ASJA: Member-Driven For 75 Years—And Counting!

Emily Paulsen
ASJA president, Emily Paulsen
ASJA president, Emily Paulsen

In 1948 a small group of freelance writers gathered at a New York apartment to talk shop. They represented a growing group of independent nonfiction writers who helped fill the pages of magazines that had recently started publishing primarily nonfiction, rather than fiction. They had enough to talk about that they decided to meet again, and again. Although all were independent contractors working on different types of assignments, they realized that they had a lot in common and could learn from and support each other. They were stronger together.

The Society of Magazine Writers—the precursor to ASJA—was born. Through the years, the organization has changed, grown, and changed again, but our purpose has remained the same: to help independent nonfiction writers navigate the craft and business of writing.

While we may face different challenges and follow different opportunities today, the need for ASJA is as clear today as it was 75 years ago. Today we interact more frequently online or by Zoom rather than in person, but freelance writers are just as hungry for community, educational opportunities, and advocacy as they were in 1948.

So, when ASJA faced a crisis in 2023, it again took a strong group of writers—including current and former board members and dedicated volunteers– to use our collective strength and power to make sure that ASJA continues to serve freelance writers.

And we did it by relying on what we’ve learned as writers: to gather information and ideas from various sources and find the thread to pull us through.

We decided to focus on financials and membership, the backbone of any professional association.

On the financial side, we have looked intentionally at every expense, cutting some, and reducing others. When we were putting together our list of requirements for a new management structure, financial transparency and timely financial reports topped the list. Leadership needs to know what we’re spending and what we’re taking in at all times. This is one of the reasons we chose to contract with Cetera Services for association management services. They are working closely with us to sift through the financial records and chart a sustainable path ahead for ASJA. Part of that path requires developing new ways to bring in revenue—non-dues revenue—through sponsorships, grants, and new educational programming.

While we still have a long way to go, I’m proud to say that ASJA’s financial picture is stronger and brighter than it has been in a while.

But of course, ASJA isn’t in business for the money. We’re here for our members. ASJA is member-driven. The organization exists for its members and the larger freelance writing community. Our membership engagement committee launched a successful drive to encourage members to renew early to give the organization the financial footing we needed to move forward. As a result of this campaign, a record percentage of members renewed before November 30, and renewals remain strong. What a vote of confidence this has been for the board and for the organization! We’re also working hard to expand our membership by creating partnerships and offering discounts on application and initiation fees to members of other organizations who may qualify for ASJA membership.

If 2023 was a transition year for the organization, 2024 is our time to rebuild, strengthen and stretch ASJA. We’ve got big plans coming together for educational and community opportunities, including an online book club, new member benefits (look for a discount on the AP Stylebook soon and access to collaboration software soon!), and (fingers crossed) maybe even an in-person conference in the fall.

At our first ASJA board meeting of 2024, we welcomed five new members—the largest class of new board members that we’ve onboarded in many years. I loved seeing my Zoom screen fill up with both new and familiar faces. It was like watching the new and improved version of ASJA come together before my eyes.

Yes, we face challenges and opportunities in 2024 that the writers who gathered in 1948 probably could not have imagined. And ASJA will be here to help freelance writers navigate them, through webinars like the one on AI held on January 10 and the one on writing about climate change that is scheduled in February.

Seventy-five years after that initial meeting, ASJA, publishing, and the world have all changed considerably. But this remains true: freelance writers are stronger when we work together and learn from each other. And we always have plenty to talk about.