An Open Letter to the Eastern Ski Writers Association (ESWA)

And now for something a little different from my typical blog entries…

Dear ESWA,

It’s time for some tough love.

I’ve been a member for a dozen years, and it’s discouraging to see the identity crisis ESWA is currently going through. It seems like ESWA is in a rush to irrelevancy. As someone who cannot attend physical meetings (which have always been inconvenient for mid-Atlantic and southern writers, or those who do not write full-time), despite diligently paying my annual dues and fulfilling credentialing requirements year after year, I’m ineligible to vote in the upcoming election. That reduces my ability to influence the future direction of the organization, when the organization is at a critical crossroads.

I acknowledge that many people put a lot of hard work into ESWA and that everyone has good intentions. The nature of snowsports reporting (and journalism in general) has changed dramatically in the past few years, and one can’t expect an organization like ESWA — rich with history and tradition — to change overnight. I could quietly cancel my membership, as so many have done before me, but I would like to see ESWA succeed. So before I go, I humbly submit five suggestions for saving ESWA.

Five Ways to Save ESWA:

(1) Abolish ESWA. That’s right: it may be time to let it go. Let’s focus our efforts on one organization: the North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA). The dwindling membership and stature of ESWA demonstrates that the organization isn’t fulfilling a need. Why should there be regional organizations? Skiers and snowboarders don’t limit themselves to one region, and these days, journalists don’t limit their reporting to one region either. Most readers consume content over the web, and they don’t care where the bits originate from. If there is a good story on Vail, readers will find it, regardless of venue.

(2) Stop treating electronic writers like second-class citizens. Consider, for example, the current guidelines for press membership. A newspaper writer must submit seven stories per calendar year, or three articles reaching a circulation of 1 million. That’s it.

Requirements are much more stringent for Internet-based journalists. They must provide proof of income, proof of a minimum audience, and complete a minimum number of updates that is strangely left undefined.

This disparity is offensive.

Today, electronic publications are the most effective and timely at reaching their audience. A newspaper may have a circulation of 1 million readers, but what percentage of the readers are actually snowsports enthusiasts? (And of those, what percentage actually read the story?) A majority of visitors to snowsports-related electronic sites are snowsports enthusiasts. They’ve gone out of their way to consume content from a source they value and trust.

(And yes, most newspapers are on-line, but on-line, the concept of “circulation” doesn’t make sense. Actual page views and unique readers — which are measurable — does. So perhaps it’s time to do away with the differentiation between media types and group them all together. They’re all blending together in the real world anyway.)

Some of the best and most effective writers also write because they enjoy sharing their love of the sport, not because they are paid for it. A blogger can be more effective at reaching an audience than dead tree media, just as a contributor to TripAdvisor can directly influence far more potential hotel guests than a printed and outdated AAA directory. Yet over the years I’ve seen ESWA barely contain its disdain for contributors such as “bloggers.” We need to be welcoming people like this into the fold, not throwing barriers in their way and then wondering why younger people don’t apply for membership. In the past, a million readers may have relied on 5 publications for content. That balance is shifting. There are more resources available, and each one might be targeted to a narrower audience. This is a reason to celebrate, not cower in fear. It’s never been easier for readers to find quality information relevant to their interests. I find that exciting, not threatening.

(3) Stop trying to please your corporate masters. Recently, ESWA was shocked — shocked! — to learn that some of its corporate members questioned the legitimacy of the organization. ESWA now is tripping over itself to let these corporate members define what the organization should or shouldn’t be. As a non-corporate member, I find that embarrassing.

You’re surveying the wrong people.

Instead, you need to ask non-members why they haven’t joined ESWA. ESWA membership is confined to a small and unbalanced percentage of journalists. (Only 5% of members are from areas south of New Jersey.) Why is that? Ditto for ski areas and corporate membership. For example, my publication focuses on the mid-Atlantic region — extensively covering 34 major ski resorts. Of those 34, only 2 — less than 6% — are corporate members of ESWA. Yet these 34 ski areas receive millions of skier visits per year, and reach the largest density of skiers in the country. Few of my colleagues in the lower mid-Atlantic belong to ESWA. (I don’t even need one hand to count them all.) Over the years, I’ve encouraged more to join, but when pressed for a reason, I’ve had more and more difficulty finding a compelling answer. We’ve always felt shut out.

As journalists, we shouldn’t answer to corporate sponsors. We answer to our readers, viewers, and listeners. It seems like ESWA is having a crisis of identity right now because fewer and fewer resorts are offering to subsidize meetings for them. As a result, ESWA is frantically trying to please the diminishing pool of resorts in order to retain these heavily subsidized trips. Who cares? If in-person meetings are required, there are other venues available. We don’t need to meet at a swank resort. A conference room at a Holiday Inn would do just fine. A carefully choreographed visit for dozens of press members isn’t going to provide an objective review of a resort anyway — that’s not the same experience our readers would receive.

We can have a symbiotic relationship with the resorts and companies we cover, but we must remain independent and at arms-length. Allowing corporate members to define what constitutes a “legitimate” ESWA member is obscene. Don’t harbor any illusions that corporations are fundamentally concerned with improving snow reporting; they’re tripping over themselves to skirt around us and reach their customers directly through Twitter, Facebook, etc. Freebies always have strings attached. We’re not doing our jobs if we’re not angering corporate members from time to time.

Shrinking the membership won’t solve this problem. If ESWA fortifies and expands its membership to capture more and more people who are effective at delivering snowsports-related content, corporations will take notice.

(4) Consider what role ESWA can and should play. Although I’ve been a member of ESWA for a dozen years, I’ve largely had an outside vantage point. As a writer based out of DC, ESWA and NASJA meetings have never been convenient for me to attend. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a meeting ever being held south of New York or upper New Jersey. “But that would limit attendance,” you might say. Let the irony savor a bit; there’s a lesson there.

Examine the ESWA membership directory. ESWA currently has 107 members; of those, the only ones you’ll find south of New Jersey include three members from Pennsylvania, one from Virginia, one from Maryland (that’s me!), and one from Florida. And ESWA wonders why it is having trouble expanding membership? There are a whole lot of snowsports writers south of New Jersey, and I haven’t see any serious attempts to welcome them into the organization.

I’ve closely read all of the newsletters, but by and large, my membership in ESWA has offered few tangible benefits, since I’m unable to physically attend meetings. Worse, it appears that members who cannot physically attend meetings completely lose their influence to shape the direction of the organization; they are ineligible to vote, even by absentee ballot. This shuts out a great deal of potential contributors south of New England, and further gives ESWA an aura of “elitism.”

ESWA and NASJA should serve to unify *all* of those who play a role in snowsports reporting, regardless of the venue. If someone serves an audience, they should be able to rely on ESWA and NASJA for support and resources to help them continually improve their reporting. Our goal should be to raise the standard of snowsports reporting across all current and evolving mediums. The value of ESWA and NASJA is in the collective experience and knowledge of its members — not in its annual meetings, subsidized trips, or anything else. The objective should be to maintain and grow that collective knowledge, and make it readily accessible to the membership, so the sum is greater than the parts. An organization like ESWA could be used to pair mentors with mentees, to provide resources to journalism students, and so much more.

Physical meetings are fine; good networking and instruction can happen there. But figure out how to produce the benefits of networking year-round, and how to make members who can’t attend physical meetings feel welcome. Create a truly interactive on-line presence where members can freely discuss issues, raise questions, ask for advice and ideas.. Automatically digest content produced by members into a single feed (the technology is readily available to do this), so one can go to a web page and instantly see the latest contributions from all members without anyone having to do work. Member contributions can serve to inspire and teach. A unified feed of member-produced content would also be of great value to readers around the world. Reduce, or do away with membership fees. There is no reason to print membership directories or newsletters; those can be on-line and members can print them on their own if they wish. Make the laminated membership cards optional (and charge for them). In 12 years, I’ve never used mine. There are costs to maintaining an on-line presence, but these can be minimal if you set up the structure correctly and rely on crowd sourcing.

(5) And here’s something that might cause some discomfort: Require members to disclose when they have received “freebies” from resorts in their reporting. It is not uncommon for snowsports writers to receive courtesies from the resorts they cover, such as complimentary lift tickets or discounted lodging. If you want to improve the legitimacy and objectivity of members, then require members to disclose these courtesies in their reporting. Make that a requirement for maintaining membership in your organization. Don’t readers have a right to know this information? A simple, standardized disclaimer at the bottom of each story would be sufficient.

So that’s it: five ideas that I believe could improve, or save, ESWA. I hope they at least encourage some discussion and soul-searching. All of us want to see the organization succeed. But as I look in my inbox and see a note reminding me that my ESWA credentials are due, I’m left wondering: “what’s the point?” Given its current path, I can’t say ESWA is an organization I’m proud to belong to, and as a new media journalist south of New Jersey, I sure feel like an outsider.

5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Eastern Ski Writers Association (ESWA)

  1. Gerry Pallor

    Scott: From a board member, point by point.
    1) I don’t see how abolishing ESWA would make anything better. Improve an organization by getting rid of it? Doesn’t compute. How would a national organization better serve the needs and interests of our membership? We are mostly local and regional media. I may have an international audience, but my content comes from close by home. I think a strong local organization will help our membership more than a loose national group, and I think it’s what the membership wants.

    2) Agreed. The board has discussed this extensively. Print media are more established, professional criteria are clear and based on historical precedents. How do you establish professional standards in a digital world where the barriers to entry are non-existent? I think the guidelines for electronic journalists, while more complex, are easier to meet. For example, the guidelines don’t say a member has to be making real money, you just have to try – ie. take a professional approach to your work.

    3) Agreed in spades. The corporate survey was slanted unfairly against the press members. We are not publicists for resorts. Our job is easier when we have their cooperation, but they are not the people to judge our work. I do not understand why so many board members were so quick to condemn alleged transgressions. I do not understand why so many board members feel dependent on the resorts. I certainly do not agree that ESWA will disappear if we do not have the cooperation of the resorts for meetings. The rates we pay for a meeting are in line with their rates for large groups. We now meet ionly on their low traffic dates (mid-week or early / late season). We are paying guests, yet they expect us to publish and send them clippings? Furthermore, they do not advertise in our media. (I have the Neilsen ad expenditure reports for New York City in 2008. Eastern resorts spend heavily in radio; they are invisible in local print and TV.) In the real world you pay to play. We are paying. They are not. Why are they calling the shots? Who are the freeloaders here?

    4) If you’ve been reading the newsletters as closely as you say, you’ll have seen that there have been ongoing and extensive discussions of ESWA’s role and mission. We’ve discussed how to actively engage professional journalists from outside the northeast, how to recruit younger members, how to redefine and reposition the organization in the digital age. I for one would like to see a ESWA develop a strong online virtual community. This would make physical meetings less central to our existence. We have taken steps in that direction. It’s not easy, and when people quit on us, like you have, it only makes it harder. I must add what I learn from these discussions make my membership well worth the minimal charge.

    5) Reporting “freebies” should be a matter of personal choice. When you’re covering a race a free lift ticket isn’t part of the story, so why mention it? It might be relevant in a resort review. I don’t think anyone would sell their integrity for a room and a lift ticket. Why make a blanket rule? How will that help the organization?

    There has been extensive discussion and “soul searching.” It might have helped to involve the entire membership, but our goal was to effect change. The discussions got out of hand very quickly and i was impossible to track the idea threads. It’s past time to get the entire membership involved in active discussions. I hope by responding here the discussion will reach a larger audience of members and people interested in the future of professional snowsports journalism.

  2. Janet Franz

    Your commentary hits the mark. As a member for 13 years, and a board member for about 8, I also have been wondering lately “what’s the point” of sending in my dues and credentials. There is a lot of bickering about credentials, lamenting about meeting prices, debates on the rights of corporate members and moaning about new media, but not much professional development. ESWA certainly gets more from me than I from it. The suggestions here are good ones and I appreciate the time and thought put in to writing and presenting them. Thank you.

  3. Charlie Leocha

    Thanks for the comments. I have been making many of these same points for years to board members and most recently at the Bretton Woods ESWA meeting. The entire NASJA organization needs to step back and decide why we exist.
    1. Be more inclusive in terms of membership criteria
    2. Be more inclusive in terms of the basic name of the organization (ESWA has to go)
    3. Accept reality — regional journalist is almost dead in the time of the Internet
    4. Educate the corporate members of the importance of a wide-spread membership
    5. Ask members how the organization can help them professionally
    6. Allow members who cannot attend meetings to vote. This “constitutional question” is absolute foolishness. If we have a constitution that has clauses where no one can remember why they were inserted, changing the document is not making a mockery of it, but maintaining the non-sensical clause making a mockery of the organization.
    7. A monthly-meeting based organization is not viable except for “journalists” who cannot get discounted ski trips any other way. We need to move to a Web-based system of providing services for members. Perhaps an updated list of editors, discounted online education programs, survey of how much print and web publications pay.

  4. Chris Silva

    If some of the changes you suggest had been implemented years ago I would not have decided to join the retired ranks when I moved to Florida. Change has always been hard for ESWA and as a former officer, board member I saw that first hand., Hang in there and make your voice heard even if it is from afar.

  5. David Sartwell

    Every organization changes over time. Often this change comes gradually as a result of the personalities and interests of those that show up. However, in the last couple of years there have been two outside influences that have forced re-examination. First is the economy. Less advertising dollars have continued to shrink outlets resulting in less folks making money from their writing. The economy has also affected the resources available to ski areas to promote their wares. This has lead them to study more carefully where their available advertising dollars should be spent.
    The second change is the increase in the number of different mediums we use to communicate. This is really the most important long-term issue. How do we incorporate everyone with an interest in communicating to the public? Having been a board member and a long-time member I have seen us struggle with this issue seemingly forever. If one takes the view that we should be as welcoming as we can be to whatever form of communication that is out there, I think some of the solutions become fairly easy.
    I love my corporate friends. They are struggling to keep afloat in these perilous economic times and for the good of the sport we should help them when and where we can. They have the right to dictate who they sponsor or underwrite. If they think they get a good return from me and want to help me out with a ticket or room, I am always grateful. However, ESWA should stand alone on deciding who should be a member. We are an independent organization that needs to stay so.
    As far as the monthly meetings are concerned, I love them. It gives me a chance to see folks, communicate in ways that the computer can never replace, and to ski with people that I might not otherwise have met.
    These issues come and go. (Please, not ANOTHER name change!) We have always bumbled along as a group of concerned friends in a volunteer organization that over the years has really been exceedingly successful. Let’s not be quick to pull the plug or veer off in a direction being driven by the short-term economic downturn of our nation, but rather, let’s pause a bit, collect our breath and carefully examine yet again how we can include as many as possible, be independent as possible, and lastly, HAVE FUN!
    Remember in writing your e-mails and blogs that some of our language lately has become pretty sharp. We are writing to and among friends. Please reduce the volume so I can hear you better!

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