As INMA crosses 15,000 members, a nod to 90 years and a pandemic reinvention

By Earl J. Wilkinson

International News Media Association (INMA)

Dallas, Texas, United States

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Celebrating our 90th anniversary this year, the International News Media Association (INMA) quietly passed 15,000 members last week. We slipped the bonds of a “membership list” to become a little virtual town. 

In a year when a global pandemic overshadowed all plans to commemorate nine decades of service to the news industry, I want to use this occasion to shed light on what has happened to INMA during COVID and put what has been achieved in a context befitting nine decades of achievement. It is a story of fear and reinvention that has attracted the attention of other associations and even member media companies. It is a story that you helped to shape through your involvement and your contributions, all accelerated through crisis.  

And it is one of the best stories in our cherished history. 

What an abyss looks like 

Less than two hours after INMA wrapped up its Subscriptions Summit in New York on Friday, February 28, four members of the association’s Executive Committee e-mailed, texted, or spoke to me directly: What would happen if this coronavirus didn’t allow us to conduct our Paris World Congress of News Media, an event into which we were sinking our heart, soul, and pocketbook? In fact, what would happen to INMA if all events this year went away? 

Let me pause my story by saying this is not the way you let a person celebrate the wrap-up of a conference. Hitting him with the worst possible scenario imaginable doesn’t allow for the customary imbibing and howling at the moon that one might do in Manhattan on such an occasion. 

INMA began as a U.S. organisation, expanding in Europe in the 1970s, the South Pacific in the 1980s, Latin America in the 1990s, and South Asia in the 2000s. Here is our current map of corporate members.
INMA began as a U.S. organisation, expanding in Europe in the 1970s, the South Pacific in the 1980s, Latin America in the 1990s, and South Asia in the 2000s. Here is our current map of corporate members.

Through the next morning, I did the calculations of cancelled contracts and lost revenue streams. It was sobering that in-person events represented 300%+ of our profitability last year. The loss of events, while not immediately life-threatening, did encourage the skipping of a heartbeat or two. 

Like it or not, INMA had been described as a “conference association,” even if I loathed that phrase because it didn’t reflect our true value. Yet our World Congress, in particular, had evolved into a high-end experience that 500+ people enjoyed for its programming, networking, fancy dinners, and elevated receptions. Paris would have been the crème de la crème

What I wanted, backed by our Board of Directors and nudged by members asking us to reach higher, was to become the most value-laden press association on the planet. INMA membership dues are very low, about 10% of the price of a similarly sized press association focused on a different niche. Yet we kept adding benefits without raising prices: Webinars, meet-ups, niche newsletters, a Readers First Initiative, a Digital Platform Initiative. We had evolved conferences into multi-activity experiences: conference sessions, study tours, seminars, social gatherings. 

For 2020, INMA planned a Young Professionals Initiative, the addition of Webinar series in South Asia and Latin America, and a content distillation project called “INMA Knows.” INMA is content-rich and distillation-poor, and anything to package the voluminous content our members produce would be of great benefit. 

Then COVID hit. 

Sitting in that New York hotel on that cold February morning, I wondered how we could afford to fund anything moving forward. It had never occurred to me that something could prevent us from physically being in contact with the INMA diaspora for years. 

How INMA reinvented during COVID 

Yet with a lot of help from our team and our Board of Directors, we hit on a prescient path forward: innovate out of the membership line item. Make INMA so valuable to members and media companies that it would hurt to be without it. Double down on everything we ever dreamed of doing, but we didn’t have the time as we traversed the planet. 

INMA members from the 1990s to today have embraced INMA’s global role with gusto and come together via conferences, study tours, and now virtual meetings. You also can see the growing diversity in gender, race, and geography.
INMA members from the 1990s to today have embraced INMA’s global role with gusto and come together via conferences, study tours, and now virtual meetings. You also can see the growing diversity in gender, race, and geography.

Jumping to the end of the story, we:

  • Increased the annualised daily content we provide members from 500 to 800 articles, giving you more tools and perspectives to grow.  
  • Grew global Webinars from 33 last year to 75 this year, making INMA a regular presence for training and development.  
  • Expanded strategic reports from four to nine, opening up new voices and perspectives to more segments of our membership. 
  • Created the INMA Knows distillation project to break down the avalanche of information at your fingertips as a member. 
  • Launched Webinars in South Asia and Latin America where languages, time zones, and cultures are unique.  
  • Launched our “30 Under 30” Awards, created and managed by our fledgling Young Professionals Initiative. 

Along the way, we were the first major press association to reimagine its World Congress (Paris) as a virtual conference along with a virtual Global Media Awards ceremony — just 10 weeks after that cold February day in New York. We quickly stood up seven virtual Master Classes (averaging 100+ per class, most of whom have never attended an INMA event) and created an accompanying Premium Videos section for the new inventory of recordings. 

Through partnerships with the Google News Initiative and Facebook Journalism Project, we were able to support subscription initiatives in Europe, North America, and South Asia. With the Google News Initiative, we created the Elevate Scholarships for under-represented groups — responding to a unique moment in our world.

Through three quarters of 2020, INMA.org traffic is up sharply: 21% more users and 28% more pageviews.  

Thinking back to the deep six-figure losses we were staring at in my New York hotel nearly seven months ago, we may make enough profit in 2020 to buy the staff a couple of pizzas at Christmas.  

Did we just reinvent INMA’s strategic focus and prove we could do it financially? 

We have so much more in store for INMA members in 2021. We have grabbed the COVID moment and unabashedly ripped through the “what if” fears. Our Board hears you, and they are active. We know people won’t be getting on planes, certainly across oceans, any time soon. We know our little virtual town needs segmenting and those communities deserve tender loving care. 

Our first 90 years 

In my preparations for INMA’s 90th anniversary earlier this year, I thumbed through the fragile notebooks that hold together our founding documents from the 1930s. I was struck by the fraternity among news professionals and a line of print benefits that, at the core, one can see today: sharing of ideas through newsletters, a member directory, a conference. 

INMA members from the 1930s to the 1980s celebrated conferences, the shift from promotion to marketing, and the “total newspaper” concept. It also was a male-dominated era that began to change in the 1980s.
INMA members from the 1930s to the 1980s celebrated conferences, the shift from promotion to marketing, and the “total newspaper” concept. It also was a male-dominated era that began to change in the 1980s.

I whisked through photos from times past: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s — from an American association to a global association, from men to women and toward more people of colour. INMA did not have a professional staff until it hired an executive director in New York in 1967. It was an obsessively volunteer-driven association: a heart-and-soul organisation of people who organically imagined — long before Web sites, e-mail, WhatsApp, even faxes — how to use INMA for the news industry’s betterment. While our North American conferences began in 1930, we added activities in Europe in 1971, the South Pacific in 1980, Latin America in 1993, and South Asia in 2007. 

The storyline across those years, roughly, ranged from “to achieve less disrespect for promotion” to marketing concepts as part of a “total newspaper” to evolving toward strategic marketing as a leadership and management lever (think Regis McKenna: “Marketing is everything, and everything is marketing”). 

Yet for all the peaks of marketing, news organisations never fully trusted it. As I plugged into this story and with a few decades of hindsight, news media CEOs believed marketing was too much “art” and not enough “science.” They couldn’t quantify the investments in their own brands despite selling marketing solutions (advertising) to others.  

The irony is that with the infusion of real-time data analytics into the operation of media companies, rising in importance every day, the same CEOs that made “marketing” a dirty word in some corners of the media world would be proud of what is emerging. Newsrooms are becoming engagement engines. Journalism is central to the value mix, and it’s quantifiable. We are getting smarter and more efficient as managers, as companies, as brands.  

INMA crossed forcefully on to a bigger global stage after September 11, 2001. While we had been an international association, it was mostly decentralised and dispersed. Three weeks after 9/11, we issued a report on the prospects for news media globally, based on data and history. Instead of selling a few dozen print best-practice booklets as we had done for decades, we sold thousands of digital reports within 48 hours from media executives worldwide eager for someone to connect the dots. 

From that moment 19 years ago, the arrow continues to point upward. We embraced an integrated global view on everything. Listening to our members, we have always been one step ahead on digital, transformation, culture, mobile, data, subscriptions, product, and more. Our stages became bigger, as our conferences became experiences. Our defeats, like COVID, became victories. Our members became family, regardless their physical distance. 

Hei Skål!

I plugged in to this INMA story in 1990 at the age of 24. I was hired as publications editor after growing up in East Texas newspapers since 14 and working on Capitol Hill in Washington, then got handed the job of executive director within two years. Our Board of Directors reminded me of my 30th anniversary last week with a surprise Zoom Board meeting tribute, a gift bag of my beloved whiskey and cigars, and a video that made my old, unemotional heart break for a few days.

I’ve noticed during COVID that people need a reason to celebrate. Crossing 15,000 members in our 90th year (on the week I celebrated my 30th anniversary) is a damned good reason to raise our glasses to our beloved press association that energetically finds new ways to help our members and our industry.

Cheers to 15,000 members in the International News Media Association. And to the generations to come. 

Hei Skål!

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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