Association of American Correspondents in London fighting closure in 99th year as membership has fallen

A journalists’ group founded shortly after the First World War, whose guests have included Princess Diana, Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher, is facing closure in its 99th year.

The Association of American Correspondents in London was first set up in 1919 by journalist and politician Sir Harry Ernest Brittain, despite the Foreign Press Association having been established some 30 years earlier.

The group went on to be presided over by some of America’s top journalists, including CBS broadcaster Edward R Murrow who challenged the Communist-hating Senator John McCarthy (shown in the film Goodnight and Good Luck directed by George Clooney).

Other past presidents include Henry Luce III, a journalist who was also the son of Time Inc founder Henry Luce.

But the AACL is now under threat as it struggles to remain relevant in an era of staff cuts, shrinking newspaper budgets and an unrelenting news cycle, putting its proud history at risk of falling into obscurity.

While British Foreign Secretary, Eden was said to have “made a point of lunching regularly” with the AACL.

During her premiership, Margaret Thatcher held a press conference with the association in September 1983, taking questions from reporters for the likes of ABC News, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Examiner and CNN on topics including East/West disarmament talks, conflict in Lebanon, and the state of the world economy following recession.

A guest for lunch in January 1996, Princess Diana is said to have told AACL members about her divorce proceedings against Prince Charles. Other lunch guests include the likes of George Soros and Tony Blair.

Freelance journalist and current AACL vice president Ginanne Brownell-Mitic tells Press Gazette: “It would be a shame for the association to close because it has history. It used to be a place where people would go – there was breaking news happening at our events.”

She adds: “I think about what it must have been like to have been an American correspondent in London during the Second World War and even in the 60s, when everything was happening in Vietnam and London was swinging.

“There’s that glamourous kind of sepia-toned age in terms of what you think it must have been like. We will lose it.”

She said the association is “in danger” partly because “lots of newsbrands have closed and budgets have gotten smaller”.

“We used to have events and tonnes of people that would come to these things… we would have these fantastic long lunches, but obviously journalism budgets have been cut and with the breaking news cycle you just can’t do those kind of things anymore.”

Brownell-Mitic was a Newsweek staffer for 11 years before turning freelance – writing for the likes of the New York Times,  Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times – and has lived in the UK for 20 years.

She says: “I think there are fewer correspondents around now. In terms of TV they have expanded online here in London. But CBS is much smaller than it used to be and the New York Times used to have a big operation – but it’s true of British journalism as well.

“There has been shrinkage and the idea that we, as journalists, have to do everything now – we aren’t just doing articles.”

The AACL is run by a voluntary board of about eight members, with one part-time salaried secretary. The group’s expenses were just under £6,000 last year.

It currently has 17 member outlets, comprising about 170 people, half those of even a decade ago. It sustains itself through memberships, which cost between £200 and £300 for organisations, or £40 for freelances.

“We used to have a nice little kitty, says Brownell-Mitic. “We just don’t have that money anymore.

“It’s mostly for financial reasons that we either need to reassess or maybe close down. You can’t run an operation with a zero budget and we are getting close to that.

“It would be sad to close one year shy of our 100th anniversary.”

The group, which is currently presided over by Bloomberg’s Gadfly editor Jennifer Ryan, is now looking to expand its conditions of membership to help swell its ranks and, in turn, its coffers.

It has proposed opening it up to freelances who work for US publications and also Americans who are journalists in London, but not necessarily working for a US or Canadian-based publications.

It is also hoping to raise its profile again among North American journalists based in London and turn more towards social events.

The AACL is hosting a panel discussion on the topic of Reporting While Female at Bloomberg’s new headquarters in London on 8 May from 6pm. More details on its Facebook page.

Picture: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

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