By EMILY GERTZ
Last September, Alex Dake (left) and Bobby Magill (right)
joined around 20 SEJ-NYC members who gathered at the
Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan to toast SEJ Award winner
George Black (center). Photo by Emily Gertz
Even in these days of cheap, globe-spanning, instant-gratification communications, many journalists are discovering that face-to-face gatherings still play a major part in building our careers. Shared experiences in the real world can lay especially strong foundations for professional relationships, as well as personal. Even when the opportunity to meet is infrequent, such as SEJ’s annual conference, knowing a colleague in person often makes it easier to continue the relationship online.
But a growing number of SEJers aren’t waiting 12 months to recreate that in-the-flesh experience. In the greater Portland, Ore., area, for instance, members Christy George and Terri Hansen have been getting locals together since 2009. Sharon Oosthoek organizes quarterly pub nights in Toronto.
About a dozen people, including from Portland and Vancouver, turned out when Ashley Ahearn organized a book author pitch slam co-sponsored by the University of Washington Press in Seattle late last year. “It's always great to see friends and colleagues, especially at an event like this one that was organized specifically to help SEJ members advance their careers and build connections in the book publishing world,” said Ahearn. “This was definitely a win for both members of that partnership and we're looking forward to doing it again next year.”
In New York City, I’ve founded the Society of Environmental Journalists NYC gathering [www.meetup.com/Society-of-Environmental-Journalists-NYC], which attracts anywhere from 2 to 25 people every couple of months. We get active journalists, editors, students and environmental writers out for varied events — from happy hours, to ferry tours, to dinner or drinks with special guests.
“Happy hours give members and friends of SEJ an opportunity to connect outside of our annual conferences and just generally enjoy each other’s company,” said Kate Sheppard, who last November organized the first casual SEJ gathering in Washington, D.C. She estimates that around 50 people showed up at The Science Club, a DJ bar, over the course of the evening. “Many of us see each other while covering events or rushing around the Capitol, so it’s nice to have some time where we can socialize,” Sheppard added. “I think the old saying goes, the journalism organization that drinks together, stays together.”
Relieving isolation, maintaining energy
Large turnout is not the only measure of success, however, particularly when the environmental beat takes an SEJ member into remote areas. “The tiniest meetup in SEJ history may have been last winter,” Cynthia Barnett wrote in an e-mail, “when Bill Souder and I met for lunch in snowy Luck (pop. 1,100) in rural northern Wisconsin. I was traveling in Wisconsin and he was in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and we met halfway LOL.”
With more and more environmental journalists working as freelancers, local gatherings can break the isolation of the home office. “The SEJ meeting in Chattanooga was one of the best professional events I’ve ever attended,” said Adam Aston. “But it’s tough to carry that high into following months, especially as a freelancer working solo most of the time.”
Aston has found that local face time with fellow SEJers helps maintain that energy. “The NYC satellite meeting has been a regular source of revitalization, fun and professional therapy. It’s great to share a drink, compare notes and find more time to learn about one another’s interests.”
He must mean it, because in 2013 he joined me as co-organizer of the NYC group. Said Aston: “Our most catalytic meetings have been informal, small group meet and greets with a guest – the likes of OnEarth’s executive editor George Black and NYU J-school’s Dan Fagin. Now we’re talking about bringing in other academic experts, other editors and the like.”
Meetup.com a good tool for meetups
To keep the NYC group both organized and growing, Aston and I use Meetup.com to simplify the rote organizing tasks. Meetup’s platform (available in web, tablet and mobile phone formats) provides tools that allow us to schedule events and get the word out very easily, without having to manage dozens of email addresses or individual messages one at a time. It’s also a centralized “place” for people to find information and RSVP for our next gathering.
To keep people coming back, it’s important that local gatherings have the same “high signal-to-noise ratio” as SEJ’s annual conference, with as much relevance as possible. But local meetings can also attract potential new members and broaden SEJ’s exposure — both key goals for the organization.
To balance these somewhat conflicting aims for SEJ-NYC, Aston and I utilize Meetup.com’s closed group option, which keeps logistical details about specific gatherings hidden from the general public while — through the magic of metadata — allowing potential new members to find us and request entry to the group.
Aston likens it to Amazon’s book-recommendation engine: “Meetup’s robot does a great job recommending SEJ-NYC to folks in the region with kindred interests,” he explained. "Some are journalists who didn’t yet know about SEJ. Others aren’t but are involved in related fields: academia, urban planning, or are general journalists curious to learn more."
The closed-group format allows us to ask a few questions before admitting a new person to the group. If he or she is already an SEJ member, easy-peasy; if not, we typically follow SEJ's membership eligibility guidelines in making a decision.
Similarly, Christy George and Terri Hansen use a closed group on Facebook to keep the metro Portland SEJ group on track.
At this writing, SEJ members across the country are planning local events. If you're interested in doing the same, contact SEJ at email@example.com. SEJ staff can give you a hand with contacting SEJ members using online tools such as Facebook or Meetup.com, and other facets of organizing face-to-face gatherings.
And SEJ staff and board thank the members who have volunteered to organize local and regional gatherings. At press time that list included:
- Central Pennsylvania & Delaware: John Messeder
- Colorado: Rachel Cernansky
- Ohio, Lower Great Lakes: Karen Schaefer
- New Mexico: Jennifer Rabinowitz
- New York metro area: Adam Aston, Emily Gertz
- Northern New England: Madeline Bodin
- Seattle: Ashley Ahearn, Brett Walton
- Southern California: Hilary Sloane
- Texas: Lana Straub
- D.C. metro area: Meaghan Parker, Kate Sheppard
Concluded Ahearn: "It's really inspiring to see members coming together across the country. SEJers are awesome, and we're all doing hard work. Sometimes the best support any organization can give is good company. We want to do more regional gatherings just like this."
Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist and author based in NewYork City. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, OnEarth, Grist, Scientific American, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. Gertz joined SEJ in 2006 and is in her first term on the SEJ board.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.