Forming an association of journalists is not necessarily difficult, because there are no fixed or universal rules on how to do it. However, there are guidelines, based on the experience of others.
In its most basic form, an association is simply a group of like-minded people who decide to get together from time to time to discuss (and, perhaps, resolve) issues of mutual interest. The right to assemble in groups without interference is inherent in all democratic societies. *
The grander the mission, the more difficult the task becomes. For example, if an association is formed with the expectation of representing an entire profession, then it complicates its task enormously. First of all, the founders would need to attract the support and membership of at least the majority in the profession, or that association could not truly be called "representative." Once formed, the association would then have to earn the consensus of its membership on all meaningful principles, practices, and actions. Many associations get bogged down in their own regulations and internal bickering, thus destroying the whole purpose of organizing.
History has shown that it is wiser to start small and grow naturally, attracting supporters on the merits of its cause and performance rather than on its claims of power and influence. An association is built on a foundation consisting of three layers:
1. Beliefs (its philosophy or credo)
2. Purpose (its reason for existing)
3. Function (its policies and practices)
These three layers form the governing mandate of the association. In some cases, there are two documents: a "mission statement" (or statement of principles) and the "bylaws," which are essentially the rules of the organization. But there is no reason why they both cannot be incorporated into one comprehensive document. The one overriding precept is that everything flows from that initial, fundamental statement of beliefs.
The governing document(s) must be drafted and agreed to by the founding members. To get the association off on the right footing, it is best that all of the founders agree on the wording of this vital document. Otherwise, the organization will be built on a foundation already cracked by dissent. To accomplish unanimity in this initial phase will likely require compromise -- the fuel that drives all successful membership organizations. To reduce the level of difficulty and to anchor the organization as firmly as possible, it is recommended that the governing document be simple, clear and flexible. If it is complicated, obtuse and rigid, the association will be driven by paper instead of by people.
Here are suggestions on how to go about the process of forming an association:
1. Get together to plan the association. The initial meeting is meant for the bedrock fundamentals, not details. A good framework for discussion is the reporter's traditional "five Ws and H" -- Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Answer these, and the rest is easy. This is the occasion, for example, to agree on a name for the organization. One assumes that by the end of the meeting, those who agree on those basic points will stay, and those who disgree will leave. Thus, those who remain become the founding "Board of Directors." The initial group does not have to be any larger than four or five people, as long as it sees itself as representing a much broader constituency and has the potential to grow.
2. Elect a leader. For progress to be made, someone has to be in charge. One leader (chair) is more efficient than two. The leader's authority can be checked by a majority vote of the founders, and the leader chosen at this initial meeting does not have to be the one who ultimately is elected to head the association itself. That will be a broader, more representative and more formal procedure.
3. Draft a Statement of Beliefs. This is a simple description of the association's fundamental philosophy. It could be as basic as: "We believe in the principle of self-governnance, and that a free press is essential to its success." It may also want to embrace a non-partisan position tolerating different ethnic groups, creeds, genders, religions and political beliefs. It may also want to cover such areas as the responsibility and financial self-sufficiency of a free press. It may also want to endorse high standards of ethical behavior. While it should not be long, the association's credo should be broad enough so that any future policy or action can comfortably fall within it.
4. Draft a Statement of Purpose. This is the rationale for forming an asociation. It, too, should be comparatively brief. To begin with, simply state the reasons for wanting an association of journalists. For example, the purpose may include:
to represent independent-minded journalists in dealing with government and other institutions, both inside and outside the country
to share professional information and serve as a forum for self-education
to establish a code of conduct for journalists and the news industry
to promote free-press principles and policies outside the media
to represent journalists in dealing with employers **
5. Outline the Association's Functions. This part of the governing document, which is a natural transition from the statement of beliefs and purpose, should generally describe what the association plans to be, what it plans to do and how it plans to operate (This will form the basis for a formal set of bylaws, which can be drawn up at a later stage of development by a representative group from the membership). For example, does the association want to represent the broadest possible spectrum of the national media, or will it simply be a voluntary membership association speaking only for itself? It may decide to attract all professional levels, including publishers and station managers, or limit itself to the non-management positions. It may decide to encompass the electronic and print media, or limit itself only to people working at newspapers. Or, it may wish to represent only media directors, thus positioning itself as the voice of the news industry itself. The answers to these questions are usually dictated by "reality," or what is feasible. Besides the make-up of its membership, an operational outline should address the association's:
status (Is it independent or affiliated? Is it necessary to incorporate with the government?)
primary activities (advocacy, education, professional solidarity?)
activities outside its mandate (labor contracts, political positions?)
main source of revenue (dues, government subsidy, private grants?)
basic structure (requirements for membership, elections, officers, and meetings)
NOTE: Many of these first five tasks should be accomplished in the initial meetings of the founding group.
6. Solicit Support. This next step is aimed at solidifying and expanding the organization beyond its "kitchen table" origins. The key question to be resolved here is whom does the association represent? The answer will ultimately dictate how much impact the association will have. As counselled earlier in this report, it is advised not to be too ambititous or even too visible in the beginning. Even if its initial goals are modest, by reaching them, the fledgling association will acquire credibility for itself. A loud and overly dramatic entrance may also attract unwarranted attention. To gain early support, the association's founders might consider:
building its membership among like-minded journalists through small solicitation meetings and printed flyers;
applying for a "start-up" grant from an international agency or foundation;
inviting experts from abroad to advise the association on structure and activities;
meeting with media employers and government representatives to explain the purpose of the association and to earn their provisional endorsement;
appointing research and drafting committees that will firm up the organizational process and give members a sense of participation;
7. Launch the Association. Hold initial meetings of the expanded membership, draft and approve the bylaws, elect officers, and initiate association activity.
This report was drafted by the Center for Foreign Journalists, an independent and not-for-profit professional institution in Reston, Virginia. The information and recommendations in the report come from the documents and experiences of a number of U.S. journalists' associations, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.
* In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to peaceable assembly; it also guarantees free speech, free press, the right to worship as one chooses and the right to complain to government.
** This last example pertains more to trade unions, but there is no inherent law in most countries against an association serving in this function. It should be noted, however, that professional issues and "bread-and-butter" issues don't always mix very well, because they tend to get used against each other when setting priorities or engaging in contract negotiations (i.e. "Do you want ethics or food for the family?"). An association can still take positions on journalists' salary, benefits and security without engaging in negotiations.