Archive for September, 2012


With Bryan College censorship, balancing seeking truth with minimizing harm

Events moved faster than I could write my first Freedom of the Prez post.

I’d planned to let you know SPJ is aware that the president of a small, Christian college in Tennessee ordered a student journalist not to publish a story about a former professor whom the FBI arrested over the summer in a child-sex sting.

The student editor, Alex Green, published the story on his own and distributed it on the Bryan College campus, which was courageous in my eyes. I learned about it from Jim Romenesko’s blog.

I asked Vice President of Campus Chapter Affairs Neil Ralston and President-elect Dave Cuillier to do some fact-gathering so I could decide what SPJ’s official position would be.

Meanwhile, Bryan College President Dr. Stephen Livesay issued an apology Wednesday afternoon, which you can read here.

I’m glad to see Dr. Livesay acknowledge that his action to stop the story’s publication “may have been a mistake.”

I also appreciate his openness about the administration’s thinking in stopping the story’s publication, though I disagree with it.

In a sense, this incident provides a case study in applying SPJ’s Code of Ethics, because the Code was intended to help journalists balance competing ideals as they make decisions in their reporting.

The competing ideals here:

Seek truth and report it vs minimize harm.

Alex Green, editor of the Bryan College student newspaper, the Triangle, sought out the truth behind the abrupt resignation of a respected scholar and teacher.

In his explanation about why he chose to publish his story despite Dr. Livesay’s directive, Green said he’d presumed that the professor jumped to a better job. But when the explanation he got from the school indicated the teacher left to “pursue other opportunities,” Green began trying to learn the real reason.

Green’s discovery of the professor’s arrest records in a neighboring state as well as the FBI’s press release led to the story he published and distributed on Monday.

Dr. Livesay’s apology and explanation on Wednesday shows a deep concern for the human impact of such a story (minimize harm), not just on the alleged perpetrator but on the campus community.

I admire his sensitivity and commitment to the principles under which his school operates, but I don’t agree with his news judgment.

In this case, seek truth and report it outweighs minimize harm.

 

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My excellent SPJ weekend, reviving a chapter where it all began

In 2009, when SPJ celebrated its centennial at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., I was surprised to learn that we had no student chapter there.

This struck me as odd. After all, as many of you know, DePauw is where SPJ first started as the Sigma Delta Chi fraternity in 1909.

Odd, but perhaps understandable. While DePauw has produced some great journalists over the years, it does not have a stand-alone journalism department.

There are some journalism courses and the campus has a student newspaper, radio and televison station. Yet from what I’ve been able to gather, the campus has not had an SPJ chapter in nearly 15 years.

That may be about to change.

It started almost by accident.

When I started working at The Record in Bergen County, N.J. last year, I became friends with a business reporter named Andrew Tangel.

Andrew is a 2003 DePauw graduate, and one of his professors was Ernie Ford Jr., the former SPJ national president.

When Ernie died last year, Andrew and I got to talking about my hope that someday we could reestablish a chapter at DePauw.

As luck would have it, Andrew was heading back to Greencastle as in instructor in a week-long seminar at DePauw. Over lunch, I asked if he would do me a favor and talk up SPJ among the students he met.

One of those students was Chase Hall, a managing editor at the student newspaper. Chase joined SPJ and offered to talk with his fellow students about reviving the chapter.

Andrew also put me in touch with Mark Tatge, an SPJ member from Chicago who just happened to be teaching multimedia journalism at DePauw as part of a three-year visiting professorship.

Mark agreed to serve as the fledgling chapter’s faculty advisor. A plan started to come together.

Fast forward to this past weekend when — armed with a box of props from SPJ headquarters — I traveled the beautiful country roads that lead to DePauw.

With help from Mark and Chase, we held a shortened version of the original Sigma Delta Chi initiation ceremony.

We inducted 10 student members that night in Meherry Hall, the same room where Sigma Delta Chi started in 1909 with … 10 students.

The next morning, members gathered for their first organizational meeting.

I’m sure the group will face challenges in the months ahead. But I have a good feeling about these students. I think they have the ability to revive a chapter in the heart of where SPJ began.

Meanwhile, if any DePauw alumni or others would like to help with this effort, please feel free to contact Chase at chasehall_2013@depauw.edu.

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SPJ committees wrap up productive year

One of the true strengths of SPJ – something that sets us apart from other media organizations – is the depth and talent of our volunteer support.

This year, like many others, that talent has moved the Society forward on a number of fronts that are key to our core missions of ethics, diversity, freedom of information and training.

For proof, you need not look any further than our website, where the work of these volunteers is now on display or soon will be. Let’s start with our latest innovation.

Recently, I asked the folks who will be chairing our committees next year to become Tumblrs for SPJ.

No this isn’t a carnival act, but rather a tool that will help keep our members current with the latest news of what’s happening within our profession.

The SPJ Tumblr is a news aggregation platform that will serve as a virtual reading room for stories that both relevant and timely. I urge you to check it out, bookmark the site and stop back frequently for the latest news.

Another innovation this year comes courtesy of our Freedom of Information Committee.

With help from webmaster Billy O’Keefe, they have assembled a great set of resources for any one dealing with FOI access issues. One is geared to student journalists, and the other to professionals.

Both sites provide a wealth of information ranging from how to write an FOI letter to how to deal with a denial and where to find local Sunshine advocates in your area.

Another new Web feature this year is a series of white papers drafted by members of our ethics committee. You can find them here.

This was a great effort at elaborating on some of the topics that are contained within our Code of Ethics. There are position papers on hot topics such as plagiarism and political involvement. Watch for more in the weeks ahead.

Our Communications Committee helped assemble a site that I believe will help raise SPJ’s profile when controversies on ethics, diversity or records access erupt.

Our experts page is a way to enable journalists who are covering stories involving such controversies to find someone within SPJ who can be tapped for a comment. I’ve already fielded some requests from reporters as a result of this page.

Here are two coming attractions to watch for in the weeks ahead:

Jennifer Peebles has crafted a very engaging interactive timeline that will allow people to immerse themselves in SPJ’s rich history. We are putting the finishing touches on this program, but watch for it soon on the SPJ history page located here.

Also watch for the SPJ Freelancing Guide, which our Freelance Committee has been working on for almost a year. The guide will available as an e-book.

So do you see what I mean about volunteers being the core strength of SPJ? What other journalism organization can claim to have covered this much ground and generated so much useful information in such a short time?

Happy reading.

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Looking back on “20 SPJ ideas” two years later

Two years ago while running for SPJ secretary-treasurer, I proposed an ambitious program called “20 ideas in 20 days.”

It represented my thinking back in 2010 on ways in which we could move SPJ forward.

I was careful to describe them as ideas rather than pledges or promises or a platform, because I know from experience that my ideas don’t always work.

I do believe, however, that it’s important to try and find ways to further the core missions of SPJ.

Recently Andy Schotz invited me to respond to his campaign post in which he listed 10 of the ideas I circulated two years ago in an abbreviated list.

First off, I’m honored that Andy took the time to remember and keep that document.

And I was curious to see how my ideas fared two years later now that I am approaching the end of my term as president.

So, here is a rather long post that recalls those 20 ideas, plus my evaluation on whether they worked.

1.    Quarterly board meetings. Two in person. Two by phone. More democracy, not less. We often end up doing telephone conferences calls during the year anyway, so why not do two that we could schedule in advance. True a conference call with the full board can be awkward at times, however, there are web conference programs available now that could make these sessions more efficient and interactive.

This definitely worked. We held five board meetings this year, two in person, two by conference call and then our first ever virtual board meeting. As a result, the board had a lot more input. Plus our in-person meetings were not as packed with what I call housekeeping matters, leaving us time to talk about larger policy issues.

2.    Use travelling programs such as Tom Hallman’s Narrative Writing Workshops as kindling for starting or reviving chapters. Schedule them in such a way as to help provide the spark to beef up or revive local chapters.  I realize this program is not aimed at membership recruitment. However, there’s nothing that prevents a local chapter from using the event as a catalyst for membership building. In New Mexico, the group that attended Tom’s workshop eventually formed half of the interim board of the newly revived chapter.

This idea worked well in New Mexico, where Tom’s appearance helped us revive the pro chapter. But it was difficult to replicate on the national level.  The funding for programs like Tom’s were not earmarked for membership development.

3.    National speakers’ office. Use the bulk power of SPJ to connect chapters with authors on tour, film previews, ect. If we do this with some regularity, eventually the speakers will come to us looking for venues and trying to connect with local chapters

This idea proved impractical. During the recession, many publishers cut back dramatically on author tours, making this practice harder to tap into

4.    Encourage chapters to use regional conferences as a way to draw in new members by pegging the price of the conference to one year’s membership. This year in Region 9, we made the price of conference registration $99 for non-member pros and $62 for non-member students. As a result, we ended with 47 new members in a single day. That represented an 8 percent increase in the region’s membership numbers. At this point in our history, after losing nearly 2,000 members nationwide, it seems to me wiser for chapters to be member-rich than dollar-rich.

While this idea worked very well in Region 9, it met with resistance elsewhere as many regions preferred, quite reasonably, to focus on posting a profit from their conference rather than gaining additional members.

5.    Shared use of iContact, Constant Contact or a similar bulk e-mail service so that chapters can communicate better. These programs are capable of allowing any chapter to produce crisp, graphically interesting e-mails that will help their message stand out from ordinary text e-mails.

This idea proved impractical.

6.    Fall and Spring membership drives with discounts and premiums. Let’s take a page from the perennially successful campaigns of public television and radio by concentrating our recruitment efforts to a 10-day period twice each year in which we offered premiums such as an SPJ mug or ball cap as a reward for joining during that time frame.

We were able to launch a membership drive this fall, but held it over the span of a month without the gimmicks of premiums.

7.    Set aside a room at the national convention to serve as “Studio SPJ,”a place where members could be asked to tape one-minute interviews stating why they joined and what SPJ means to them. Then post these videos on the website on a rotating basis.

This idea fell by the wayside, but I’d like to reserve the chance to try it at our 2013 convention in Anaheim.

8.    Present an annual award at the national conference for the fastest growing chapters, both pro and student. Honor both those chapters with the highest percentage increase (typically small to medium chapters) and the greatest numerical gain in members (typically the larger chapters.)

This idea also fell by the wayside, although I still believe it has merit.

9.    Appoint a programming czar to help chapters stage programs. Have that person create a programming committee with a representative in each region. This is a crucial step in growing membership since active quality programming goes hand in hand with membership recruitment and retention.

This idea is still a work in progress. I tried doing it through a 12-member committee last year, but that proved unwieldy and ineffective. This year, I’ve volunteered to serve in this national role and incoming President Sonny Albarado has given me the permission to do so. I’ll be working with SPJ staffer Tara Puckey to help bring programming to local chapters.

10.  Task the programming chair to attend the annual BookExpo America in New York City in late May. This event – which draws 500 authors and previews 1,500 books due out in the fall – would be a perfect opportunity for an SPJ representative to make contact with publishers and help line up author events with chapters nationwide.

Also in progress. I hope to attend the Expo this spring.

11.  Line up a journalism-themed movie premiere as SDX or LDF fundraiser. Over the last few years, there have been several popular feature films about journalists: George Clooney’s Murrow-biopic “Good Night and Good Luck” or Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” about Daniel and Marianne Pearl. The next time such a movie comes down the pike, let’s approach the film makers about staging a benefit premiere in a city of their choice.

This idea failed, but not for lack of trying. I tried to convince the makers of “The Bang Bang Club,” a film on photojournalists covering the fall of apartheid in South Africa. But we couldn’t reach an agreement. I haven’t given up on this idea either and will keep an eye out for any new journalism movies.

12. Do an online auction in advance of the convention to raise money for LDF. Not only would enable people not attending the convention to bid on items, it would build interest in the live auction and help us increase the proceeds.

This proved impractical, however, I would still like to explore putting up some LDF items up for auction during the year via e-Bay.

13.  Volunteers are the glue that holds SPJ together. Honor their service with a monthly volunteer of the month program. Ask each regional director to nominate one person from their region and highlight that person’s accomplishments.

This idea worked quite well. We not only honored 12 volunteers across the county, two of them went on to win the Howard Dubin award for outstanding SPJ member.

14. Explore finding a service that would enable all regions and local chapters to convert their journalism contests to an online entry system. Currently, regions and chapters are being approached individually by such vendors. By aggregating our buying power, we could get a much more advantageous deal.

This idea morphed into marketing SPJ’s own awards platform, which we were able to sell to a few chapters and journalism organizations. This is still a work in progress.

15. Create An SPJ listening tour. One way for national SPJ leaders to get a feel for the issues affecting the organization is to listen in – when invited – to an occasional chapter board meeting that are conducted by telephone conference call. Just to listen, not to meddle or talk.

This idea worked although I modified it a little bit. I hosted a series of virtual town hall meetings with 11 of our 12 regions and hope to do one final session later this month. While none of these drew large audiences, each once sparked worthwhile conversations that I found quite useful.

16. Candidate’s forum. Instead of forcing national board candidates to dash to 12 regional meetings in an hour at the convention, why not hold a candidate’s forum earlier in the day where people can ask questions of the candidates in a town hall-like forum.

This idea was rendered somewhat moot by the adoption of the one-member, one-vote system this year. However, I was able to do a version of these forums during the above mentioned town hall meetings.

17.  Vox Pop. Use the Democracy function on our WordPress blog software to put an occasional question to the membership. While this method is hardly scientific, it would give SPJ’s leadership a quick take on what members think and show a willingness to listen to the membership.

This idea worked very well. I included polls at the end of several columns I posted on the Freedom of the Prez blog.

18.  Survey new members on what led them to join. In recent years, we’ve done some careful research on why people drop out of SPJ and who they are. But we’ve not devoted as much attention to where our new members are coming from. What specific things convinced them to join. The more we know about this the better we’ll get at recruitment.

This idea worked. I did my own email survey of new members who joined SPJ this spring. The results made it clear that we enjoyed a spike of new members who joined to get the member rate in our Mark of Excellence journalism contest.

19. Sponsor international journalists. Every Spring, the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship places about 10-12 young journalists from countries with an emerging free press into newsrooms across the United States. What if we made a concerted effort to invite these folks to be our guests at various regional conferences? Many of them practice journalist at considerable more peril than we do. They would learn a lot about SPJ and perhaps make excellent speakers.

This idea worked, albeit in a limited manner. Two international journalists attended a regional conference in San Diego and had a great experience. A decrease in funding with the Friendly Fellowship program made it difficult to arrange more of these opportunities.

20. Hold a half-day summit during the Spring board meeting to help draft a national membership recruitment and retention strategy. Task the membership committee to come up with several proposals to that end and then try to do what we can on the national level to see that those suggestions are carried out.This idea proved impractical. I relied instead on our membership committee to vet and develop strategies for growing the membership.

So by my count, that adds up to

8 ideas that worked, in full or part.

8 ideas that failed or proved impractical.

4 ideas that are still a work in progress.

In baseball, going 8 for 20 would be considered a good stretch.

But I’m actually just as interested in the ideas that failed. Frequently those failures lead to other more successful approaches that we would not have reached if we hadn’t at least tried.

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After seeing ‘Will Write For Food’ program, hope for the future of journalism

The newsroom was a pair of converted motel rooms stitched together into a space about the size of a double wide trailer.

The reporters were 23 college journalists who came from universities in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Florida.

Unlike many of their peers who spent Labor Day at a beach or a barbecue, these young journalists spent an intense and often chaotic 36 hours reporting, writing and editing an edition of The Homeless Voice, a monthly newspaper published by the COSAC Shelter in Hollywood, Fla.

They were all there as part of the 4th Annual “Will Write For Food” program, which is co-sponsored by the South Florida chapter of SPJ, a very creative effort that is the brainchild of Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky.

I joined the effort this year as an adviser and to learn about the program. What I witnessed was downright inspirational.

If any of you harbor doubts about the future of journalism, you ought to pay attention to these young journalists and what they were able to accomplish in one crazy, frenetic and sometimes improvisational weekend.

The spirit of the venture can be summed up by an off-handed remark I overheard one student telling another.

“I really like putting myself in awkward situations,” she said.

To me, that quip sums up the place where journalism lives. We do some of our best working through awkward situations.

The participants did so with a great amount of enthusiasm and bravado.

Take Chris Whitten, for example. Whitten is a University of Memphis senior and student editor who at one brief point in his life was homeless.

Most people would want to run as far away as they could from that experience. Whitten decided to go in the opposite direction.

He was determined to spend a night as a homeless person on the streets of Fort Lauderdale. So wearing a set of baggy clothes provided by the shelter, Whitten spent the night reporting the story from first-hand experience.

We all held our breath hoping he wouldn’t get arrested by police enforcing the city’s loitering ordinance. But instead he came back with this remarkable story about a spontaneous act of generosity by a homeless man.

The sheer range of stories these students came up with on the fly was breathtaking.

-One did a story about how violence against the homeless often is a way of life for shelter residents.

-Another wrote an interesting story about how time seems to pass more slowly for shelter residents.

-A photojournalism student gave five disposable cameras to shelter residents to photograph their world and help her write the captions.

-One student asked for a black light so he could see what the shelter floor’s looked like. This led to a somewhat gruesome but interesting story on what it takes to keep a shelter clean.

-And another did a hilarious story mimicking the unusual work-out routine and smoking habits of the shelter director.

Click here to find these stories, photographs and videos on a website that the students created.

Koretzky presides over this gathering with his signature snarky sense of humor and attention to detail.

For example, when one student said she wanted to create a new website for the “Voice” in just 36 hours, Koretzky challenged her by saying it couldn’t be done. She had it up and running within an hour.

Once it was up, Koretzky noticed one of the designers had created a masthead that read, “The Homless Voice.”

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “You’re killing me!” he said.

“Looks good though,” he added.

Under the watchful gaze of two police officers, shelter staff and several advisors, a few of the students tagged along as shelter employees went out at night on their outreach tour, trying to coax people living on the street into coming into the shelter.

We travelled in a van, two unmarked police cars, an old ambulance and an old black and white police car that the shelter now owns.

For the students, it was an eye-opening experience talking one-to-one with people living under a highway bridge or in a tent in the woods.

There were several discussions on ethics, source credibility, anonymity, reporting technique and story writing. It was akin to a graduate seminar on real-world reporting done in real time.

By 3 a.m. Labor Day morning, I decided to call it a night, but not before telling the students (some of whom were still editing stories and working on the website) how proud I was of them and their efforts.

They give me great hope about the future of our profession.

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SPJ launches month-long membership drive

I’m in an SPJ membership state of mind.

Tuesday marked the beginning of the SPJ membership drive.

This month-long effort is aimed at enlisting folks like yourself across the county to help grow SPJ one member at a time.

The main component of the drive is a simple one. We’re asking each and every one of our 8,000 members across the country to reach out to someone and try to convince them to join SPJ.

Think of someone within your own circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances who has the qualities that would make for a good member our Society.

We’re looking for folks who are passionate about journalism and for whom our core values of diversity, ethics, freedom of information and training are a way of life.

How you go about doing this is entirely up to you. Do what you think will work best, whether it’s an email, a hand-written note, a phone call or conversation over a cup of coffee.

One method that has worked well for me is to invite the person you have in mind to an upcoming SPJ event. Convincing people to join is not a hard sell when they can see the kind of work SPJ does on a regular basis.

I’ve found writing a personal note is effective, particularly in an Internet-driven era when it’s nearly impossible to cut through the clutter of email.

The best argument for joining SPJ varies depending upon the person. (Some suggestions on the SPJ site.)

For some, the most compelling argument to join is the work SPJ does in promoting ethical journalism or defending journalists who are in trouble for simply doing their job.

For others, the main draw are the networking and training benefits that come with membership.

Or perhaps your best pitch is a combination of these benefits. (There are also a number of “business” benefits and other affinity services/discounts available to members.)

Try whatever works best. All I ask is that you make an effort sometime this month.

There are no prizes, gimmicks or special deals to this drive. All I can offer is my gratitude for helping make SPJ stronger by finding a few good people, one member at a time.

And a special thank you here to national Membership Committee Chairwoman Holly Edgell and her committee for making this drive happen.

 

 

 

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