NASW membership categories (part 1)

This document is the first part of the record of a discussion that took place on the NASW-Freelance mailing list from July 10th through July 19th, 1997. It deals with the issue of the various categories of NASW membership. Part two. | Part three.

The discussion started with this message from Mary Knudson:

Message From: Mary Knudson Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 09:53:02 -0500 Subject: NASW president's letter

The latest issue of ScienceWriters has been arriving in the mail the last few days. I urge all NASW members, especially those who are freelance members, to read the president's letter by Richard Harris on page 17. Richard plans to overhaul the NASW constitution which is outdated in parts. But he is using the opportunity to suggest that freelance members of NASW need to be looked at more strictly with regard to what membership category they should be in. While I urge you to read the entire letter, I feel as a freelance member myself who is both a member of the NASW freelance committee and the current secretary of NASW, I should respond to a few sections of the letter in this forum.
Richard invites your response, and so do I. Please discuss your reaction here, but also contact Richard individually. His phone, e-mail and fax numbers and address are listed at the bottom of page 17 in ScienceWriters. Also, please feel free to contact me if you have things to say that you do not want to put in this forum. Richard's original letter as presented to the board drew very heated, heavy, and lengthy responses on the NASW board listserv. He modified the letter slightly before putting it in SW. Here is my response:

Richard says: "One major issue we've been wrestling with is how to deal with freelance members. In the olden days, there was a seemingly simple distinction between freelancers who were primarily journalists versus freelancers who did work for major corporations. It should come as no surprise that, these days, many members of NASW hop back and forth across that fence with great agility. Yet each year, we ask freelancers to state whether they are "active" member(s) of the organization (that is basicaly journalists) or "associate" members (those who work mostly for corporations)."

Mary responds: Richard did not offer any data or other evidence to support his premise that it used to be easy to distinguish between freelance members who are primarily journalists and those who work for corporations, but that is no longer true today. The only example he gave of a situation where the line between journalism and corporate writing is fuzzy is when a science writer writes magazine articles for a foundation that produces its own magazine. Such foundations have not sprung up in just the last few years, and it's surely a minoirity of NASW freelance members who do most or all of their writing for such foundations. While I think the term "active" is a bad term to use and should be changed, I believe that two categories of membership serve just as well for freelancers as for other NASW members. Those who write primarily for the public belong in the category with staff journalists, and those who write primarily for corporations and government agencies belong in the category with associate members.

Richard says: "Right now, nearly three-quarters of freelancers are considered active members, and about one quarter of freelancers are associates. The numbers are even closer for members as a whole: active members barely outnumber associates. Some associate members argue that, by virtue of numbers alone, they deserve equal status in the organization. But NASW was founded as a journalistic organization, and the journalists among us are not interested in changing that character...The Constitution committee, which has both journalists and PIOs on board, has struggled with how to resolve this conflict. In my view, we can do one of two things: First, we can preserve the differences between the different classes of members. We can do that by sharpening the distinction between actives and associates, or we can add more categories (author, instructor, PIO, corporate publicist, for example). One result may be that freelancers might have to submit more detailed information each year to assure that they are being placed in the correct categories."

Mary responds: I am opposed to any change that would require freelance members to submit clips to NASW every year or a list of that year's clients so that someone other than the freelance members themselves would determine what category of membership they belong in. I take issue with the makeup of the Constitution committee. Richard acknowledges that "one major issue we've been wrestling with is how to deal with freelance members." Nevertheless, the Constitution committee consists of three staff journalists, two PIO's, and only one freelancer. The committee is made up of five men and one woman. I agree that it is important to have a strong presence of journalists leading NASW. However, just how we define a journalist member of NASW is very significant. One board member wants to say that a freelancer can not be considered a journalist if he/she has one client during the year that is not a recognized media outlet. In other words, if you work on a book and do some magazine articles and or newspaper articles during the year, but also do one assignment for a non profit organization, you would be classified as an "associate" member for that year. Your membership classification would change from year to year, depending on where your writing appeared.

Richard says: "At the very least, we'd like a better label than 'active' and 'associate,' since some of the most active members of NASW are 'associates.' Alternatively, we can dissolve the distinction between active and associate -- but just for the general membership. Any member is simply a member, whether he is a full-time journalist, full-time PIO, or a freelancer who works for IBM one week and Discover magazine the next. "In order to maintain NASW's identity as an organization dedicated to science journalism, all officers would be required to be working journalists (staff or freelance). And journalists would remain a guaranteed majority on the board...Under the new plan actives and associates alike would vote with the same ballot."

Mary responds: I think there's general agreement that the term "active" needs to be changed.
I strongly oppose having one membership category for all NASW members, which would mean that staff journalists and freelance members who write for magazines and do books would be in the same big membership category with PIO's for drug companies, other corporations, government agencies, etc. That flies in the face of wanting to maintain NASW's identity as an organiation dedicated to science journalism.
I strongly oppose any move to have membership distinctions that are much stricter for officers than for all the rest of the NASW members.
I see that as hypocritical. Almost no freelance member of NASW could qualify to serve as an officer if to be considered an "active" member (the only working term we now have), you are not allowed to have even one client during the year that is not a recognized media outlet. How many of you work fulltime for magazines, newspapers, broadcast media and book publishers? How many of you have at least one client during a year that is a non-profit organization or other group that is not media? If journalist members of NASW are defined as staff journalists working for recognized media organizations and freelancers who work for no one other than recognized media organizations, the number of true fulltime journalists in NASW becomes a tiny minority of the members -- nowhere near half. This category of fulltime journalists is so small that it does not have the right to insist that only these members occupy all four officer slots and a majority of seats on the board. Under our present system, associate members vote for the associate board candidates, and active members vote for active board candidates.
I favor keeping this system, instead of letting the entire membership vote for both categories of board members.

To sum up, I think we should keep NASW pretty much as it is right now, except that we should change the label "active" for members who are primarily journalists. While I agree that NASW is a professional organization, I also see it as an organization to provide service to its members. You have every right to ask board members and officers who are seeking changes that will affect you to detail what they have done for NASW members during their terms of service. How many annual board meetings have they attended? In what way have they served NASW members?

Sorry for the length of this message, but this is a very important issue - -- especially for freelance members of NASW. Let us hear from you.

Mary Knudson NASW freelance member NASW Freelance Committee NASW Secretary

E-mail: mary@nasw.org Phone: 301-495-9379 Fax: 301-495-0319 Address: 9023 Flower Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20901

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Message From: Larry Krumenaker Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 16:35:48 +0000 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Dear Mary, Richard and NASW members at large,

This is an interesting quandry. I'm sure this is part and parcel to the changing face of journalism. In early days freelancing wasn't an issue so why bother with it.

However, today's science writers, even the employed ones, tend to write for more than one venue. There are public information personnel who freelance, just as there are freelancers who do the occasional corporate piece. If we are going to scrutinize freelancers to see if they have done some corporate work, who is gonna check the NPR guys to see if they did a piece on the side? This works both ways.

Indicating what bin you like to be considered in for statistical purposes is one thing but being boxed in to a label just isn't working. The transition from easy two-category binning to whatever the new media and new journalism will turn into is not complete, nor clear in what its end will be. But the old labels just don't work. As long as both writers and PIOs agree to hold themselves to journalism standards should be sufficient. Some do that quite well--Andrea Messer's press releases read better and fairer than many reporters articles.

I would love to be able to vote for some PIO types who I admire and respect and think would be good board members (Paging Dennis Meredith!), but I can't because I'm an "active." But am I really an "active" member? Last year I produced a couple dozen freelance articles for magazines so I'm an active member. But I also did a backgrounder piece for a company for a fee--that's associate's turf. Hardly makes me a full-time non-journalist. I'm working on an astronomy now for Oryx Press so I'm clearly an active there. I also wrote two computer books over the last two years, also active territory but one of those was self-published (and doing quite well, thank you). Publishers are not actives. I did some e-media work, some of which would be considered articles by an "active" science writer yet others were for companies ergo I was wearing an associate's hat that day.

The reality is, IMO, that anybody who is getting into this business in the 90's is going to be hitting all sides of the street(s). The field dictates that. So does the economics of the field. This is no longer the cozy club envisioned by those six guys in 1934. It's unfair to hold people to categories that have gone out of date. I might like to run for NASW office one day--is it the books and articles that I write that count, the occasional bread money from writing a technical backgrounder, or my publisher hat that makes the difference? I would hope it is the quality of my work that is the only defining point.

I say leave the freelancing label to the statistical analysis the association needs to keep up alert on its membership but let the categorization cease.

Larry Krumenaker

Publisher, Hermograph Press
http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/hermograph
hermograph@compuserve.com

Editor of "Net.Journal Directory"--The Catalog of 
    Full Text Periodicals  Archived on the Web
Links to *Free* Periodical Archives on our Site!

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Message From: Jeff Hecht Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 11:57:39 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Interesting how many more responses there are to Mary's comments on computer cats than on her comments about proposed membership changes.

I can't see any compelling need for change, although I agree that the labels for "active" and "associate" members need to be changed. (For logistic simplicity, the new labels should not start with the same letter of the alphabet. Lest you laugh, I know of one organization that had the same titles and somehow lost the distinction between them a dozen or more years ago, transforming some lower-status "associates" into "active" members.)

The distinction between journalist and PIO is useful and important, but anything else would split NASW into fragments too small to be useful. It's ridiculous to suggest that one non-media assignment turns a freelance journalist into a flack. Would that cover consulting on a field where we develop expertise (in my case, on laser history)? What about advisting museums? Or helping my sister with a press release when her group won a charter school?

We freelancers should identify our business as primarily journalism/writing or primarily PR. Yes, that depends on individual responsibility and honestry -- but I don't think the stakes are so high that people would have much incentive to fudge. Trying to make too many distinctions invites endless debate over membership qualifications, which is useful only in frittering away otherwise productive time.

Jeff Hecht Boston Correspondent New Scientist magazine 525 Auburn St., Auburndale, MA 02166 USA tel 617-965-3834 fax 617-332-4760 e-mail jhecht@world.std.com URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Jeff.Hecht/index.html see New Scientist on the Web: URL http://www.newscientist.com/



Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 14:16:25 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW President's letter

Mary Knudsen wrote: "Richard did not offer any data or other evidence to support his premise that it used to be easy to distinguish between freelance members who are primarily journalists and those who work for corporations, but that is no longer true today." You're right: The difficulty in classifying freelnaces is no worse now than it always has been. But in a way, Richard is also right. The difference between yesterday and today is that freelances are now a much larger proportion of the membership, so the classification problems loom larger. But I remember that a dozen or more years ago meeting organizers, who understandably had different rules for journalists and PR people, getting in a real tizzy about freelances who were covering the meeting for a news outlet but also had PR clients there. So, as you say, the problem is fundamentally not new. "While I think the term "active" is a bad term to use and should be changed, I believe that two categories of membership serve just as well for freelancers as for other NASW members. Those who write primarily for the public belong in the category with staff journalists, and those who write primarily for corporations and government agencies belong in the category with associate members." But also: "However, just how we define a journalist member of NASW is very significant. One board member wants to say that a freelancer can not be considered a journalist if he/she has one client during the year that is not a recognized media outlet. In other words, if you work on a book and do some magazine articles and or newspaper articles during the year, but also do one assignment for a non profit organization, you would be classified as an "associate" member for that year. Your membership classification would change from year to year, depending on where your writing appeared." And: "Almost no freelance member of NASW could qualify to serve as an officer if to be considered an "active" member (the only working term we now have), you are not allowed to have even one client during the year that is not a recognized media outlet."

Do you mean to say you see no contradiction between the first statement and the other two? Especially the last? Certainly I do!

Gray areas are not limited to freelance work, of course. According to the most reasonable interpretation of the current constitutional language, staffers at JAMA and

C&EN are not eligible for "active" membership. In practice, of course, they are and probably should be. But what about a staffer at an alumni magazine, where the PR function is much more obvious? So even when people have a single, full-time job, their proper classification is often clear as mud.

Another, quite different, example, is the 30,000-word report on technical and commercial prospects for genetically engineered animals that I did back in the late 1980s for Frost & Sullivan. Now, Frost & Sullivan is not a publisher: It is a consulting firm. And the report was sold to its clients as a "consultant's report." This is surely not PR, but is it journalism? Remember -- a point that both you and Richard appear to be doing your level best to sweep under the rug -- that the "associate" category is not just for PR people, but for anyone who is not considered a journalist. So does my work on this report fall into the "journalism" (active) or "other" (associate) category?

So, as I hope I've illustrated, if the "active" and "associate" categories are to beretained at all, the constitutional definition of "journalist" must be very, very carefully crafted.

But no amount of fiddling with the constitutional definition of journalist will solve the problem of freelances who go where the money is. And, at least in my experience as a freelance, where the money is changes quite frequently. For example, I have done almost no PR work since April of last year. But for at least the next five months -- and perhaps much longer, if things work out as expected -- it will be providing more than half me income. So it is not just an overly restrictive definition of journalist that will cause a freelance's classification to change from year to year, but the inherent nature of the freelance business.

Furthermore, the problem can arise, not just on a year-to-year, but a day-to-day basis. Consider the following plausible scenario for my work in 1998: Half-time staffer for a PR agency; about a quarter of my time doing freelance magazine articles; one-eighth time putting out a newsletter; and the remainder split between author's editing and technical editing for a medical journal. How would you classify me for that year? Do you see a possible problem?

Another minor nit that has just occurred to me is that freelances never know what they are going to be doing for the coming year. Which would mean that they have to be classified on the basis of the previous year's work -- a classification that may well not reflect what they are currently doing.

"I strongly oppose having one membership category for all NASW members, which would mean that staff journalists and freelance members who write for magazines and do books would be in the same big membership category with PIO's for drug companies, other corporations, government agencies, etc. That flies in the face of wanting to maintain NASW's identity as an organiation dedicated to science journalism."

But there are several problems with having just two categories of membership. One I haven't mentioned yet is that it focusses attention on just one distinction among NASW members while ignoring others. For example, I would strongly suggest that the distinction between freelances and staffers is more important than that between journalists and non-journalists. This distinction between those who write for professional and consumer audiences may be equally significant. (I do both, myself. But my observation suggests that those who devote more or less their whole careers to one audience considerably exceeds the number who devote whole careers to journalism vs. PR.) Then, among journalistic staffers, you have the distinction between print and broadcase media -- and now "new media." And within PR, you have the distinction between agency people and client-side types. Not to mention the distinction between writers and media relations people (although the PR profession tends to downplay the distinction because its founders did both).

Another problem with having precisely two categories of membership is that it still leaves all the people who are neither journalists nor so-called "PIOs" (would it surprise you to learn that I hate having that term applied to people who don't work for the government?) lumped in with the PR types -- which means people like you and Richard can pretend they don't exist.

If you object so strongly to a single membership category, the proposed "mixed" category would resolve most of the problems. Of course, then you have to decide how the mixed category fits in with the constitutional assignment of board memberships and officerships.

Alternatively, you could have an entirely different set of categories. How about a fundamental split between freelances and staffers? Then the staffers could be split into journalists, PR types, and others. No point in trying to split the freelances, when the main point is that we are just too heterogenous a group, doing too many different things at too many times. Make sense?

I'm sure this is going to be a lively discussion. In fact, I wonder why it wasn't posted on nasw-talk? Even though classification questions may be most prominent and obvious in connection with freelances, it would surely be naive to think that staffers won't be affected as well.

Bill Thomasson

P.S. (This seems to be my day for P.S.'s) Mary also wrote: "I take issue with the makeup of the constitution committee. Richard acknowledges that "one major issue we've been wrestling with is how to deal with freelance members." Nevertheless, the Constitution committee consists of three staff journalists, two PIO's, and only one freelancer."

Interesting point -- especially since the rest of us had not been informed of the committee's make-up. But given that one of the main questions is the status of freelance - -- and does anyone doubt that, in view of my quite extensive comments on NASW On-Line last year, I am top of Richard's mind -- it does seem strange that more extensive freelance input was not sought. After all, there is no possible way that any single individual, acting without broad democratic input, could represent the interests of this varied and heterogenous group. Indeed, even three or four people might not provide true representation unless they had been deliberately selected to reflect different approaches to freelance work. (As you may or may not be aware, I first because active in NASW discussions when the Freelance Committee was (deliberately) constituted so as to represent only a fraction of the organization's freelance membership.) Which brings up a further interesting question: What is the procedure for ratifying proposed constitutional changes? (My copy of the constitution isn't handy at the moment?) Does ratification take place at the annual meeting -- a venue inherently slanted toward staffers? Or will there be a mail ballot of the entire membership, with some opportunity for truly democratic input? Anybody know off-hand?

(And Mary thought that she wrote a long letter!)

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Message From: "Tabitha M. Powledge" Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 11:23:20 -0700 (PDT) Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Let me add my urging to Mary's. Please read Richard's column and respond. This is a terribly important competitive issue for freelancers, and we are numerous enough in the organization to have some clout.

As some of you know, she has relinquished the SW freelance column to me. This is obviously a subject for the next column, but Howard will need my copy fairly soon.

I have strong opinions about Richard's proposal (which has been significantly toned down from the original). They are mostly similar to Mary's, so I won't take up bandwidth with them here. But I would like to be able to quote a sampling of YOUR opinions in the column.

If you'd rather not air them here, you can e-mail me privately. Please don't do it anonymously, though. While I'd like to hear from list subscribers who are not NASW members if you think such changes would affect your desire to join the organization, I want to give most weight and column space to actual freelance NASW members.

I hope also that those of you who respond directly to Richard and/or Mary will copy me.

Of course I won't use anybody's comments, either from the list or private email, without permission.

Much obliged,

Tammy Powledge NASW Freelance Member NASW Freelance Committee Freelance columnist for ScienceWriters


Tabitha M. Powledge 25040 Old Brick Way tam@nasw.org Hollywood, MD 20636 301-373-5466 FAX 301-373-3788



Message From: Brad Hurley Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 15:18:01 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Mary Knudson wrote:

>Those who write primarily for the public belong in >the category with staff journalists, and those who write primarily for >corporations and government agencies belong in the category with >associate members.

We need to think hard about how to define "journalist." My own example may serve as a caveat:

When I first joined NASW, I was working full-time for a commercial newsletter publisher, writing an international newsletter on global warming and ozone depletion. My job was no different from that of a newspaper or magazine journalist, and the newsletter was read by many influential people (in governments, environmental organizations, scientific institutions, and industry) in over 40 countries. I broke stories that were picked up by the Economist, Nature, Science, New Scientist, and National Public Radio (as Richard may remember). But when I applied to NASW, I was lumped into the Associate membership category, perhaps because commercial newsletter editors aren't typically thought of as "journalists."

I didn't (and still don't) care whether my membership is listed as "active" or "associate," but for the sake of accuracy it would probably be a good idea to ask prospective members more detailed questions about their work and their readership/audience before assigning them to a category.

  • -Brad Hurley


Message From: Carol Hart Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 16:28:45 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

To many of the exchanges so far, I can only say "me too." In particular, I often don't know from one quarter to the next what I will be writing for whom. I'd be annoyed and a little offended to be asked to prove my allegiance from one year to the next.

I'm also frankly confused about the distinction between a "recognized media outlet" and a "corporation." (I won't quibble about the fact that the media outlets are also incorporated--ha!) Does it work like this? If I write for the New York Times or Scientific American, I'm a journalist. However, according to Richard Harris's letter, if I write for a publication of a non-profit foundation, then maybe I'm something else? Does that cover publications like JAMA and Science, which are produced by non-profit associations that, to varying degrees, have political and social agendas? I have written several times for the newspaper of the American Academy of Pediatrics. These definitely are clinical information pieces that help to educate doctors (eg, an article on molecular testing and another on growth hormone therapy), but they also, indirectly, reinforce the value of belonging to the Academy, so there is an element of PR. Now, what is that?

Logically, anyone who writes for the NASW newsletter on an ongoing basis risks losing his/her "Active Member" status.

I understand the issue of controlling the influence of people who basically do PR. But are freelancers really advocates for the corporations they occasionally write for? For example, as a freelancer, I may write a patient or physician education piece for a pharmaceutical company. That does not mean I am on their team or that I advocate their products or their studies. I get my check--Thank you!Goodbye! My situation is very different from the full-time staff writer at one of these companies.

Carol Hart

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Message From: Mary Miller Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 13:54:27 -0700 (PDT) Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

This debate about various categories of science writers is similar to the current debate about whether to include a "mixed-race" category on the U.S. census forms. That is, should we freelencers align ourselves with one predominant identity or acknowledge that we sometimes cross the lines between journalism and institutional work? I vote for allowing freelancers to determine their own niche and to make those categories fairly broad ones.

I work half time for a science museum writing books, exhibit graphics, magazine columns and articles (no PR work) and half time as a freelancer writing primarily journalistic articles for Popular Science, Earth Magazine, and others as well as institutional magazines such as Stanford Medicine. I also develop and edit hands-on science activities for NASA and some private curriculum developers. That definitely makes me a mixed breed, yet I consider myself driven by journalistic standards not those of a promoter.

I strenuously object to submitting clips, client lists, or testimonials in order for someone at NASW to verify or determine my credentials or journalistic identity on a yearly basis. Not only would that constitute considerable work on the part of the NASW board (or whoever would review the material), I consider it an insult to my professional and personal integrity.

Mary K. Miller Exploratorium Senior Science Writer Phone: 415-561-0347 Fax: 415-561-0307 Alternate phone: 510-226-0288



Message From: John Ludwigson Date: Thu, 10 Jul 97 17:31:59 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

>The reality is, IMO, that anybody who is getting into this business in the >90's is going to be hitting all sides of the street(s). The field dictates >that. So does the economics of the field. This is no longer the cozy club >envisioned by those six guys in 1934.

Larry Krumenaker is right. Times change. Categories change. And as soon as we agree (if that's possible) on a new set of categories, things will change again. What I'm getting from Richard Harris', and others', posts is that the present active/associate division of things is pretty blurry. As Larry points out, people jump from one hat to another, necessarily so, whether primarily freelance or not. This isn't entirely new: for example, many years ago while working full time for a major daily, I also wrote a brief report for an accounting firm on the side (I guess they thought a science writer would understand numbers!). That was in the 1960s. We have enough categories (2) now. What we need is (a.) a better name for the "active" one; and (b.) a relaxed attitude. We're science writers, not some snooty country club!

Jeff Hecht observed: >Interesting how many more responses there are to Mary's comments on >computer cats than on her comments about proposed membership changes

See item (b.) above. There's no better example of a relaxed attitude (unless the neighbor's cat happens to wander into your yard) than a cat...or several of them. Ours don't sleep on the monitor - or the screen - - so I couldn't get a comment from them about that. Their two categories, BTW, seem to be "homeboy" and "(expletive deleted)". Not that that would apply to science writers.

John L.

John Ludwigson Scienceworks Gambrills, Maryland



Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 17:01:58 -0700 Subject: NASW president's letter-a warning

As a member of the constitution committee I am impelled to add the following:

I tried to warn everyone when this began that there is a history to this dispute and we're crazy to start it up again. I've been a member for more than 25 years and this is the third time the categories have been a matter of debate. In the previous two times (before e-mail) it was divisive and unpleasant. The Internet now makes it possible to destroy discussions even more quickly. The debate by the constitution committee, done almost entirely by e-mail (I discount the rumors of an east coast telephone cabal), was destructive, bitter, unpleasant, ad hominem and in all, the worst single experience I've ever had in NASW. I profoundly regret volunteering.

I urge you all to make a deliberate effort in these discussion not to emulate the constitution committee in its incivility. I'm sorry Richard brought the whole thing up and if we gave him truth serum I think he'd admit he was as well. E-mail, in fact, may be the worst way to discuss these things because humor, sarcasm, subtlety are lost on this medium.

I will state my opinion as quickly as possible and then drop out of the discussion. I was a representative of the freelances on the committee as head of the freelance committee. My position was simple: it's not broke. Leave it the hell alone.

You are now on your own.

jns

Joel N. Shurkin 500 Jupiter Terrace, Santa Cruz, California 95065

Science Writer, Journalist E-mail: joel@nasw.org (invalid link)



Message From: Jeff Hecht Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 20:37:34 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter-a warning

Joel Shurkin wrote:

> >I tried to warn everyone when this began that there is a history to this >dispute and we're crazy to start it up again. I've been a member for more >than 25 years and this is the third time the categories have been a matter >of debate. In the previous two times (before e-mail) it was divisive and >unpleasant...

Debates over membership qualifications got so bad in the Science Fiction Writers of America that the members declared a moratorium on all such debates. It's holding better than most cease-fires. Every time somebody (usually a new member) complains about the less rational of the rules, those who've been through the wars warn about endless bitter debates going nowhere. NASW doesn't need this. Leave well enough alone.



Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Thu, 10 Jul 1997 23:39:19 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter -- a warning

Joel Shurkin wrote: "My position was simple: it's not broke. Leave it the hell alone."

Whether or not the membership categories are broken (my personal opinion is that they are at least seriously bent) there can be no doubt that the constitution is broken. Example: The constitution reserves four seats on the board for associate members; the constitution provides absolutely no legal way in which associate members can be nominated for those seats. Don't you think this should be corrected?

And maybe it's worth reminding you that what started this whole brouhaha, more than a year ago, was much less a dispute about membership categories than about the fact that the constitution's definition of those two categories does not begin to match those currently applied in practice -- much less what most members think the two categories are. I mean, how many people realize that the "associate" category includes college journalism professors? (If they do, the rhetoric certainly doesn't reflect that realization.)

Bill Thomasson

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Message From: Eric Bobinsky Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 00:06:42 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

All science journalists are science writers. Not all science writers are science journalists. Science writing and science journalism are not synonymous.

When I stumbled across the NASW forum on CompuServe five years ago, I was a working NASA scientist flush from having my first paid article published in BYTE. It wasn't journalism; in fact, it was a layman's tutorial on my own technical speciality. When I came across the NASW, the term "science writer" brought to my mind Eisely, Sagan, Mead, and Hofstadter-- not just McPhee, Rhodes, Broad and Dietz. So I joined as a freelance, and a year later asked for and was granted an active membership because I began doing regular (but still freelance) journalistic pieces for a science magazine. I did not then-- nor do I now-- consider myself a working journalist, because I have friends who have attended j-school and work for dailies and I can no more call myself a journalist in their league that I can call them scientists in mine. As journalists their primarly goal is timely, accurate and meaningful news dissemination; as a science writer mine is explanation. These goals overlap, to be sure, but they are fundamentally different. Both are equally important in our culture.

This debate is making it abundantly clear that non-journalists may not be welcome in the new-and-improved NASW, science writers or not. This worries me, so I'm jumping in.

The NASW membership certificate hanging on my wall reads "to foster the dissemination of accurate scientific knowledge by the press of the nation". Maybe in 1934-- the year NASW was founded-- this could have legitimately meant "only beat reporters need apply". It seems to me that, today, pursuing that goal requires the combined efforts of the whole science communications pipeline, which includes scientists, government/industry PIOs, science authors, peripatetic freelances and, of course, working gonzo science journalists.

To get to the point (hey, I said I wasn't a journalist! Now, what were those five W's? Who, where, why, when, what-in-the-hell?), I have three specific comments on membership and then I'll shut up.

  1. I make about 1/2 of my income writing about science and technology, including what the NASW considers journalism. It's all freelance, and none of it is for "special interests." The other 1/2 of my income derives from my own small company which does R&D and consulting. From time to time I do a piece (unpaid) for a trade rag that, typically, hypes something about what my company does. In this light I am my own special interest (acting as my own PIO), so do these forays into flackdom disqualify me from active membership? I carefully separate these articles from my science writing in my own mind, but is the distinction sufficient for the NASW? Please note that I am not trying to be flippant here; to me (and I suspect a few others) this could be an important issue if I'm ethically bound to send the flack clippings to the Secretary on an annual basis, along with my freelance work. If I had to worry about that, the return on my annual dues investment becomes questionable and I'd probably just bow out (I would miss the cat stories).

  2. As I said above, fostering "the dissemination of accurate scientific knowledge by the press of the nation" needs more than just journalists to succeed. It needs the entire industry. I don't believe that membership distinctions are necessary or that they are administratively efficient, ethically effective or even enforcable. Let members' affiliations speak for themselves. I understand the danger in letting special interests dominate the NASW board, but I believe that if energies were focused on trying to constitutionalize a balanced board makeup instead of on an inefficient membership classification scheme, it could probably be achieved. The board needs to include journalists, authors, PIOs and maybe even a scientist/engineer or two. Whether they are freelancers or not is a moot point-- conflicts of interest can and do occur as well to full-time reporters and journalists and need to be handled by the Board on a case-by-case basis.

  3. Finally, I just finished reading the Field Guide for Science Writers. It's a great little book, and in "The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers", the entirety of Part 4 is on "Working Outside the Media". Isn't it just a bit hypocritical that our official guide not only sanctions flackdom but elevates it to its own section yet our officers consider it so fourl and tainted that the creatures who perform this ungodly function-- even once a year-- are unfit to lead?

Okay, you've heard from a virtual unknown to whom membership in the NASW (not NASJ) is important, both personally and professionally. I feel the status quo is parochial and needs a bit of changing: one membership category, a balanced board, and recognition of the very diverse landscape of science writing and science writers (just go to Borders and peruse the dust jacket bios). And now that Diane might have her finger poised over the key with my database record on the screen (just kidding, D), I take my leave. Flame away!

Eric


Eric Alan Bobinsky Science & Technology Writer

280 South Rocky River Drive Post Office Box 10 Berea, Ohio 44017 USA

Tel (216) 243-2992 Fax (216) 243-2934 Int'l +1 216 243 2992/2934 ericb@nasw.org

National Association of Science Writers Canadian Science Writers' Association National Writers Union




Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 09:44:01 +0100 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

At 03:18 pm 10/07/97 -0400, Brad Hurley wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote Mary Knudson wrote: > >>Those who write primarily for the public belong in >>the category with staff journalists, and those who write primarily for >>corporations and government agencies belong in the category with >>associate members. > >We need to think hard about how to define "journalist." My own example may >serve as a caveat: >

Not really responding to this, but jumping in because we have a similar issue in the UK. Forgive me for intruding in the grief of others, but it does seem sensible to compare experiences.

My question is: why do you have the separate categories?

We have associate and full members. Associates are the PR persons. They don't get to vote and they are at the back of the queue when we allocate places for important events (as in our forthcoming lunch with the new minister for Science, Energy and Industry).

The voting issue is there, I believe, because we would not want the PR mob to turn the association into a vehicle for their profession. It is not a judgment on their activities, which I seem to see in some of the NASW statements.

The UK may also be able to offer you some history lessons in the nature of the freelance profession. I get the impression that until recently, say the past decade, there weren't that many fully self-employed science writers. Sure there were wannabes hanging in there until they got a real job, but only a handful of determinedly independent souls who did not want to belong to the corporation and were in a position to pay their bills and earn a healthy living through their writing. Perhaps this is what your prez means by the changing nature of the profession.

We have had a small but growing band of freelance people here for many years. Indeed, in the higher echelons of British journalism, staff jobs are not always the pattern.

As a believer in the single-screen message, I have gone on too long. I suggest that the NASW asks itself WHY it has the categories. This is more important than angels dancing on pinheads. (I hasten to add that this has yet to happen, but it may not be too long before the discussion takes that turn.)

MK


_ Michael Kenward OBE / Phone: +44 (0)1444 400568 Fax: (0)1444 401064 Science Writer & / michael.kenward@dial.pipex.com Editorial Consultant / (invalid link)



Message From: Rick Borchelt Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 10:36:46 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: nasw-freelance V2 #119

Joel observes in a recent post: >I will state my opinion as quickly as possible and then drop out of the >discussion. I was a representative of the freelances on the committee as >head of the freelance committee. My position was simple: it's not broke. >Leave it the hell alone.

As a full-time PIO and sometime freelance, and a member of both board and constitution committee discussions on this issue, the question is both more and less complex than Joel's and Mary's recent posts would lead one to believe.

First, while the system isn't "broke," is certainly reflects an era in the science writing community that is probably past. It probably was never that easy to distinguish members who had split lives -- part PIO, part freelance, part staff journalist. But the opportunities to split our lives and paychecks have magnified tremendously in the past few decade, with the advent of new modes of communication and rapid product cycles. And our membership has changed, with nearly half of the members now representing assorted "associate" categories.

With this in mind, a number of us have gone to the board for a clarification of how the constitution applies to our current membership (and other) practice. This wasn't Richard's bone to pick, but sensing a real need to bring these issues up for rational discussion, he established a mechanism for setting out the issues -- a study committee, reporting to the board, and ultimately to the membership. The committee is not empowered to make decisions for the membership, merely to outline the issues we've identified for membership action. I would be very disappointed if the impression over the past few posts has been that this is a Mary vs. Richard activity with Joel as referee.

At the heart of this discussion is fairness: Is it fair to assign a member associate status (including the inability to hold office or to vote on most important issues before the organization) because s/he is staff writer for a university research mag, for example, when a freelancer whose entire income is derives from writing for that same publication is an active member? I don't think so, and I doubt most NASW members would think so. But where do you draw the line? And that's what the discussion has revolved around: where do you draw the line? Or do you even need to draw the line?

There has never been a serious proposal to subject all freelance members to an income verification check. There was, however, a discussion of asking our officers to certify that they are in fact working journalists in the sense required by the constitution. Again, it's an issue of fairness: As a PIO, I can live with never being an officer (and there is probably some merit in reflecting to the outside world that we are an organization of professional journalists that would argue for restricting office to journalists). But I would want the assurance that elected officers are bona fide journalists: If member X is elected as an officer on the claim that s/he is a science journalist, yet performs 90% of the same duties as a PIO at a university publication or a nonprofit organization, then where is the fairness in that?

This is one reason why Richard's suggestion of a single membership category for NASW, coupled with holding the 4 officers to publicly demonstrable standards of bona fide journalistic activity, makes great sense. It gets rid of the second-class citizenship issue for the bulk of our members, and allows all of our productive members an equal stake in the future of this organization, something that many associate members do not currently believe they have.

But there is one downside, and it affects active freelance members most of all. For an active freelance member (as currently defined) who would be seeking elected NASW office, one would probably have to demonstrate somehow that what s/he does is identifiably straight journalism, and that demonstration would probably not be simply saying that's what you do. On the other hand, an associate freelance member (as currently defined) might have a chance to run for office while that road is now barred.

Honesty about what we do and equity in dealing with our members is what this discussion has been about -- it has, in my opinion, been very useful for the board in understanding the variation in current business practice among our membership, in figuring out just who are members are, and in setting the stage for a future discussion of professional ethical standards for NASW. The resulting discussion among the membership as I've seen it so far on the listservs has satisfied me that we did the right thing in addressing this issue at this time, and I think Richard deserves the credit for wading into this contentious topic with integrity and an open mind.

Rick Borchelt Manager, Media Relations Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation Oak Ridge National Laboratory POB 2008 MS 6416 Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6416 423-241-4208 (p) 423-574-0595 (f) http://www.ornl.gov



Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 10:47:03 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Michael Kenward wrote: "We have associate and full members. Associates are the PR persons."

Do you mean this literally and strictly? I am particularly wondering about people who are neither journalists (in some broad, vaguely defined sense of the term) nor PR people. In NASW, these "others" are associate members. In ABSW, if you were speaking precisely, they are full members. Right?

Bill Thomasson

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Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 10:46:54 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

Eric Alan Bobinsky wrote: "I did not then-- nor do I now - -- consider myself a working journalist, because I have friends who have attended j-school and work for dailies and I can no more call myself a journalist in their league that I can call them scientists in mine. As journalists their primarly goal is timely, accurate and meaningful news dissemination; as a science writer mine is explanation. These goals overlap, to be sure, but they are fundamentally different. Both are equally important in our culture."

I would hate to see us get hung up on semantic distinctions, but I think it's important to recognize that people in different segments of the profession have very different ideas of where the segmental boundaries lie. People who think of themselves as jouranlists, such as Mary, are quite clear in their own minds that the term includes both news reportage and feature writing. But those of us with science backgrounds who do primarily feature writing (a description that includes me as well as Eric) tend to restrict the term to news reportage and therefore do not self-identify as journalists. Over the past year and a half I have become comfortable with the idea that much of what I do would be considered journalism by those who consider themselves journalists, but the identification still does not come naturally.

Similarly, Mary Miller says she does "no PR work" for the Exploratorium, even though she writes articles and columns for the museum's magazine. I haven't seen the magazine, but I strongly suspect that it has enough promotional intent and content that a PR person would have no hesitation in calling it PR.

Actually, Mary is a perfect example of just how "mixed" a freelance life can be. In addition to doing things that a PR person would consider PR, she also does things that a journalist would consider clearly journalism and things that are clearly neither PR nor journalism (e.g., writing exhibit graphics, developing and editing hands-on science materials). Of course, the fact that this latter set of activities is not PR is irrelevant, since they clearly represent "associate"-type work under the two-category system currently in place.

Bill Thomasson

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Message From: Bill Thomasson Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 11:22:07 -0400 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

I would like to thank Rick Borchelt for his recent post and to state that I agree completely with what he says.

Just to reiterate my previous comment to Joel, however: Although membership classification is by far the most contentious issue facing the constitution committee, it is by no stretch of the imagination the only part of the constitution that needs to be addressed in order to make it an effective working document.

Bill Thomasson

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Message From: Eric Bobinsky Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 12:20:24 -0400 Subject: Re: nasw-freelance V2 #119

At 10:36 AM 07/11/97 -0400, Rick Borchelt wrote: > >...and I think Richard deserves the credit >for wading into this contentious topic with integrity and an open mind.

Agreed!

Eric



Message From: Richard Harris Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 12:05:48 -0400 Subject: Re: President's letter

I'm following the constitution discussion here with great interest. I don't want to engage in a debate right now, but I would like to contribute a few facts to help the discussion.

Nobody on the NASW board would suggest a definition of "journalist" so strict that any non-journalistic work would disqualify them from being an officer. We have not discussed exactly how to define "journalist," but I would fully expect that the definition should be broad enough to include freelance members who write regularly for publications such as Technology Review, Physics Today, Discovery Online, Science, Discover and so on. The point is we want NASW officers to be people who operate under journalistic principles and who are so regarded by their peers.

As a point of reference, here's how the constitution currently defines "active" membership.

"Active membership shall be restricted to those persons principally engaged in the preparation and interpretation of science news... through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism... provided that no person shall be admitted to active membership whose efforts are primarily directed to the promotion of a product or an organization."

Note the term "principally engaged." As a practical matter, it has been defined as someone who earns at least half of his or her income through "preparation and interpretation of science ncws... in keeping with the highest standards of journalism." If we don't change our constitution, this will remain the standard.

Richard Harris NASW Prez



Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 09:39:18 -0700 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

>I would like to thank Rick Borchelt for his recent post >and to state that I agree completely with what he says. > >Just to reiterate my previous comment to Joel, however: >Although membership classification is by far the most >contentious issue facing the constitution committee, it >is by no stretch of the imagination the only part of the >constitution that needs to be addressed in order to make >it an effective working document.

I'm out of this conversation. Thanks anyway.

jns

Joel N. Shurkin


Message From: Norman Bauman Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 11:44:00 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

I basically agree with everything that Mary said.

At 09:53 AM 7/10/97 -0500, Mary Knudson wrote: > >The latest issue of ScienceWriters has been arriving in the mail the >last few days....

>Richard says: > "One major issue we've been wrestling with is how to deal with >freelance members. In the olden days, there was a seemingly simple >distinction between freelancers who were primarily journalists versus >freelancers who did work for major corporations. It should come as no >surprise that, these days, many members of NASW hop back and forth >across that fence with great agility. Yet each year, we ask freelancers >to state whether they are "active" member(s) of the organization (that >is basicaly journalists) or "associate" members (those who work mostly >for corporations)." > >Mary responds: > Richard did not offer any data or other evidence to support his >premise that it used to be easy to distinguish between freelance members >who are primarily journalists and those who work for corporations, but >that is no longer true today.

Good point. I'll offer some evidence to the contrary. 20 years ago, Columbia Journalism Review used to be full of examples in its "Darts" section and elsewhere of journalists who hopped over the fence.

The big difference is that then, people were more likely to work for bigcompanies that published employee manuals which stated the company's rules. Today, with downsizing, more people are freelancing, or working for smaller companies, and they have to decide their own rules.

>The only example he gave of a situation >where the line between journalism and corporate writing is fuzzy is when >a science writer writes magazine articles for a foundation that produces >its own magazine. Such foundations have not sprung up in just the last >few years,

Ms. Magazine and Mother Jones are published by foundations.

Science magazine is published by the AAAS. Is the AAAS any different from a foundation? In fact, several years ago, the Congressional press correspondents' association, which effectively decides who can cover Congress, decided (for a while) that Science did not qualify. Should writers for Science have a different status because they work for a membership organization? I don't think so.

BTW the AAAS is a corporation. The New York Times is a major corporation. The term "corporation" literally refers to a legal organization, and should be irrelevant to this discussion. I know what Richard is getting at, but I challenge him to define it precisely.

>Richard says: >One result may be >that freelancers might have to submit more detailed information each >year to assure that they are being placed in the correct categories." > >Mary responds: > I am opposed to any change that would require freelance members to >submit clips to NASW every year or a list of that year's clients so that >someone other than the freelance members themselves would determine what >category of membership they belong in. > I too am opposed to having to submit clips or client lists every year. I had to do that for the Computer Press Association, and it was a real annoyance. More important, who judges? And on what basis?

> I agree that it is important to have a strong presence of >journalists leading NASW. However, just how we define a journalist >member of NASW is very significant. One board member wants to say that >a freelancer can not be considered a journalist if he/she has one client >during the year that is not a recognized media outlet. In other words, >if you work on a book and do some magazine articles and or newspaper >articles during the year, but also do one assignment for a non profit >organization, you would be classified as an "associate" member for >that year.

This flies in the face of the reality of freelance writing. I know many members of NASW who write for medical tabloids, and also do corporate work. This raises a lot of ethical questions. The National Writers Union and Editorial Freelancers Association have had meetings on this question (some of which I've written about in their newsletters), and we have resolved it in generally satisfactory ways.

But NASW as an organization has never discussed these questions. What exactly is the problem with writing for non-media clients? Let's have a full discussion.

> I strongly oppose any move to have membership distinctions that are >much stricter for officers than for all the rest of the NASW members.
>I see that as hypocritical. Almost no freelance member of NASW could >qualify to serve as an officer if to be considered an "active" member >(the only working term we now have), you are not allowed to have even >one client during the year that is not a recognized media outlet.

I strongly oppose it too. That would mean I couldn't have anyone on the board who represents my interests. It's like having a death-qualified jury.

First the Grand Rabbi of Israel tells me that my Rabbis aren't really Rabbis, and now the NASW board tells me that my board representatives aren't really journalists.


Norman Bauman | 411 W. 54 St. Apt. 2D | New York, NY 10019 | 212) 977-3223 |




Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Fri, 11 Jul 1997 18:35:04 +0100 Subject: Re: NASW president's letter

At 10:47 am 11/07/97 -0400, Bill Thomasson wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote Michael Kenward wrote: "We have associate and full >members. Associates are the PR persons." > >Do you mean this literally and strictly? I am >particularly wondering about people who are neither >journalists (in some broad, vaguely defined sense of the >term) nor PR people. In NASW, these "others" are >associate members. In ABSW, if you were speaking >precisely, they are full members. Right? >

What other people are there? You either write, edit, or otherwise communicate, for a living? Or you do something else that is on the fringes, usually PR.

We have full members in broadcasting, writing and museums. However, a PR person for a broadcaster, museum etc would be an associate.

Another proviso is that you need to earn most of your money from your writing. So an academic who dabbled and wrote the odd piece for, say, New Scientist, can be an associate. (Some of the beasts end up full time and we have to chase them to become full members.)

Our rules are open to interpretation. When a member applies, the committee discusses the application. There is rarely any argument.(We meet monthly and handle perhaps a dozen applications per month.)

We don't have any elitist notion that an editor of Nature is any more legitimate than, say the editor of a publication from our equivalent of, say, the NIH. If anything, you could say that Nature is more 'commercial' and 'suspect'.

I doubt if that adds any enlightenment. But there it is.

MK

Part two. | Part three.