Archive for January, 2007


Grumbling about Grambling

Siiiigh. I’m soooo tired of educators going on about how academically rigorous, accepting, community-oriented, student-focused and marketplace-of-ideas-honoring their institutions are — only to see them turn around and censor student publications.

But this happens all the time, and the latest such pomposity is playing itself out at Grambling State University in Louisiana. According to The (Monroe, La.) News Star, Provost Robert Dixon stopped the publication of The Gramblinite this month until the publication’s “quality” improves. Dixon says he wants the students to do a better job of fact-gathering and for the university’s mass communications department to be more involved in the paper’s production.

Quality, eh? I’m not buying it — and neither are Gramblinite student journalists and an array of other journalism advocacy organizations. Gramblinite Editor in Chief Darryl Smith told the Student Press Law Center that Dixon is unhappy about recent stories that have cast the university in a negative light.

Now that, I believe.

For those who keep track of these things, The Gramblinite is an award-winning publication. The Society of Professional Journalists has honored the paper for its top-notch journalism with several regional Mark of Excellence Awards. A quick snapshot: In 2003, the paper won five regional awards; in 2004, four regional awards and in 2005, 12 regional awards. I have no reason to believe the paper won’t be a strong contender in our next contest.

Here’s what is especially troubling about this matter: The university is using the terrible Hosty v. Carter decision to justify its actions.

The Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center stand together on this matter for these reasons eloquently explained by Mark Goodman, the SPLC’s executive director:

“College and university officials have to understand that the First Amendment simply does not allow them to censor student publications because they are unhappy with the content decisions student editors have made.

“Despite the university’s reference to the 2004 Hosty v. Carter decision, one aberrant court decision from another jurisdiction does not undo the last 35 years of legal precedent supporting the free press rights of college journalists.

“Both the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center pledge their support to students at Grambling University or any other public university where school officials are so clearly acting in conflict with the United States Constitution. We are prepared to help students defend their First Amendment rights, in court if necessary.”

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Update: Federal Shield Law/FOI Reform

An update from Laurie Babinski of Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C., SPJ’s legal counsel:

As the new Congress settles in and the picture becomes clearer as to how the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate will deal with the federal shield law and open government legislation, I wanted to give you a brief update on how the relevant bills are shaping up and when they’ll be reintroduced in both chambers.

Federal Shield Law

In the House, Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) are looking to reintroduce the federal shield law legislation in mid-February.

Especially in light of the letter that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) sent to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last week (and that he announced at the ASNE First Amendment Summit at the National Press Club) in which he noted that he favored a federal shield law but stopped short of endorsing the bill as drafted, we’re uncertain of the details that the new bill will address. We understand they’re dealing with some coverage issues, especially related to bloggers, but we don’t have any other indication of what changes are being made by staff.

We’ll be able to see a draft prior to introduction and address any issues we may have with the changes at that time.

On the Senate side, Sen. Pat Leahy’s (D-Vt.) staff is working with Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Lugar (R-Ind.) and Reps. Boucher and Pence on the reintroduction of the bill.

Dodd and Lugar may wait to see what the House bill looks like before reintroducing a Senate version.

As for the coalition of journalism organizations pressing for a shield law: Various members continue to meet with House and Senate members and their staffs. The plan is to organize a public relations push timed for the reintroduction of the bill that highlights San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams and freelance journalist Josh Wolf.

FOIA Reform

Both the House and Senate are looking to reintroduce FOIA reform legislation in conjunction with Sunshine Week in mid-March.

Members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative met with Anna Laitin from Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-Calif.) staff again on Monday to go over the same three provisions we would like to see changed in FOIA reform legislation (ombudsman, attorneys’ fees, and reporting requirements) that we had discussed Jan. 9 with Lydia Grigsby and Reed O’Connor, staff members for Sens. Leahy and Cornyn (R-Tex.), respectively.

Anna made it clear that she was just getting back to dealing with substantive issues after the move, and that the meeting was essentially a reintroduction to the issues for her. Tony Haywood, who was recently appointed to his position with the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, also attended the meeting as an introduction to FOIA reform, with which he has had little experience.

In the next few weeks, the coalition will start visiting the new members of the subcommittee to educate and start building a relationship with them.

As we begin to do so, if any of you have ties with any of the subcommittee members that would prove useful as we meet with them to show them that FOIA reform will have an effect on their constituents, please contact SPJ National President Christine Tatum. The subcommittee members are as follows:

Majority

  • Wm. Lacy Clay, Chairman (D-MO, 1st District)
  • Paul E. Kanjorski (D-PA, 11th District)
  • Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY, 14th District)
  • John A. Yarmuth (D-KY, 3rd District)
  • Paul W. Hodes (D-NH, 2nd District)

Minority

  • Michael Turner, Ranking Member (R-OH, 3rd District)
  • Chris Cannon (R-UT, 3rd District)
  • Bill Sali (R-ID, 1st District)

We’re unsure how the introduction of open government legislation will play out over the next few months. Waxman’s staff is uncertain about how the bill will be reintroduced, most notably whether they’re going to keep the OPEN Government Act intact or attempt to introduce a more expansive reform bill that includes FOIA as a component.

We’ve also heard that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and the new ranking member on Judiciary, may want to reintroduce the OPEN Government Act even though he’s not on Government Reform and Oversight, and that Faster FOIA may be reintroduced as well.

As the details related to the reintroduction of both the federal shield law and OPEN Government bills are available, we’ll be in touch.

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My newsroom and nursery

Well, not much time to write now.

On Friday, my husband, daughter and I celebrated the happy and healthy arrival of Christian Asa Thurstone. He’s the first baby born to a woman serving as SPJ’s national president. As far as I’m concerned, he’ll always have a unique place in the Society’s history. Can’t decide if I’m more amused by that — or the notion that a few of SPJ’s founding members (young men who spearheaded the SDX fraternity) have rolled a time or two in their graves.

My, how far the Society has come.

Wish the same could be said for many of the nation’s newsrooms. But, alas, journalists often find themselves writing about family-friendly work environments they don’t experience themselves.

Believe me, I get it. The news never stops. But there’s also a tremendous amount of ridiculous, old-school thinking that chases some of the best and brightest out of this business.

I’ve given the whole parenthood/journalist mix a lot of thought lately. Given that I have a baby in my lap and another asleep upstairs, I hope you’ll forgive this bulleted list of random thoughts:

  • Say what you will about Dean Singleton, but his company offers generous parental leave. Media News Group Inc., owner of The Denver Post, gave me a little more than a year off to be with my first child, who was born in August 2005. I took a standard disability leave (six weeks) and the balance of my 13-month sabbatical unpaid. Sure, I missed the pay (OK, so I freelanced both for the paper and for a couple of other pubs while away), but that I even was given such a generous leave option is unusual.I returned to the newsroom full time on Sept. 11, 2006 — with a promotion to boot. Baby No. 2 is now here, and I’m back on leave again. While I could have pressed for more time off, I asked only for four months this time around. The response? Nothing but warm wishes, hearty congratulations — and assurance that I can write any time I wish.

    I recently poked around The Post’s newsroom to find out from longtime reporters, editors and administrators more about the paper’s practice. I learned a few things — in addition to making my own observations:

    * The Post has offered this benefit for at least 30 years (before Mr. Singleton became its owner).
    * Jeanette Chavez, the paper’s managing editor/administration, has done a fabulous job of ensuring that the newsroom’s managers understand and honor this policy (She even sent a card wishing me well after my first little one arrived …).
    * The Denver Post’s union representatives continue to ensure the policy is included in labor contracts.

    “But I must hand it to him,” one newsroom manager told me. “Dean Singleton has left this alone. If he wanted to make sweeping change in this area, he could have a long time ago.”

  • There’s some interesting reading out there. While recovering this past weekend, I plowed through a great book titled, Mommy Wars. It is a collection of essays edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, an executive at The Washington Post. Nearly all of the contributors have some connection to journalism and/or communications. While the book focuses on the debates that often rage between career and stay-at-home moms, it includes poignant and helpful perspective for women working in journalism.
  • Would love to see more information about how newsrooms handle these issues. Good luck with your Google search. I have tried numerous terms and have come up with a paltry amount of information about how the nation’s newsrooms handle matters of parental leave and part-time and flex-time positions that accommodate working parents. I did find an interesting article from a 1993 edition of Columbia Journalism Review. Also stumbled across the union contract (which just expired) for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Employees there receive up to 10 months of parental leave.
  • Please help build a useful resource right here, right now. Consider filing a brief summary of your newsroom’s practices/policies concerning parental leave and parent-friendly job structures. Don’t want to leave a name? That’s fine. Let’s identify the newsrooms that are helpful to working parents — and those that aren’t.
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    Moving and shaking for OPEN Government

    Here’s a summary of a recent meeting focused on the reintroduction of the OPEN Government Act to the new Congress. This summary was filed by Laurie A. Babinski of SPJ’s law firm, Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C.:

    In the past few weeks, members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, including SPJ, have been working to make revisions to the bill so that it can be reintroduced quickly in the 110th Congress.

    With the three changes we believe are within our reach (ombudsman, attorneys’ fees and reporting requirements), members of the coalition met with Lydia Grigsby, a staff member for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and with Reed O’Connor of Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Tex.) staff.

    The meeting was a success, largely because we discovered that both Leahy and Cornyn are on the same page as we are regarding the bill. Both agree with members of the coalition that the new bill should be as close to the OPEN Government Act as possible for the best chance at passage. Leahy and Cornyn have coordinated with members of the House, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), in an attempt to keep both the House and Senate versions of the bill identical.

    Both are working to make some of the same changes (and thus coming up against some of the same difficulties) that we are proposing. Finally, both agree with the coalition that the new bill should be introduced in conjunction with Sunshine Week in March.

    The main purpose of the meeting was to highlight the three key changes we would like to see made before the bill is reintroduced.

    The first issue involves clarifying the ombudsman provision. The coalition attempted to clarify for Grigsby and Reed what we believe the role of the ombudsman should be and where the ombudsman would be placed within the government.

    First, we suggested that the role of an ombudsman be both to issue informal oral opinions that would provide guidance to requestors and to write formal, non-binding opinions that could later be used as an irrebuttable presumption that attorneys’ fees should be paid if the case goes to court. We stressed that an ombudsman would in no way affect a requestor’s right to go to court.

    The coalition has suggested placing an ombudsman in each agency under the supervision of the Inspector General, a model that has worked well in some states. However, the coalition will continue to examine alternatives, including placing the ombudsman under the auspices of the Office of Management and Budget, General Accounting Office, National Archives, Office of Governmental Ethics, Administrative Conference or under a separate office.

    We also could explore a suggestion from Grigsby that the bill create a position in each agency that would be similar to an Administrative Law Judge or actually place the responsibility with an ALJ already in the agency.

    Grigsby and Reed agreed with our proposals for a help desk to assist requestors — as well as a pilot program to test how the role of the ombudsman would actually function wherever it ends up.

    The second and third issues discussed were our recommendations for fixing both the attorneys’ fees and reporting requirements provisions of the bill. Our changes to the attorneys’ fees provision center on making it more possible to receive attorneys’ fees in court even where litigation doesn’t end in a court order to turn over documents (such as if parties settle or the government decides to turn over a large portion of the request last minute).

    Changes to the reporting provision include the requirement that the agencies maintain a database of FOIA requests and make the raw statistical information from that database publicly available.

    The coalition needs to continually stress that the bill, with the changes we’ve recommended, is worth fighting for. Once it gets through both houses of Congress, we don’t anticipate that the bill with changes as drafted would be a likely candidate for a veto.

    In the next week or two, the coalition plans to meet again with Waxman’s staff to follow up and present the same set of changes. Once the full list of new members to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee is released (as well as the new information subcommittee), the coalition will continue to meet with key players with hopes of smoothing the road for passage.

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    Changes news orgs and newsies should make in 2007

    Being national president of SPJ is one cool gig if for no other reason than the opportunities it affords to see many of the nation’s newsrooms and to meet and correspond with journalists of all backgrounds, expertise and levels of experience.

    Oddly – or maybe it’s not so odd given our common interests and ideals – journalists greet me as an instant confidante. I know what – and even who – bothers them in the places they work. They mince no words about their disgust with certain industry dynamics and with the poor management and office politics permeating their newsrooms.

    Given that a new year is here, now is a great time for all of us to make some changes that improve our newsrooms and our journalism. These are just a few ideas – presented in no particular order — and they’re not mine alone.

    Insist on investments in technology. There are news organizations of all sizes out there that truly should be ashamed. Reporters at one Wyoming newspaper told me about how the design and production of their online edition is controlled by the paper’s advertising department because the head honchos don’t want to make room in the budget for that work to be handled by journalists.  Even in the nation’s largest newsrooms, I often am dismayed by the antiquated and/or poorly designed Web-production tools that severely prohibit otherwise talented journalists from working online quickly – never mind innovatively.

    More of us need to speak up about these failures to newsroom managers, to station owners and to publishers. Money must be spent on the tech tools journalists increasingly need to do their jobs.

    It’s also important for journalists to invest in themselves by learning how to use an array of technology to deliver the news. Don’t wait around for an employer to provide or pay for such training. If you don’t have the option of taking a college course or putting new skills into practice in your newsroom, consider spj.org your training ground. Contact Quill Editor Joe Skeel for ideas about how you could contribute to the site in ways that benefit thousands of journalists – and help you become more tech-savvy in the process.

    Appreciate differences, and acknowledge strengths. One sign of good leadership is the ability to identify everyone’s potential and to inspire him or her to live up to it. Newsrooms are filled with quirky folks who are easy to write off because they somehow don’t hang with the right crowd or have the right swagger and pedigree. Or they’re easy to dismiss because they’ve been unfairly boxed into one area of specialty or are just “really quiet,” as one TV station manager told me.

    Many newsrooms could be transformed in the most dynamic and positive ways if journalists actively sought to know more about the professional strengths and interests of their colleagues and those they supervise. Let this be the year that we do a better job of identifying talented and productive journalists to lead important newsroom initiatives and take leading roles in the coverage of big stories.

    Seek everyone’s input. This is a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many newsrooms fall down on the job miserably.

    Show me news managers wringing their hands about how to appeal to younger audiences and growing niche communities, and I’ll likely show you a senior staff that seriously needs to reconsider how it decides what stories to pursue and present. The chairs in those daily coverage-planning meetings typically are filled by the same people every day – and those people are often white, male and over the age of 40. Even worse is when the people sitting in those chairs consistently do little more than present story options and leave it to the newsroom’s top one or two mangers to do all the yammering and decision-making.

    News organizations would be more in touch with the public they serve if they tackled their planning differently. They should consider creating regular rotations for reporters and production staff to weigh in on story selection. They could try a more democratic approach by giving everyone a vote and allowing the majority to decide story selection and placement. They might even invite trusted members of the general public to have a say in some of these discussions.

    While I’m at it, I can’t help but note that a lot of news-analysis TV programs would be far more interesting if producers and hosts bothered to solicit input from journalists of a much wider array of ages. And gracious, find folks working outside Washington, D.C., please.

    Build more flexible newsrooms. With today’s technology (yes, there’s that word again), there’s no reason for journalists to be tethered to their desks. Newsroom managers have been surprisingly slow to permit staff writers – and even online producers – to work remotely. And then they wonder why resulting stories lack enterprise and energy.

    It’s also time for more journalists to contemplate seriously the silos in which they work. While newsies are always likely to have specialties – some of us will write better than we yammer on camera, others of us will have great voices for streaming audio but loathe the precision required of newswriting – we need to think of ourselves as gatherers and presenters of information across media. Not as “newspaper” and “radio” reporters, not as “TV” producers, not as “print” photographers or graphics designers. Not as the “online staff.” Like it or not, technology is shattering those distinctions, and newsrooms should reorganize accordingly. Journalists either will help develop and embrace exciting changes – or they will play the role of obstructionist and, eventually, find themselves out of a job.

    Encourage more journalism advocacy. Newsrooms are changing – and need to change – fast. As they do, it is crucial for journalists to do everything in their power to uphold the integrity of good journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists is there to help. Please continue to support the organization, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

    Let’s keep this conversation rolling. What other changes could you help newsrooms make this year?

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