(Editor’s Note: This report is the president’s synopsis of the Executive Committee’s Jan. 19, 2013, meeting and does not represent the official minutes.)
At its winter meeting in Anaheim, Calif., the SPJ Executive Committee adopted new financial-reporting requirements for chapters, recommended that the full SPJ Board adopt proposed openness and accountability guidelines and asked me to present proposed social media guidelines to the full board at its April meeting.
The seven-member Executive Committee unanimously adopted an immediate change in the financial-reporting requirements that professional chapters must meet when they file their annual reports with SPJ headquarters. The change requires chapters, beginning with the annual report to be filed in June, to include copies of the chapter’s bank statements for the preceding 12 months.
The committee took this extraordinary step because of the recent discovery of financial impropriety in the Greater Los Angeles Pro Chapter. This marked the second time in less than a year that a pro chapter learned that a trusted member had made unauthorized withdrawals from its bank account.
The L.A. chapter discovered its financial losses after adopting the fiscal best practices that the SPJ Board approved last September in Ft. Lauderdale. One of the recommended practices advises chapters to create an ad hoc budget committee to craft a chapter budget. The Los Angeles chapter did that and wound up removing its treasurer from office. The chapter board hired an attorney and took steps to get a professional accounting of its assets.
National Executive Committee members were gravely concerned at this latest news of mishandled chapter finances. We asked ourselves how many more chapters might be oblivious to such impropriety because they fail to take sensible steps to treat their financial activities in a business-like manner.
Consequently, the committee acted to ensure that someone at the national level keeps an eye on all chapters to make sure they are relying on evidence rather than trust when it comes to their finances.
As it happened, President-elect Dave Cuillier’s report on openness and accountability (see next section) contained a recommendation that every chapter and regional director be required to submit copies of their bank statements as part of their annual reports to SPJ headquarters. (Regional directors aren’t required to submit annual reports, but that may be something worth considering.)
The Executive Committee also voted to recommend that the full board offer the Los Angeles chapter a line of credit up to $5,000 to help it with its legal expenses. The committee’s vote was split – 4 to 2. (I did not vote.)
L.A. chapter representative Lauren Bartlett asked SPJ’s national leaders for a grant, but the committee opposed an outright grant. While the chapter still has several thousand dollars in its bank account, its board is concerned that its legal fees may exceed its remaining treasury, Bartlett told us.
Since the Executive Committee meeting, L.A. chapter President Alice Walton has told me that the chapter may not need the line of credit.
The Oklahoma chapter’s treasury was wiped out by its former treasurer, but the chapter has so far not asked for assistance, relying instead on donations and fund-raising.
OPENNESS & ACCOUNTABILITY
In the wake of debate over openness and accountability at last September’s convention in Ft. Lauderdale, I asked Dave Cuillier to develop, with others, recommended best practices for chapters to make sure their actions are as transparent as possible. The proposal that Dave presented to the Executive Committee is equally applicable to the national organization.
Here is the preamble of the proposed Openness and Accountability Best Practices:
The Society of Professional Journalists and its professional and student chapters are not government entities, but members believe in the strongest principles of transparency — the business of the people should be done before the people, inviting the people to participate. The following guidelines provide tips and recommendations for fostering openness and accountability at the local, regional and national levels of the society.
The guidelines address methods for making meetings accessible and being open in our communications and with our records.
The committee voted unanimously to send the proposal to the full board for adoption in April. The full text of the proposal can be found here. OPENNESS DRAFT
Dave’s report addressed the background under which the best-practices proposal was developed. The report cited the Press Club of Long Island’s openness policy, which the chapter adopted in December. And it noted that chapter leaders who responded to a quick survey are generally supportive of more openness.
Along with the openness guidelines approved by the Executive Committee, Dave’s report also included proposed action steps, some of which headquarters staff are already implementing. Such as: providing chapters with a basic level of web support to help them create and maintain websites, blogs and/or Facebook pages for posting meeting notices, agendas, minutes and other records.
During discussion of this report, the committee urged staff to make sure that important national SPJ documents can be easily found on the website. SPJ’s bylaws, IRS Form 990s and other financial reports, the conflict of interest policy, whistleblower policy and other items already are posted to the site but are difficult to find.
After EIJ12, I asked Brandon Ballenger, treasurer of the South Florida Pro Chapter, and staff chapter coordinator Tara Puckey to head up a small task force to develop recommended social media guidelines and to answer questions about the use of SPJ’s many blogs.
The task force ultimately included SPJ Gen J co-chair Victoria Reitano, Director-at-Large Carl Corry and former SPJ board member James Pilcher.
The group’s report stressed common sense in all digital communications involving SPJ. A copy of the full report can be found here. Digital Media Committee 1.7.2013
The group made two proposals:
A set of guidelines to follow when SPJ’s president asks another officer, board member or chapter leader to conduct a fact-finding mission in anticipation of an official SPJ statement or comment on an event of interest to journalists and journalism.
Proposed social media practices that focus on disclosure, content and live events.
I recommended to the Executive Committee that it forward to the full board the proposed social media guidelines with the understanding that a new draft with some slight changes will be prepared. The committee supported that recommendation.
The Executive Committee gave Joe Skeel the authority to alter the Working Press program and partner with RTDNA’s student project. As a result SPJ will no longer produce a printed newspaper at the annual conference. Some members may disapprove of this move, but the committee felt the timing was right.
The time, energy and costs associated with printing a daily journal for just three days have expanded to the point that we had to take a serious look at the cost-benefit ratio. Another factor we considered is that a fourth of the students who participate in the Working Press are dedicated to production activities rather than going out and about to gain reporting experience. While there remains a need for designers and other “production” workers, we felt the more valuable experience would for students would be in honing their online and video production skills along with their reporting and writing skills.
We intend to keep the project a competitive internship for about 12 students. They will cover the convention as they always have (while making contacts within the news industry.) Working professionals will continue to serve as advisers. The only major difference will be in how the news about the convention is delivered – online via social media and other platforms.
Breaking from tradition is always difficult, but when faced with the challenges and limitations of a printed product and the need for SPJ to be perceived as relevant among the next generation of journalists, the change was relatively easy to decide.
Secretary-Treasurer Dana Neuts reported on three initiatives she’s spearheaded:
Providing freelancers and other SPJ members with SPJ Solutions, a source of insurance and financial services products through Westpoint Financial Group in Indianapolis.
Creating a Contest Advisory Group to connect chapters and regions that sponsor journalism contests and facilitate contest-judging swaps among them.
Securing a copyright for the Freelance Guide that the Freelance Committee developed while Dana was committee chair.
One of the traditions of the winter Executive Committee meeting is deciding which officers attend which regional spring conference. Here’s the list:
Region 3, Atlanta – Cuillier and Albarado
Region 4, Dayton, OH – Ralston
Region 12, Oxford, MS – Albarado
Region 1, New Brunswick, NJ – Albarado
Region 6, Bloomington, MN – Ralston
Region 9, Santa Fe, NM – Eckert
Region 10, Spokane – Neuts
Region 11, Las Vegas – Cuillier
Region 2, Norfolk, VA – None. This is the same weekend as the SPJ Board spring meeting in Indy
Regions 5 & 7, St. Louis – Ralston
Region 8, San Antonio – Albarado