The Jekyll & Hyde Year

Milt Toby
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It’s been a helluva year at ASJA. A half-year, really. There is not a lot to say about the first six months of our current fiscal year (the last six months of 2019). It was business pretty much as usual, with meetings, WEAF applications, membership drives, budgets, and planning. As things turned out, those days were the calm. The second six months brought the storm.

With the unwavering help and support of ASJA’s officers and directors, an army of dedicated committee chairs and volunteers, and staff at Kellen, we weathered the challenges.

We initiated a federal lawsuit supporting our California members’ constitutional right to work as independent contractors.

We adapted to an international pandemic that forced the last-minute cancellation of ASJA’s most anticipated event, our annual conference in New York.

We made a mid-course pivot from the planned in-person conference to a virtual platform.

We responded to escalating attacks on journalists by police during protests starting after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.

In other words, we have been staying busy. Here are some examples.


A plan to reorganize ASJA has been in the works for much of my two years as president. The project is one of the most significant tasks for the Board of Directors and probably the least visible to the members. What we generally think of as “ASJA” actually is two separate, but related, organizations, ASJA, Inc., and the ASJA Charitable Trust. The former is a professional membership organization; the latter a public charity that administers the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, our educational programming, and our awards.

Although the two are separate entities, there is a significant overlap between their responsibilities and activities. Our educational programs, for example, fall under the auspices of the Charitable Trust but also involve our members who volunteer their time and talents to organize, present at the events, and attend the sessions. Under the reorganization plan, the Charitable Trust will assume all membership responsibilities, while leaving advocacy and lobbying activity to ASJA, Inc. This is a change from our original plans, which have evolved over time.

Our involvement in a federal lawsuit challenging parts of Assembly Bill 5 in California and the potential spread of similar legislation in other states and in Congress, along with the need for increased advocacy to oppose those bills, convinced the Board to retain ASJA, Inc., as our organizational lobbying arm. The incorporation will proceed as planned, probably under the name “American Society of Journalists and Authors Foundation.”

This reorganization will streamline the management of both entities, allow ASJA to operate more efficiently, and save money in the process. There will be updates as things progress.

Litigation and Legislation

We expected problems on the West Coast with the passage of Assembly Bill 5, an overbroad piece of legislation that is supposed to benefit exploited and misclassified independent contractors across the board. The law affects those independent contractors who should be classified as employees, and there is no denying that there are many of those workers who will benefit. Unfortunately, the law paints with too broad a brush. AB5 assumes, wrongly, that all independent contractors, including our members and the entire community of writers who freelance, should be statutorily mandated employees.

Concerns about an all-inclusive approach to “fix” freelancing have been on ASJA’s radar since a September 2018 decision by the California Supreme Court. In Dynamex, the Court determined that the proper way to decide the classification of workers as employees or independent contractors was a three-part “ABC” test that is nearly impossible for freelance writers to satisfy. The decision was codified in the language of AB5, which took effect this year. The impact on our members was quick and devastating.

The law imposes a strict limit on the amount of work that freelance writers can do before an employer must hire them as employees: an arbitrary 35 ”submissions” to the same client in the year. Employers, fearful of the legal ramifications of hiring freelancers in California and running afoul of AB5, modified contracts, cut assignments in some cases, and dropped in-state freelancers entirely in many others.

ASJA took a stand in support of our members—and all freelancers—by filing a lawsuit in federal district court arguing that the restrictions violated guarantees in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) joined us as plaintiffs in that lawsuit, and we welcome their participation. We also appreciate the pro bono representation provided by the Pacific Legal Foundation. We lost in the trial court but continue the fight with an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is likely later this year.

The lawsuit got the lawmakers’ attention. Two identical bills, both introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (author of AB5), are making their way through committees in the California legislature. ASJA and NPPA submitted written comments to both the Labor and Employment and Appropriations Committees and representatives from both organizations were invited to testify before the Labor and Employment Committee. Both bills are improvements over AB5 but still have problems that we hope will be resolved before coming up for a vote.

Legislation with AB5-type restrictions has already been introduced in several other states, unsuccessfully so far due to grassroots efforts led by members like Kim Kavin and Gwen Moran, and in Congress, where the PRO Act passed the House of Representatives. ASJA already has taken a firm stand in opposition to restrictive legislation and our members have been working tirelessly on the frontlines. We will be there as the fight goes on.

COVID-19 and the New Virtual Normal”

The pandemic and the speed at which it spread caught everyone by surprise. Even as the numbers of both positive cases and deaths rose, especially in New York City, the Board of Directors remained optimistic that the 2020 annual conference could continue as planned on April 19-20. We were wrong. By mid-March, when it became obvious that the risks of holding the conference far outweighed the benefits, we canceled the event. No one was more disappointed than we were, but it was a necessary decision.

One of the many benefits of our association with Kellen is their experience managing similar client organizations that they bring to the table. As we watched other groups under the Kellen umbrella cancelling their in-person events and shifting to virtual platforms we decided to give it a try. How hard could it be?

Thinking that ASJA could make a virtual conference work on such short notice was wildly optimistic and more than a little naïve, considering that we had never organized a virtual conference of any size before. But we pulled it off. Vice President Laura Laing assumed overall responsibility and was up and running with new programs almost immediately. The course correction has been almost seamless, thanks to overwhelming cooperation from our extraordinary volunteers and ongoing support from staff at Kellen.

We offered three free, members-only webinars in April, including an on-point discussion about how to remain productive—or in some cases, just get by—while dealing with COVID-19 anxiety. At the same time, almost overnight, Wendy Helfenbaum, Jeanette Hurt, and Erin O’Donnell retooled the ever-popular in-person Client
Connections into Tele-Connections, with many of the same editors and agents participating in two days of telephone appointments for our professional members.

Thanks to awards co-chairs Salley Shannon and Janine Latus and social media chair Tami Kamin Meyer, ASJA award winners were announced individually on social media during some three weeks in May. We also initiated a new international “Crisis Coverage Awards” program highlighting writing about the pandemic. Articles published between January 1 and June 30 are eligible, with winners announced later in the summer. (There’s still time to enter!)

Randy Dotinga and Kristine Hansen, the co-chairs for the in-person event, had a solid program of educational programs ready to go when we canceled the New York conference. Most of those narrators and speakers were willing to offer their sessions virtually. In May, we were able to offer Porscha Burke’s popular Big Five Book Publishing Mastermind. Highlights for June were two Mastermind sessions about the effective use of free Google tools and using Facebook as a journalism tool, followed by tracks about Journalism (July), Content Marketing (August), and Books (September). (Still time to register here, too.)

We will continue offering virtual education and networking programs now that we are figuring how to do it, but we are not abandoning our in-person roots. We hope to see everyone next year in New York. Mark your calendars for April 18-19, at the Marriott Downtown.

A New Website—Finally

ASJA’s website has been a nagging thorn in everyone’s side for years. Simple navigation around the site is difficult, multiple logins often are necessary, and more complicated tasks can be frustrating beyond belief. Two years ago, when we launched a fundraising campaign to honor ASJA’s 70th anniversary, we promised an online educational hub where we could share the wealth of information that the organization has gathered over the years. Implicit in that promise was an upgraded website to support the educational hub. It has taken a while to get all the pieces in place, far longer than the Board anticipated, and we apologize for the delay.

ASJA’s Technology Committee, chaired by Treasurer Howard Baldwin, began sending out Requests for Proposals to upgrade the website several months ago. The Board of Directors approved the committee’s recommendation for a vendor in May, and preliminary work has already started. The Board will have a better idea about a timeline for completion after the initial discovery phase is complete. We hope that the project will be quick; we are confident that the new website—and the educational hub—will be worth the wait.

The website upgrade is one of ASJA’s most involved projects in recent memory. Thanks for your patience as we get it done.

Giving Back

The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund (WEAF) is one of ASJA’s oldest and most worthwhile programs. Writers facing an unexpected professional crisis or acute illness or injury that limits their ability to work can apply for a WEAF grant to help fill in the gaps until they are back on their feet. The grants are available to ASJA members and non-members, provided that the non-members have sufficient writing credentials to qualify for membership. The grants are not loans and do not have to be repaid, although recipients sometimes donate to the Fund when they are working again.

The grant numbers are impressive: This year, the WEAF Committee has approved seven grants for a total of $9,000. Since 1982, 271 WEAF grants totaling more than $675,000 have gone to writers facing severe financial hardship. The numbers are even more impressive considering that WEAF is, and always has been, supported by donations. Thanks for your contributions; they are always welcome and always needed.

The Future

June 30, the day this edition of ASJA Weekly should be arriving in your email boxes, happens to be my last day as president of the organization. Laura Laing will be taking over as president and Kristine Hansen and Stacey Freed will be joining the Board of Directors. ASJA will be in good hands.

Past President Randy Dotinga and Jennie Helderman will be leaving the board. Randy, along with First Amendment Committee Chair JoBeth McDaniel, did most of the heavy lifting lobbying against AB5 in California, and Jennie’s quiet counsel has been a welcome addition to the board. We will miss you both.

Thanks, also, to the officers and board members; the Publications crew: Committee Chair Leida Snow, ASJA Magazine editor Stephanie Vozza, Weekly editor Branda Lange, and Confidential editor Debbie Koenig; social media folks Tami Kamin Meyer and Jennifer Billock; committee chairs; our volunteers; Holly Koenig, James Brannigan, James Cafiero, and the rest of the staff at Kellen; and everyone I’ve forgotten. You’ve all made my job as president a rewarding experience.

P.S. from Laura Laing, incoming president

I hope everyone is aware of how fortunate we’ve been to have Milt Toby at the helm for two years. In a year when we needed to make changes to our incorporation and our members were threatened by misguided laws and we had an opportunity to join a critical lawsuit in California, we had the benefits of Milt’s legal experience and his steadfast, calm leadership. If you were tired reading the list above, you know how exhausting this work has been. Without Milt, we wouldn’t have accomplished a fraction of it. Thankfully, he’ll remain on the board for two years, so we can continue to depend on his experience, insight, and thoughtful, calm presence. Thank you, Milt