Archive for April, 2012


Should SPJ broaden international memberships?

For more than a decade I served as lead mentor in Denver for a journalism exchange program run by the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.

It’s a great program that brings journalists from other countries to work side by side with their counterparts in U.S. newsrooms.

During that time I worked with journalists from Nigeria, Ecuador, Egypt, Bulgaria, Serbia, China, Cambodia, Russia and the Gaza Strip.

By and large, they were an amazing group of people, many of whom had to exercise a fair amount of courage just to do the type of daily reporting that we here in the U.S. often take for granted.

It was a great experience and one that I’m sure will color my view point as the SPJ board takes up an important policy discussion this weekend on the Society’s approach toward prospective members who live outside the U.S.

Should we actively recruit them? Should we encourage chapters to form in other countries? Should we hold them to the same requirements we ask of domestic members and chapters?

Shortly after becoming SPJ president in September, I asked our International Journalism Committee, through its chairman Ricardo Sandoval Palos, to study this issue and make some recommendations to the board.

The Committee produced a thoughtful document that became the basis for a good discussion that the Executive Committee had on this topic during our winter meeting in Charlotte.

Now that discussion moves to the full board. When we meet in Indianapolis this weekend, I’m planning to ask the board a series of questions on this topic. My hope is that we reach enough of a consensus to help craft a formal policy later this year.

It’s a complex issue. In some countries, concepts we take for granted in the U.S. such as objectivity or acting independently are not universally embraced. In some countries, journalists operate under government imposed restrictions that make those concepts unworkable.

And yet, we live in an increasingly global society where video shot in Syria one moment becomes news in the U.S. a short time later. There’s also a real hunger out there for the training, ethics and ideals that SPJ had stood for in this country.

So we’ll have our talk. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that SPJ already has about 130 members living in other countries.

More than half are part of a thriving student chapter that former Regional Director Richard Roth helped start in Qatar a few years ago under the aegis of Northwestern University.

But the other members come from nearly 30 other countries, including Uzbekistan, India, Mexico, Canada, Morocco, Spain, England, Sweden and Luxemborg.

I believe we need a coherent strategy when it comes to membership in the rest of the world. My hope is that we can take the first steps toward that goal when  we meet in Indianapolis.

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My dream newsroom layout: Shape of things to come?

A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled on the “future of journalism” — on what business models will best lead us through the leap from “legacy media” to digital.

Not as much attention has been paid to the shape and architecture of the newsroom.

I think the current configuration of most newsrooms – both in print and broadcast – is outdated. The days of reporters and editors hunkered down in front of a desktop computer seems archaic in a time when technology has made our jobs increasingly mobile.

So, here is a brief description of what my dream newsroom would look like. I offer it knowing full well it runs contrary to the conventional newsroom we’ve all come to know and love for its quirks and eccentricities. And I know it would be outside of most people’s comfort zones.

My dream newsroom actually has an address: 1628 – 16th Street in Denver, in the heart of what is known as LoDo or Lower Downtown Denver.

It is the address of my favorite independent bookstore, The Tattered Cover, which occupies several floors of a classic red brick warehouse built in 1896.

If I were designing a newsroom from scratch, I would embed it inside a bookstore like the Tattered. I’d put it in one of the upper floors, spread across the large open hardwood floor with large windows that overlook the neighborhood.

But instead of the usual set up of desk/phone/reporter, I would have an array of long library tables with the classic green lampshade lights in the center.

Every reporter would be equipped with a computer tablet, a wireless keyboard and a smartphone. There would be plenty of file cabinets along the walls, but data would also be backed up on a cloud system that would allow everyone to retrieve documents.

You take a seat anywhere, file your story, talk to your sources, your colleagues, check your file cabinet, grab some coffee, and you’re on your way.

Part of this has to do with my long-held belief that there’s no news in the newsroom. There are gossip, witty remarks and companionship, but the news for the most part is out there beyond the brick walls.

I’m reminded of something Jimmy Breslin once said about how reporters of my generation grew up watching television and later transferred that skill to staring all day at a computer terminal.

People who do this spend their days talking with other reporters. They don’t tend to do much talking with longshoremen, cab drivers, grave diggers and people in unemployment lines or cops smoking cigarettes outside the station house.

Instead we follow a very human impulse to band together and hang out to the detriment of chasing the news.

The advantage to this hive-like newsroom would become apparent in times of crisis and breaking news. It would be possible to empty out a newsroom and have people set up somewhere closer to where the action was happening.

There are a few other advantages to the newsroom-embedded-in-a-bookstore. The Tattered had a great coffee shop. I could see the staff taking refuge there throughout the day, right next to the out-of-town newspaper rack.

And did I mention the free coffee and tea? Yes the stuff that fuels most newsrooms would be a perk of this newsroom.

It also wouldn’t be bad for reporters to have some casual secondary exposure to new books. I’m convinced one of the keys to good journalism writing is to read widely, especially other good writers.

The Tattered  also had a large room for book signings and author talks. Imagine if the same space could be used on a regular basis by reporters interviewing newsmakers.

One other important feature of this model: it puts us where the audience is. People who buy books tend to read papers. Why not create a place where people could leave news tips?

Now, I know some distance from the public can be a good thing. There are a lot of obsessive people out there who tend to cling to a newsroom like barnacles. I remember one woman who kept telling reporters in one newsroom that she was a Russian spy.

But I also know that many newsrooms have created an almost impenetrable barrier between readers in the form of voicemail and phones that never get answered. A more permeable newsroom could lead to more stories.

I know my dream newsroom would be hell for a lot of reporters who like to claim their own space with their favorite coffee, pictures of family, knick knacks, gadgets, toys and all the stuff that makes the newsroom our second home.

But the news really is out there, and technology enables us to spend a lot more time hanging out in the places where news happens is something we should be taking advantage of as much as possible.

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Ethics questions are a way of life

Note: A version of this column also appears in the March/April issue of Quill magazine.

A journalist friend who also is commissioner in a fantasy baseball league to which I belong recently sent an email to all the team owners who also are journalists.

Does playing in a league that features modest fees and prize money constitute a form of sports betting? he inquired. And if so, does that constitute an ethical violation?

After all, he noted, there have been cases where sports columnists have been disciplined and even fired following disclosures that they had placed some rather large bets with gambling bookies.

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with our league this spring because none of us are sports reporters, the money is nominal and winning requires a lot more strategy and skill than a simple bet.

But I bring up this matter not just because it raised an interesting question but I loved the mere fact that we were having that conversation.

It also illustrates a belief that I’ve long held when it came to journalism ethics.

I’ve never thought of ethics as a high-brow concept or something that we ponder during the occasional panel or classroom discussion. It’s not a code of conduct written in stone or parsed in a textbook.

To me, it’s more like a daily meditation and a way of looking at the world. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life as a reporter, not just on big stories where there are tough decisions and close judgement calls.

I think of it more as a practice that requires some thoughtful behavior on matters as large as a front page story or as small a cup of coffee that we insist on paying for or whether we can place can place a small bet on a sporting event.

Ethical decision making is also something that grows more difficult the harder we work at our craft.

When I’ve talked to student journalists on this topic, I explain that one way they can avoid an ethical dilemma is to not work very hard and not dig very deep.

But then I quickly add that they’ll be lousy journalists if they don’t dig deeper into news stories and willingly put themselves into situations where ethical questions grow more frequent and complex.

That’s also one reason why I like the SPJ Code of Ethics, particularly in the way we apply it not as an immutable set of rules but rather a tool to help working journalists work though those problems.

The latest  issue of Quill is the one we devote each year to stories on journalism ethics. It comes out at a time of year when many of our chapters will be holding ethics events ranging from panel discussions to the popular ethics poker games.

But our preoccupation with this topic is year round and day-by-day.

Small wonder then that journalism ethics is the one area where SPJ is viewed as the industry leader and where our code is seen as the gold standard.

We do a lot of great and important work each year in other areas such as freedom of information, diversity, professional training and defending the public’s right to know.

But our ethics code — as one longtime SPJ member once told me — is our franchise. It’s the area where people both inside and outside our profession turn to us first.

Just within this past year we’ve had a would-be presidential candidate and a school board in New Jersey try to use our code to their own purpose.

In both instances, we’ve had to remind people that one of the strengths of our code and the reason for its durability  is because it is a voluntary set of guidelines that call for balancing competing interests in order to do what is right.

But the fact that they held up our code as something of value is a testament to its strength and utility.

I also love the fact that we’re never done with this work. Last year, SPJ and SDX published the fourth edition of our book “Journalism Ethics – a Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”

And this year, our Ethics Committee has undertaken an ambitious project of issuing a series of white papers that elaborate on such topics as political activity and checkbook journalism.

I’d urge you go out and buy the book and read those white papers on our website and thumb through the stories in Quill.

I think you’ll find as I do that not a working day goes by when these guideposts are not useful tools in negotiating and resolving ethical questions, be they large or small.

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