AYJ Gives Young Journalists an Outlet

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Chips Quinn Web site.]

Legitimacy and measured growth now drive the Association of Young Journalists.

“We have grand ambitions, but we’re growing slowly,” said Matt Sheehan, 23, an assistant news editor at The Washington Post and one of four broad-thinking young media professionals who founded AYJ.

The group pulls together under-35 journalists – editors, photographers, reporters and others. Chris Frates and Elizabeth Aguilera brought Sheehan on board after hatching the concept at a Chipotle’s restaurant in Denver. They had been discussing recent accuracy scandals with another journalist, Jennifer Medina, who then had been at The New York Times. Widely covered scandals unfairly painted budding journalists as reckless or careless, they reasoned.

That was May 2003.

The idea caught on. At first, e-mails passed among friends. That broadened into a listserv with nearly 900 members. By mid-Summer that year, they launched a Web site. More than 380 people have registered in the member directory there, both young journalists and seasoned professionals interested in developing fresh newsroom talent.

“Right after the whole Jayson Blair thing, I got on it immediately,” said Megan Scott, 25, at reporter at the St. Petersburg Times. Scott, a member of the Chip Quinn class of 1999, heard about AYJ through e-mail.

“Being black, I felt the race issue more than the whole journalism thing,” she said. “(I felt people were saying) This is what happens when people hire minority reporters.”

Frates and the other founders saw that sentiment building, and responded with AYJ. The group, even in infancy, has shown its value to young professions as a place to hear and be heard.

“I know when I signed up I was very surprised to see such a wide variety of subscribers,” said Raven Hill, 27. The Chips Quinn program graduated Hill in 1997, and now she reports on municipal affairs at the Home News Tribune in East Brunswick, NJ. She said the mix of professionals and students, as well as the sheer range of contributors, make AYJ’s forum and listserv valuable to journalists. Still, she admits that she hasn’t checked the forum in a while, and the volume of e-mail from the listserv grew into a problem. Now she just checks the messages periodically on the Web site.

Aguilera said such “lurking” on the site is common.

Different visitors use the forum and listserv in different ways. For example, Nancy Yang, a Spring 2003 Chips Quinn graduate, said she has posted a couple of times to the listserv, but only when she feels like she can contribute.

In addition, the moderators of the listserv act as gatekeepers, and try to ensure posts further the discussion. That move initially riled many who posted to the listserv, but is symptomatic of the AYJ’s success in numbers.

“It took off much more quickly than we thought it would,” said Aguilera, 29, an urban affairs reporter at The Denver Post. “I don’t think we were thinking in such large numbers.”

In fact, those large numbers attracted whispers of competition with other professional groups.

“There’s been some concern from SPJ that AYJ will cannibalize their membership, take all the young folks,” Frates said, referring to the Society for Professional Journalists. “I think we serve a different purpose and have different goals that aren’t as broad or as far-reaching.”

The reality, Frates said, is that SPJ’s leaders have been very helpful in getting AYJ established.
After leaving a solid footprint in 2003, the AYJ’s goals this year turn to recognition, legal and otherwise.

“We are focusing on incorporation right now, it’s a long process,” Frates said, referring to 501(c)3 non-profit status. Frates, at 24, covers the legislature at The Denver Post. The group plans to incorporate at the University of Maryland, which hosts its Web site.

Incorporation is an important rung. It allows the group to accept donations, which could help develop fuller resources for young journalists. But, it is also a difficult rung to reach. It involves naming a board and filing extensive tax paperwork with the IRS – daunting tasks for four people in three cities. (Medina is currently studying in Jerusalem.)

Incorporation may also mean that AYJ would start charging for membership, much like SPJ, NAHJ and other professional groups. But, Sheehan said they hope to go a while without charging dues.

In the interim, the founders plan to nurture the group’s name within journalism circles. They have volunteer chapter heads who coordinate members in 10 states and Washington, D.C., and members in most states. The need for both continues as the organization gathers momentum.

They also have other high-profile strategies. “We filed a proposal with Unity to have a panel on race and youth and how reporters cover the issue,” Frates said. “We’re hopeful that we get accepted, but either way we hope to have a presence.”

Until then, the group retains a social element for people just starting in what can be a seat-of-your-pants field. It’s a growing conversation among a new generation of media professionals.

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