect attention to field-wide existential problems. The roles of educating members, supporting ways to improve quality, and encouraging networking with other members — are oriented towards cognitive benefits for individual journalists in their daily work. … Less salient are outward-facing roles that serve the field as a whole — lobbying for specific policies, mediating controversies that damage industry reputation, and establishing industry-wide vision.

“The vision role alone showed a significant difference by association size and scope. Large, national associations were more likely to prioritize the problem of finding a way forward for journalism broadly. … Smaller and state-focused associations were less likely to see ‘divining the future of journalism’ as their jobs. Findings also showed that field-wide, holistic roles such as nurturing the field’s legitimacy and reputation and protecting political interests were less common at smaller, specialized associations. Yet, it is the smaller, more specialized association that has proliferated in recent decades. This suggests diminishing attention to field-level existential issues by the agents that are best positioned to address these issues — the field’s meta-level professional associations — even as the industry as a whole faces disruption and uncertainty.

“The salience of ‘member service’ roles like training and networking, as well as the self-maintenance role for associations, indicates a narrowing focus on the financial bottom line for both associations and news managers. Traditionally, associations are funded by member through membership fees, contest fees, and conference registrations. As the financial health of the news industry has declined, training budgets have dwindled, and associations are under more pressure to produce deliverables that have practical value for understaffed news organizations … Such deliverables help reduce uncertainty about members’ environments in a number of ways …. The associations’ prominent focus on its own self-maintenance speaks to the imperative of financial survival as well. Results suggest, therefore, that ongoing disruption has focused news managers and association leaders on narrow, day-to-day necessities — saving money, navigating unfamiliar technologies, practices and audience behaviors, and negotiating turbulent job markets. Metaphorically, the priority is spotting life-rafts rather than envisioning better systems for shipping — a narrow, short-term emphasis that is somewhat surprising for the field’s ‘meta-organizations.’

“While roles suggest associations are concerned with the bottom line, the study’s population analysis shows a fairly steady rise in density (number of associations) over the last 150 years and a steady rate of foundings since the early 1900s, offering little evidence of diminishing niche resources for the population. Meaningful patterns in number of members, staff and budget across time are not very apparent, and there is no obvious evidence of external influences. This is consistent with the fact that associations have low start-up and overhead costs, making them less vulnerable to external market and political changes … This stability may help the news industry project reliability and legitimacy, but conversely, it may contribute to a dysfunctional lack of responsiveness to political and economic ups and downs facing the news industry.”

Publication of the academic research arrives as the restrictions of the pandemic are lifting, a good time to take a deep look at what’s ahead for newspaper trade associations.

“Scholars have speculated about reasons for associations’ low profile in academic scholarship,” the University of Alabama researchers wrote. “Perhaps their influence is underestimated because they operate ‘backstage’ or perhaps it is their relentless stability: They are ‘relatively boring,’ as authors of one study put it … Professional associations do tend to lend stability to their field, as new niche areas of associations emerge and wane. We assume there are shifts over time in the associations’ ‘ecology,’ and that these accompany and shape ongoing changes in the identities, norms and practices of the journalism field.”

Associations are focused on helping its newspapers succeed. It’s important work.

But if everyone is obsessed with the bottom line, who is concentrating on the future of newspaper associations besides the executive director?

–Tom Silvestri

Author’s note: I changed the spelling of a few words to conform to American use. My apologizes to NAM’s Canadian members.

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