by James Whitehead
Patricia Bell heard her name ring out over the loudspeakers. It was her turn. She walked across the hardwood dance floor of the hotel ballroom to an anthem of applause. Most of the faces were smiling, others nodded approval as she accepted the plaque declaring her the winner of the ‘Scoop’ category in the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Awards. Bell’s piece, The Nunavut Business Credit Corporation Fiasco, had won the CAJ Scoop award and the admiration of her peers, but something was missing. The $500 cheque that was supposed to accompany the award was gone — absconded by the CAJ’s strangled budget.
Bell was not the only award winner the CAJ was unable to pay. All fourteen of the other award winners would have to wait as well. Following the May 2009 CAJ annual conference, executive director John Dickins sent out an email to the award winners apologizing for the delay in paying out the prizes, and assuring them that the money was on the way. As of the first week of October, the CAJ had at least 10 more cheques to mail out. The delay in delivering the $5,000 in award money is a symptom of the financial disarray in Canada’s biggest journalism organization.
Mary Agnes Welch is the president of the CAJ. She told KJR in early October that she hoped that the award winners had been paid, but admitted the process is slow. “Every year we strive to pay the winners, like, right on the spot, but I mean the CAJ is an almost totally volunteer run organization,” she said, “We only have one paid staff member and so sometimes we just don’t have the cash to pay the awards, like, right at that moment.”
According to Welch, 2009 has been the leanest year in the history of the CAJ, and the award winners are not the only ones owed money.
“This summer has been one of those summers where it was sort of a choice between paying out our award winners right on time, or paying our national staffer or paying the lawyers who do really, really cheap work for us when we intervene in big court cases,” said Welch. “We have had to make some unpleasant decisions about who gets paid first.”
CAJ executive director John Dickins is the only paid member of the organization’s staff. He went to part-time last summer because the CAJ cash flow was insufficient to support him full-time. Part of his job is writing the cheques for the award winners.
“People call me saying, ‘Have the cheques gone out yet?’ and I have to say, ‘No, but they are coming, trust me, they are coming,’” he said.
Dickins also said the CAJ lost a lot of money on the 2009 conference in Vancouver. Fundraising didn’t bring in enough money, and attendance was down. The last time the CAJ had a conference in Vancouver was in 1999. That conference drew more than 250 delegates. This year, the numbers dropped almost in half, to 130. Running a national conference costs more than $45,000. The conference ended with losses of roughly $10,000 — not including the money still owed to the award winners. The CAJ is still paying the Hyatt Regency hotel in monthly installments.
“It’s a shell game,” said Dickins, “I mean, we have to take from Peter to pay Paul.”
Welch and Dickins also said a decline in membership is to blame for the lack of finances.
“It’s always been kind of a struggle to make sure that we’re relevant to journalists and to raise our profile and to raise our memberships,” said Welch.
Currently the CAJ membership sits at 1,272 journalists across Canada. The highest number in 30 years was 1,499 members in 2006. Part of the problem has been the economic difficulties facing the journalism industry. Melinda Dalton won the 2009 award in the Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) category along with Tamsin McMahon for their piece ‘Impact.’ Dalton was laid off from her position at the Waterloo Record shortly after. And she is not alone. In the last year CTV laid off 105 employees, most of them in Toronto. Canwest let 560 employees go, and CBC stopped its axe at 800 employees.
The economy is not the only reason the CAJ has a hard time keeping members. Many past CAJ award winners only joined the organization to enter something for the awards. They often let their memberships lapse, renewing only occasionally. Sometimes it’s just because they forget. Other times, the finances just aren’t there to pay the annual $75 membership fee. Robert Washburn sat on the Board of Directors from 1991 to 1996, and served as chair for two of those years. Washburn remembers the finances as being a constant issue. Although he is still active within the CAJ, Washburn admits that he has let his membership status slip the past few years. He says part of the problem is that journalists are too independent by nature. Many other journalists, including Dickins, agree with him.
“Journalists just aren’t joiners,” he said.
Dickins also agrees that raising money has always been a problem for the CAJ. He has been with the organization for 11 years. He said finances have been getting tighter lately.
Another major blow to the CAJ was the Stevie Cameron Affair in 2003. When Cameron was accused of being too close to an RCMP investigation, the CAJ issued a press release condemning her actions. Many CAJ members were outraged. Some journalists even left the organization out of loyalty to Cameron. Others felt the CAJ had been too harsh. ‘Censorship’ was the term used by several of Cameron’s supporters. Deborah Jones was one member who publicly walked away from the CAJ because of its condemnation of Cameron. Even though she left, Jones still thinks an organization like the CAJ is desperately needed.
“There is no other organization that brings journalists together from all stratas and media types in Canada,” she said. But she also expressed concern that the CAJ is under-funded and understaffed.
Andrew Mitrovica is a 12-time CAJ award winner. He has also let his membership lapse. He agrees that the CAJ does not have the support it needs to function as effectively as it should. “There really isn’t an ethic in the country to support the CAJ by major news organizations,” he said.
There is a general tolerance for the financial plight of the CAJ among the 2009 award winners. Steve Buist won in the ‘Open Newspaper/Wireless Service’ category for his piece ‘A Pig’s Tail.’ The CAJ press release announcing the award winners stated that, “The winning entries in each of the categories received $500.” Buist thought it was odd not to get the money right away.
“I’ve been fortunate to have been nominated for a number of different things and I’ve been to different ceremonies,” he said, “and it was a little bit unusual that the awards were handed out without the actual monetary award.”
Alex Shprintsen and Frederic Zalac had four others on their team. They won in the ‘Open Television’ (less than 5 minutes) category for ‘The Taser Test.’ Shprintsen said they were not concerned that they have not yet received their award money. “It’s not an issue for me,” he said, “By the time we divided the money up between all of us there was so little it wasn’t worth going after.” Zalac had a different perspective. “It’s not a big deal for me but it would have been appreciated if they had given us some explanation,” he said, “especially if the CAJ intends to continue awarding these prizes in the future.”
Trying to Turn the Tide
Welch says the future of the CAJ is still up in the air, but there are some changes being considered.
“We are maybe at the point now where the twice-yearly mega conference at a pricey hotel is kind of a thing of the past,” she said, “so we’re thinking about more innovative ways to try and bring all of our training right into newsrooms.”
The plans are still in the discussion phase and big conferences are still the reality. Welch says she hopes things will pick up soon.
“Usually things pick up in the fall, people renew memberships,” she said, “We are having a fall conference in Toronto that we are hoping will bring in a bit of money.” Dickins is also optimistic. “It’s a tough time but I think we’re gonna come through it,” he said. In the meantime, the 2009 award winners will have to satisfy themselves with promises that their money is on its way.