Archive for September, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite

It didn’t take me all of two and a half hours sitting at Walter Cronkite’s memorial service Wednesday to learn that my career is somewhat muted  by the fact I never met the journalistic icon.

I, like so many of my generation, were drawn to journalism by the likes of Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley.  When I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be an astronaut and walk the moon like Cmdr. Buzz Aldrin, who, by the way, was on hand to eulogize Mr. Cronkite, I wanted to be a journalist.

The service may be one of the great moments of my 30 years as a newsman.  When I wasn’t laughing at stories like the time Mr. Cronkite refused to have his picture taken with the Big Three’s anchors — Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw — because that meant leaving his seat at the bar and walking away from his drink, I was shedding a tear for our loss. The service was a euphoric blend of happy memories and poignant testimonies to “the Most Trusted Man in America.”

Make no mistake about it, those who knew Walter Cronkite, loved him. They respected him and they followed his example of pure, driven journalism that put a premium on accuracy, fairness and brevity.

“Just give the people the news. Be accurate and fair. That’s what they want,” he must have said enough times to chant it in his sleep.

That’s  an amazing statement that still has a place within today’s context of high-speed, technologically driven delivery systems.

In President Barack Obama’s tribute to the CBS News anchor, he told the crowd about the time Mr. Cronkite, as a young reporter, lost his job because he dared pick up the phone to verify a fire at a local department store instead of rushing on the air to tell it. Obama suggested, rightfully so I believe, that even with the supernova brightness of technology and the light speed by which information is disseminated, that Mr. Cronkite would still do the journalistic right thing and take the time to verify the information, get it right and then report it.

Listening to the likes to Bob Schieffer, Andy Rooney, Katie Couric, Nick Clooney, Sir Howard Stringer and Brokaw tell their stories about Mr. Cronkite, I was comforted by the notion that the way I was taught to be a journalist, and how I now teach my students, is straight from the Cronkite book – people need to know what happened. Above all else, accuracy and fairness must exist. Journalism is a noble calling and you must honor it with these commitments, lest you lose the trust of the public and undermine your credibility.

As Obama said, Mr. Cronkite was the “most trusted man in American” not because it was a marketing tool or a gimmick to get viewers to tune into CBS News.  It was a title bestowed upon him by the people who matter the most – the American public.

His work is legendary and his commitment to journalistic excellence is second to none, so my respect for him didn’t need to grow as a result of this service. But, what did happen is I renewed my spirit and reaffirmed my respect for what it is I do – journalism. I have the great fortune of sharing this profession with Mr. Cronkite.

He set the bar for which we all reach and in the final analysis, that may be his greatest gift to journalism — that we aspire to be as honorable and trusted as Mr. Cronkite.

I may never have met him, but that seems less important to me today because of what he meant to American journalism and his beloved public.

I think you can trust me on this.

A call to membership

As those of you who attended the convention last week will recall, I talked about a plan to turn our membership numbers around. While adding 1,000 people to our roll seems daunting in these most difficult of times, it will not be if many of us make an effort to reach out to journalists in this coming year and convince them to join our organization. I referred to it as my 10 percent plan. If one in every 10 members did this, we’d be back to numbers of almost two years ago. Maybe we need to modify it to a 15 percent plan. However we promote it, the message is the same — SPJ has to stop the membership slide now.

Just days ago a new report shows we fell below 8,000 members for the first time in many, many years. We are wanting our numbers to be closer to 9,000. Heck, I can remember two years ago thinking we could easily push it to 10,000. Not such an easy task as times change. But the need for our organization hasn’t. More than ever, SPJ has to prove it has relevance to displaced journalists, working journalists and college journalists. As a member you know it does. That’s why it’s vital for you to make efforts to bolster our membership.

It’s not just about image, it’s also about survival. SPJ draws more than a third of its operating budget from dues and as we fall below 8,000 members we run risks of budget deficits and program cutbacks. I don’t want to see that happen and neither do you. That’s why I wrote the letter below that was sent out to all chapter leaders this week making my pitch to them to make membership a priority.

I think you will agree that there is no better time than the present to start this turnaround.

Sept. 4, 2009

Dear Chapter Leaders:

As many of you are aware by now, one of my primary missions for the next year is to elevate our membership numbers by more than 1,000 journalists. This is an ambitious undertaking in tough economic times for the news industry and its employees.

I know this sounds wildly ambitious, but it isn’t that difficult of a task. Think of the number of journalists you come in contact with each day, week, and month — on the job or in social settings. These are prime opportunities to sell SPJ. You know and understand the value of your SPJ membership. Now you need to use your best skills of persuasion and make others feel that same way. Don’t let a moment pass you this year that you can’t extol the virtues of belonging to the largest, oldest and most prestigious journalism organization in our country.

This is why I believe we can make this happen. Using a very conservative approach to membership recruiting, I strongly believe it is attainable with a simple 10 percent plan. That is, if only 10 percent of the membership reached out to one journalist in the next year and brought them into the fold, we’d be well on our way to reaching the level this organization aspires.

We are now entering a very crucial time in our membership year. Students are arriving back on campus and membership numbers tend to dip for us at the end of the calendar year. As you return from convention energized with new-found knowledge you obtained from professional development and you have that SPJ spring in your step, don’t hesitate sharing it with others.

Student and professional chapter leaders can plan events that attract new faces. What we know is people join SPJ for our virtues but stay for local events. So, it’s vital that chapter leaders work diligently in this area to assure that SPJ has relevance for these journalists.

The staff at headquarters stands ready to assist you. Our new membership chair Holly Fisher and her committee members are ready to help you attract new members, retain old ones and devise new strategies that will keep SPJ vibrant and powerful in the years to come.

Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance or share your successes with others. Together, starting today, we will turn the corner and grow in numbers and strength.


Kevin Z. Smith


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