Archive for April, 2011

Recap of the April 16 SPJ Board of Directors meeting

The SPJ board of directors met April 16 at national headquarters in Indianapolis. Although the weather outside was rainy, cold and dreary, the atmosphere inside was friendly, spirited and welcoming. I’m always reenergized by SPJ gatherings – of the board, of chapters, at a conference or just a few members gathered for a drink. Sure, we have differing opinions on any number of topics, but our commitment to SPJ, journalism, and improving and protecting its ethical practice is unwavering.

As usual at the spring meeting, the big agenda item was reviewing and approving the SPJ budget for the next fiscal year (2011-12), which we did. Here’s an overview of what the board discussed on Saturday (a day before SPJ’s 102nd birthday). See the full agenda and meeting materials here.


–          Executive Director Joe Skeel and Controller Jake Koenig presented the budget, which they and the rest of the staff have been preparing since January. SPJ’s fiscal year runs August to July, and this proposed budget would encompass revenue and expenditures for August 1, 2011 to July 31, 2012. You can review the full budget in the meeting materials. Overall, it was described as lean and conservative and projects what Joe Skeel described as “an incredibly modest $3,808 surplus.” Though SPJ is a membership organization, and your membership dues make the organization possible, there are other sources of revenue, such as outside grants, convention sponsorship and advertising in Quill.

–          The budget includes $323,300 in grant requests from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, which specifically helps fund SPJ and other journalism education programs. The Foundation board, which is separate from the SPJ board, approved the grant requests on Sunday, April 17, at its spring meeting, also held in Indianapolis.

–          Another source of significant grant revenue in the budget comes from the Scripps Howard Foundation, which funds our annual Ted Scripps Leadership Training Institute. This program, held every June, brings student and professional chapter leaders to Indianapolis for a weekend of chapter management and leadership development training.

–          While reviewing the budget, one board member asked a very intriguing question: Is a dues increase necessary now or in the near future? After all, the organization hasn’t raised dues since 2002 (even then it was just $2), and costs to do business have increased significantly over the past 10 years. It was a good question, one that any membership organization has to deal with from time to time. That started a very robust discussion. Increasing dues is, of course, a hard topic to address. Though the board, under SPJ’s bylaws, has the authority to increase dues by up to five percent without approval from delegates, we’re in no position to do so without seeking input and having more discussion. So, while the board could have said, “What’s $3 more per year? It’s less than going to Starbucks!” that wouldn’t be a prudent action. I imagine this issue will come up again, and surely there are people who think dues ($72 for pros, $36 for students) are already too high. If you have some input on the matter, please contact your representative on the board of directors and let him or her know.



–          It’s a good sign that so many new and reactivating chapters are coming forward, and the board reviewed a number of them seeking some action. In all, the board approved 13 chapters seeking provisional or chartered status. Additionally, nine chapters have indicated they’re trying to reactivate after a period of inactivity. Now, let’s hope these chapters – student and professional – continue their forward momentum and recruit new and sustaining members.



–          With the national convention in September, this year a joint conference with RTDNA, will come elections. SPJ HQ sent an email to all members on Monday informing them of the upcoming elections and an important change this year. President-elect Darcie Lunsford has opted not to assume the SPJ presidency. She has taken a job outside of journalism and will resign from the board at the convention. This means voting delegates will elect a President and President-elect (among the other open seats) for the first time anyone in the room could remember. The person elected President will serve until the 2012 convention, and the President-elect, as the bylaws state, would serve on the board for a year before becoming President. Darcie reported that this was a very difficult decision and that she truly wanted to serve SPJ as President. She will remain a supporter and said she absolutely still believes in the work we do. We’ll miss Darcie and her contributions to journalism but certainly wish her well in her new line of work in real estate.

Aside from President and President-elect, the other open positions are:

-Secretary-Treasurer (elected every year)

-Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs (two-year position)

-At-Large Director (two-year position)

-Campus Adviser At-Large (two-year position)

-Student Representative (two positions, elected every year)

– Directors for Regions 2, 3, 6, 10, 11 and 12 (two-year position)

Look for more information in the Leads e-newsletter and on in the coming weeks about the board election.


–          At the 2010 spring meeting, the board approved the application of the Northwestern University-Qatar chapter, making it our first official international chapter (though it is closely associated with NU, and the adviser is Richard Roth, a former SPJ regional director). The chapter has been extremely active. Past president Kevin Smith and I visited the students in Qatar last fall. This means we need to consider more international chapters and how to administer the many considerations, such as finances, what region they’re in for reporting purposes, IRS tax issues, etc.



–          In February, the SPJ and RTDNA chapters at Ohio University put together the Ohio Sunshine Summit. One of the organizers was Taylor Mirfendereski, an OU journalism student and campus representative on the SPJ board. I attended the Summit and was very impressed. Students from the region gathered to learn about and discuss access and openness issues facing student media in Ohio. They crafted a resolution calling for greater access and transparency on Ohio college campuses. Taylor asked the board to formally endorse the resolution, which we enthusiastically did.



The Bylaws Committee, led by chairman Bob Becker, has been looking at the SPJ bylaws and crafting recommendations for the board and voting chapter delegates to consider. Remember what I said above about coming together but having differing opinions? That was evident here. The discussion was fruitful and productive – with many viewpoints expressed. Becker explained three changes to the SPJ bylaws that the Committee developed. All changes would require approval from delegates before taking effect.

–          ONE MEMBER, ONE VOTE: It’s not a new proposal, but it comes up from time to time. Chapter delegates currently elect the board of directors at the convention, as the bylaws stipulate. The number of delegate votes is determined by the chapter’s size. Larger chapters get more delegate votes. Bob explained that the time may be right to seriously consider going to a one-member, one-vote system, where all active, dues-paying members are eligible to vote. The last time the idea came up (in 2006) it was voted down by delegates. But, given the advances in technology, perhaps it’s time to rethink SPJ’s voting process. This was the single most debated topic at the meeting and consumed a good chunk of time. Board members on both sides presented convincing arguments for and against the proposal. The biggest argument for a popular vote system is to give voice to SPJ members who aren’t in chapters (most often because of geographic considerations). An opposing viewpoint and proposal is to create “virtual chapters” that encompass such members, thus giving them delegate votes at the convention. The board voted 15-8 against sending the bylaws change to the delegates at convention.

–          STUDENTS IN PRO CHAPTERS: Some chapters allow students to join and participate in their chapter governance in varying capacities. SPJ chapter bylaws can approve or disapprove such membership standards on a local level. However, there is nothing in the national SPJ bylaws the expressly approves of the practice. This minor technical change to the bylaws would simply say that professional chapters are allowed to do so. The board approved the proposed change, and delegates will consider at the 2011 convention.

–          TECHNICAL CORRECTIONS: Upon reviewing the bylaws, the Committee found several errors or inconsistencies that, while not controversial, should be corrected. One involves SPJ’s relationship with the Quill Endowment Fund, which was set up over 80 years ago to ensure continued operation of Quill magazine. The members of that trust are now effectively the board of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, but the bylaws don’t fully spell out that relationship. This technical update would correct that and minor typographical errors found in the Committee’s review.


Those are the major highlights of the meeting. The board will meet next during the convention in September, preceded by a July Executive Committee meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Of course, if you have feedback or input on anything SPJ related, please let your elected leaders know.

Remember, if you want to participate in this organization’s governance, please step up. Elections will take place at the convention, and positions are open to all qualified members.

Where’s the transparency that Obama promised?

Co-written  by Charles Ornstein, senior reporter at ProPublica and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and Hagit Limor, 2010-11 SPJ president. This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post on Thursday, March 31.

The day after his inauguration, President Obama promised a new era of “openness in government.”

“We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” he wrote in one of his first memos to federal agencies. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

But the reality has not matched the president’s rhetoric. We, presidents of two of the nation’s largest journalism organizations, and many of our thousands of members, have found little openness since Obama took office. If anything, the administration has gone in the opposite direction: imposing restrictions on reporters’ newsgathering that exceed even the constraints put in place by President George W. Bush.

Democrats criticized the Bush administration for not making decisions based on the best science. But the Obama administration now muzzles scientists and experts within federal agencies. When they are allowed to talk about important public health issues, a chaperone often supervises every word. These constraints keep the public from learning whether decisions are science-based or politically motivated.

Consider these few examples:

l After last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists and environmental groups accused the administration of hiding or underreporting the extent of the spill and its impact on the environment. Federal officials frequently deferred to BP in providing data on issues from cleanup workers’ health problems to oil spill flow estimates. The government also placed restrictions on airspace for weeks, keeping media photographers from seeing the scope of the spill.

l The Food and Drug Administration placed an unusual restriction on reporters when announcing changes to its medical device approval process this year. In exchange for providing the information to the media ahead of time, reporters were told they could not seek insights from outside experts before the formal announcement. This ensured the first version of the story contained only the FDA’s official position and ran counter to the way medical journals handle such embargoes.

l In more than a third of requests made for public records last year, the administration failed to provide any information at all, the Associated Press reported. Despite an increase in requests, the Obama administration is releasing fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did. And when a response is provided, it often is incomplete or comes years later. The AP noted ironically that the Obama administration even censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive.

Our members have seen this phenomenon day in and day out, impeding their ability to give readers a complete picture of their government’s actions and omissions.

At one time reporters easily could access the experts conducting research and scientific studies on the public’s behalf, ensuring their stories were accurate and rich in context. Over the years, political appointees have built up a message-control machinery that has taken on a life of its own, becoming so unwieldy that it chews up even the most routine requests for information. The Obama administration, despite its pledges of transparency, has instead perpetuated and built upon this system.

The Obama administration has put reams of data online detailing many aspects of government operations. This information is useful, but it’s merely a matter of the government posting what it wants when it wants, on sites most citizens would never think to visit.

Meanwhile, reporters’ questions often go unanswered. When replies are given, they frequently are more scripted than meaningful. Public employees generally are required to obtain permission to share their expertise, and when interviews are allowed, a media “handler” is listening in to keep control over what is said. And when replies come via e-mail, it’s unclear who has written them.

We can’t see how that could promote public understanding of government, science and health policy.

We understand that responding to the media takes time, that online news outlets and blogs have proliferated and that cash-strapped agencies need to manage carefully their staffers’ time. But if the focus were on openness rather than control, these challenges could be met successfully.

We encourage the Obama administration to pledge to answer reporters’ questions more quickly and with fewer scripted answers from political appointees. We hope it will put more effort into releasing information rather than punishing those who leak it. We look forward to the day when scientists and experts can once again be free to share their knowledge, without fear of retribution or scolding.

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.” Those were President Obama’s own words when he took office.

We couldn’t agree more.


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