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Bloch and tackle

Don't mess with Emily Bloch

Emily Bloch was just plagiarized. So why is she smiling?


Because the 21-year-old college editor proved a local reporter copied her story, proved he had done the same to others, and stood up to the publisher who vaguely threatened to sue her.

That all happened last week. By Friday afternoon, the plagiarizing reporter was suspended and the publisher had announced an internal investigation.

Not bad for a week’s work.

Here’s what happened, and what we can learn from it…

Bloch is the newly elected editor of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University, and not long after she reported about a police investigation into a student rape off campus, she discovered The Boca Raton Tribune had done the same – lifting entire paragraphs from her story.

Her faculty adviser emailed the Tribune, politely asking for elaboration. No reply. A few days later, Bloch called but couldn’t get past the receptionist.

So being a journalist, Bloch investigated her plagiarist and – to no one’s surprise – learned he had done it before. His targets included not just a major regional daily but national sites like Wired and The Daily Beast.

Bloch wrote a column on the University Press website that began like this…

At FAU, if I get caught plagiarizing a paper, I’ll get an F. It would go on my transcript and on a repeat offense, I could get expelled. But if I do it at The Boca Raton Tribune, I’ll get a paycheck.

Ouch.

Bloch promoted her column on social media, and Poynter staff writer Ben Mullin tweeted it, as did best-selling author Jeff Pearlman to his 49,000 followers. A local website called Rise Miami News covered the story, quoting Bloch: “Copying and pasting whole paragraphs from my story is pretty ballsy.”

Not surprisingly, within hours of Bloch’s column going live, the publisher called her — to demand the story be spiked. She didn’t back down. The publisher called the newspaper’s faculty adviser and mentioned calling a lawyer. He didn’t back down.

By the time I spoke with the publisher Friday afternoon — because SPJ Florida and Region 3 like to spend money on lawyers defending journalists — he realized his threats weren’t budging his targets. So he announced the reporter was suspended and he was investigating.

“She brought up very good points,” the publisher told Rise Miami News. “We want to teach young people good journalism, and this is not the right way.”

Bloch did it the right way. Journalism can not only comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, it can punish a plagiarizer.

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College Top 10

CT10

Meet the best college journalists in the South.


They’re the 2014 winners of the College Top 10, a unique journalism contest run by SPJ’s Green Eyeshade Awards – itself a unique contest.

For more than 60 years, the Green Eyeshades has recognized the best pro media work in the southern United States. It’s one of the oldest regional journalism contests in the nation.

Instead of simply rewarding one good story on one particular topic, the Green Eyeshades sought the best students who were consistently good at one thing. They had to submit multiple pieces on a single subject.

Alas, this year’s entries were terrible, except for a handful. Below are those few.

The judges didn’t declare winners in half the categories: design, movies, music, science, and sports. Why? Because nearly all the entries were solid and safe and just good enough. And that’s not what this contest is about – nor is “solid and safe” how you pursue a fulfilling career. Unless, of course, you want to work for 40 years to be “just good enough.”

Here are the winners who rebelled to excel…


Dylan Bouscher, Florida Atlantic University

Best Student Government reporter: Dylan Bouscher


Judging comment: This was tough: Reward one of the reporters who quite capably and incrementally covered SGA but never took a risk? Or recognize the only reporter who shot for the moon and hit the target, albeit with a glancing blow? Dylan Bouscher was the only entrant to feature video, which is novel because SGA is not a beat that lends itself to alluring B roll. The results were as good as one could reasonably expect. As for content, Bouscher tried mightily to explain complex topics, not always successfully. But he’s a reacher, and he’ll eventually eclipse his peers who are too timid to fail – and thus will never learn and excel.


Boucher’s comment: Growing up, I hated being told no. Once I started covering Florida Atlantic University’s Student Government and administration, that changed. Being told no to interview and records requests, from students and administrators whose paychecks I helped fund, only unleashed my passion and curiosity for watchdog reporting further. But my best stories didn’t result from hostility. They came from leveling with people: students and classmates trusting me to be human about the corruption and mismanagement. Doing that made working for the student newspaper by far the most fun and enlightening aspect of my college experience.


Max Jackson, Florida Atlantic University

Best photographer: Max Jackson


Judging comment: I judged this category last year and had the same problems this year: Great photogs who shoot the same darn thing everyday. Attention next year’s applicants: Take a hint from Jackson. He sent in a perfectly passable (no pun intended) pic of a quarterback looking downfield, but he also submitted a moving portrait of a dwarf at a medical marijuana debate – not your typical assignment. His third photo was the opposite – the school’s mascot with a bunch of kids. That’s usually a shoot and scoot, but Jackson captures a great moment, and his technical skills are beyond dispute.


Jackson’s comment: One of the most rewarding aspects of photography is that ability to capture a moment in time that will never occur quite the same way again, which I think many photographers would agree with. Each time I pick up my camera there is no certainty of what I will capture, whether it is the winning touchdown, or getting the perfect golden hour.  On the other side of that, is the knowledge that you need to “nail this shot” because there are no reshoots in live action photography. This passion I have developed, almost an addiction, has and continues to take me places that I never could have imagined the first time I held a DSLR.


Hannah Jeffrey, University of South Carolina

Best feature writer: Hannah Jeffrey


Judging comment: A surprisingly strong category – and from what I hear from other judges, the only one. The winner in this close race was Jeffrey, and not for any major philosophical reason like the other category judges have remarked. It’s simply that Jeffrey did the best across the board: She found fascinating people, got them to talk like normal people, and wrote about them for all people. It’s also interesting how she keeps her articles short and punchy, using subheads to great effect and generally eschewing the feature writer’s penchant for look-at-me composition and length. A humble feature writer!


Jeffrey’s comment: I’d argue features are the most satisfying yet most difficult kind of stories to write. Your reporting has to be thorough and extensive or else you won’t get the whole story — the feature interviews I’ve done that stick out have lasted a a few hours, at least. But features are all about picking out the good stuff, giving some color and making people care. You could hear a story, think “that’s a great story” and move on. But if it’s a really great story, it deserves details and attention.


Roberto Roldan, University of South Florida

Best administration reporter: Roberto Roldan


Judging comment: A disappointing category doesn’t mean the winner is disappointing. Roldan is unafraid to take on administrators, whether it’s questioning how they hide tuition hikes or hide expenditures behind “direct support organizations.” Roldan does a yeoman’s job explaining complex topics without oversimplifying or sensationalizing. Other entries in this category tackled big and important topics, but they failed in the execution: lacking clear narratives with impenetrable background. It’s not the reporting that’s so hard in government reporting, it’s the explanation – the why should I care? Roldan simply answers that question better than his peers.


Roldan’s comment: As journalists we talk a lot about holding those in power accountable, but a lot of times we relegate our time to stories that are safe, don’t piss people off and are quick turn around for the 24/7 news cycle. Most of my stories that dealt with issues of transparency and accountability in student government and university offices fell on deaf ears (so it goes), but one or two stories caused administrators to make measurable changes toward increased transparency — the ultimate reward for good journalism.


Cassidy Alexander, University of North Florida

Best columnist: Cassidy Alexander


Judging comment: Too many columnists are timid, both in topic and tone. Alexander is willing to mock a city council president (for his objection to a nude picture in a contemporary art museum) and riffing of her school’s attempt to create traditions. (“The university seems to have missed a very important point – a tradition is not something you can just compose into a list and announce at a party.”) She’s also willing to build from there, adding creative thinking to breezy writing.


Alexander’s comment: I see columns as opportunities to interpret the news for an audience that doesn’t always have the time or the background knowledge to do it for themselves. Bad things happen every day when people don’t understand what’s going on. It’s my responsibility to my audience to make things as clear as possible for them, no matter how daunting the topic is. When I’m mad about something and my writing makes someone else angry too, I’ve done my job. That’s what change happens.


Think you can do better? Enter the College Top 10 next year and prove it. Questions? Email me.


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Losing his faculties

This older gentleman? A teenager is wiser than he is.


Ed Meadows is president of Pensacola State College in the Florida Panhandle. He made the most headlines of his long career just last week, when he told the 18-year-old Spenser Garber, co-editor of the PSC student newspaper, three silly things…


1. Garber shouldn’t cover the school’s contract negotiations with faculty. That will only “distract students from their studies.”


2. If faculty leaders update Garber on their negotiations, everyone is violating the law. Besides, Meadows said, “What benefit would it be for students to know?”


3. It’s impossible for Garber to write a balanced story on faculty negotiations – because Meadows refuses to speak to the newspaper. “Good journalism requires two sides to every story and, unfortunately, I can’t give you the other side,” Meadows says. Therefore, nothing should be written at all.

The story quickly bled beyond the Panhandle’s borders.


It traveled at the speed of sound from a higher-education website (Gag Order in Sunshine State) to a campus watchdog group (Fla. college censors student reporters, tells them to stick to ‘basketball games’) to a student legal center (Fla. community college president discredits student newspaper’s reporting, gags faculty) to a student rights group (Pensacola State Official Offers Embarrassingly Bad Justifications for Censorship of Student Media).

But Garber has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the coverage’s hyperbole, which peaked when Gawker got involved (Florida College President Is Either a Thug or a Moron).

When I spoke with Garber last week, two things impressed me…


1. He’s not easily intimidated. At 18, he’s more fearless than many older college journalists I’ve known. In (too) many cases, students crumple at the first sign of conflict, trading defense of the First Amendment for some vague sense of self-preservation – which, of course, is exactly the opposite way to achieve that goal. So Garber says he’ll keep covering the stories his readers want to know about.


2. He’s not easily excitable. Garber is adamant that he’s not out for blood. He doesn’t want Meadows fired over this. Meadows is wrong, he says, but no one has threatened to shut down the paper or prevent him from writing what he wants. Garber struck me as the most mature person in this dust-up: He’s disappointed in Meadows but not angry at him, and he’s calmly trying to add some nuance in an echo chamber of online hyperbole.


I asked Garber, What would you want to tell journalists about what’s happened? Below is his open letter he wrote over the weekend.

Journalists of the United States…


The past few weeks have been stressful to say the least. By trying to do my job as a journalist, national news sites like Gawker and Inside Higher Ed have picked up a story that isn’t really true.

On October 31st, a letter was sent to the Faculty Association of Pensacola State College. That letter was CC’d to the Corsair in an e-mail. In this e-mail, sent by lawyer Mike Mattimore, two laws were outlined stating that no college organization shall exploit students for personal gain. One specific law, Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), had been ruled unconstitutional a while back.

Here’s where the misunderstanding started. I kept trying to tell the administration that the original information I obtained about a PSCFA straw poll was not from a PSCFA member. It wasn’t even a person that works at the college. They insisted that I had to get the information from a PSCFA member, even if it didn’t come from one that told me (these meetings are open meetings, anyone could have seen the straw poll vote).

After the letter was sent, things got blown out of proportion fairly quickly. Some people interpreted the letter as a restriction of the Corsair’s freedom of the press. That isn’t true. The letter was outlining the legality of the PSCFA talking to the paper, which puts the fault on the PSCFA, not the Corsair. Since the college’s realization of the unconstitutionality of Florida Statute Section 447.501(2)(f), they have changed their stance on the PSCFA’s ability to talk to the Corsair.

It is unnecessary to interview President Meadows about the “gag order” sent to the PSCFA, as it is a moot point. It is unnecessary to interview me about the Corsair’s restriction of freedom of the press, as it is nonexistent. There is no real news in a story about the faculty and administration negotiating a contract. If you want an update on the story, there will be a Board of Trustees meeting on November 18. Afterwards, there will most likely be a story uploaded to the Corsair’s web site.

Best Wishes,

Spenser Garber
Co-Editor at Pensacola State College

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Schick Piss Fuck

The opinions expressed below (and above) are not necessarily those of the management of this blog.


Then again, they aren’t necessarily the opposite, either.

The man expressing those opinions is David Schick, a college journalist I’ve written about a few times before.

He’s a little nuts, I won’t lie. But I’ve always said this about mentoring students:

It’s easier to dull a sharp knife than sharpen a dull knife.

In other words: The biggest asshole on campus can mellow into an adult who keeps an edge, but how many college cowards grow up to take the right risks?

So I like the guy. Here’s Schick’s latest shtick, in his own words. Make of it what you will…

Last month was Free Speech Week. And when it comes to the First Amendment, I’m more than an advocate – I’m a fanatic.

To celebrate, I decided that I wanted to pay tribute to a couple of my favorite cases regarding free speech. One day last week, I wore my old Army battle dress uniform and made some minor alterations to the back. I spelled out “Fuck The Draft” in duct tape on the back.

The reactions were mixed. Some people just scoffed at the profanity, others asked me why I was wearing it—the real reason why I wore it, to educate people on the famous U.S. Supreme Court Case, Cohen v. California—and one of the Communications Law professors at my school laughed and actually took a picture with his phone.

In my first class, a philosophy course, one student told me that I could be tried under the Sedition Act and sent to jail for wearing it. You know, the Sedition Act that was passed in 1918 and repealed in 1920? That one.

On another day I paid homage to the late George Carlin and his Seven Dirty Words. In sharpie marker, I wrote out, “Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits,” on my journalism schools’ t-shirt they hand out to new students.

Remember the Communications Law professor who laughed before? Well, now I was “over the top.” I shook my head. Where did he draw that line? I wondered. Clearly “fuck” was okay in reference to a notable Supreme Court Case, but the addition of the other six “dirty words” in reference to a comedy sketch was no longer celebrating the First Amendment.

I carried on because “over the top” is how I am about the First Amendment. For me, there’s really no room for saying that one set of speech is okay but another is not.

And it may be cliché, but to correctly quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often attributed to Voltaire), even if “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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Beating the system?

What’s the opposite of a restraining order? And can I get one against Tom Owens?


Owens is the county commission candidate in rural Georgia who got a restraining order against a freelance journalist. That was two weeks ago. Last week, justice prevailed and the restraining order was lifted.

There are certainly bigger crimes against journalism than the one Owens perpetrated against a writer named George Chidi. But few are as curious and even fewer are as devious.

I had one lengthy phone call with Owens on Oct. 9, during which he professed more than once, “I love the media! And the media loves me!” He said I could contact him anytime, and if he wasn’t campaigning or dead, he’d call me back right away.

Since then, he’s lost not one but two court hearings in as many days. After repeated calls and emails, he finally got back to me once over the weekend. Despite more emails and voice mails, he never replied.

What a shame. I really wanted to talk to him because I’ve learned he’s a crazy genius who stumbled upon the perfect crime.

Owens told me he “feared for his life” because George Chidi “acted like he had mad cow disease” whenever they met. 


So Owens sought what’s officially called a temporary protection order. A judge granted it – as well she should have, Chidi admits.

“She did what she was supposed to do, and that’s the problem,” Chidi says. “All the biases in the law are toward granting a TPO, as it should be. Because if you don’t, you end up with women getting beaten and killed.”

No one anticipated a candidate would seek a restraining order to get a reporter off his back. Owens did, and because a judge is supposed to err on the side of the accuser, he had a week free of Chidi’s searing questions about his past.

“Problem is, there’s no punishment on the back end for people misusing the law, especially when the purpose is violating the First Amendment,” Chidi says. “And there’s no mechanism in the law to prevent this from happening again.”

In 90 minutes, everything Owens accomplished for a week was undone.


First came a magistrate’s hearing on Tuesday. Owens and his team defended their restraining order by seeking a stalking charge against Chidi. Their evidence was this anti-climactic video, which Owens told me all about but refused to show me because he wanted the magistrate to see it first…

“The magistrate saw the video, and then his demeanor changed fundamentally,” Chidi says. “The magistrate said, ‘What is this? Did you really think this supports a stalking charge?” And [Owens] kept saying, ‘He made me feel afraid, he’s devious.’ The hearing was over in 30 minutes.”

The next day, a judge wanted to know why the restraining order should stay in place since the stalking charge was denied. An hour later, it was unofficially lifted.

“I’m totally off the hook,” Chidi says, “but we’re still waiting on the formal ruling – which I’m sure will be Get the fuck out of here in Latin.”

So did Owens get away with one? Chidi thinks more than just journalists are irked about his abuse of the legal system.

“I don’t think he’s fully understood the damage he’s done to himself,” Chidi says. “He may not have the competence necessary to understand how incompetent he is.”

SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten was at the second hearing and was equally stunned.

“It was one of the most bizarre hearings I have ever witnessed,” she told me. “Owens didn’t have counsel. He attempted to represent himself. The judge basically had to do everything for him, including questioning his witnesses. I think she wanted to make sure everything was neat and tidy so the possibility of an appeal would be out of the question.”

Dunten added: “When I arrived outside the courtroom, an odd man was speaking to someone about how George was gay, the N word, and a Muslim lover. He later was one of Owens’ witnesses.”

That afternoon, Dunten’s board of directors heard her report and issued this statement…


SPJ Georgia is pleased that Georgia journalist George Chidi is free to work as a journalist again. Minutes after leaving the courtroom, Chidi settled into a corner booth of a local Decatur pub and opened up his laptop to start writing professionally again.

Thanks goes to the legal team of attorney Tom Clyde, board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, and Executive Director Hollie Manheimer for fighting the final step of releasing this outrageous restraining order against Chidi. Clyde is an attorney for Kilpatrick Stockton LLC of Georgia.

Thank you also goes to SPJ national for their prompt response for a journalist who was clearly facing a violation of the First Amendment.

So what happens now? Chidi is finishing his book on civic engagement in Georgia, which is why he was pursuing interviews with Owens in the first place.

“I think this will be its own chapter,” Chidi says.


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What Owens knows

Tom Owens and I agreed on one thing he told me last night. After that, not much else.


“I’m not against a free press,” he said during our 15-minute call. “But a free press should be respectful of people, not screaming and hollering.”

“Certainly,” I replied. “And if you got evidence that George Chidi screamed at you, I’ll change my strong opinion on this issue.”

The issue is a restraining order Owens convinced a judge to sign on Monday. It bans Chidi, a freelance journalist, from communicating with Owens or getting within 100 yards of him. Yesterday, I offered to lead a restraining order extravaganza.

A few hours after that post, Owens and I spoke. I asked him for details on what Chidi did. The candidate for DeKalb County commission said the two men were at a candidates’ forum when “George acted like he had mad cow disease and was screaming and making everyone uncomfortable.”

Of course, Chidi denies he did anything more than his job.


He notes that Owens released a video from a subsequent encounter at another candidates forum – which purports to show Chidi being threatening but really just shows a reporter being slightly annoying because the candidate keeps ducking his questions.

I was genuinely appreciative of Owens for speaking with me when he obviously knew I didn’t agree with him. I asked if he had more damning evidence than just his word and the words of his campaign pals.

“We have a lot more video that was taken,” he said. The video is from that first forum and shows Chidi’s “obnoxious behavior.”

“Can I see it?” I asked.

“I don’t want to put it out in the public domain yet till we get to court,” Owens said. “We gonna have us a probable cause hearing.”

Owens also says Chidi threatened him another time, but “there are no witnesses to it, when he got up in my face and quietly said, ‘I’m gonna kill you.'”

Owens says he “fears for his life” but is also angry: “When you approach me and tell me you’re gonna destroy me, I don’t have to take that, sir.”

Owens says the big hearing in front of a judge is 9 a.m. Tuesday. That’s when he shows the video. If it proves him right, I’ll be the first to report it – I hate when any profession circles the wagons and doesn’t admit when one of its own behaves badly.

But if this as-yet-unseen video shows nothing more revealing than the public video does, Owens needs to drop his restraining order or have a judge do it for him. If it stands, so will Georgia’s journalism community.


SPJ’s Georgia chapter will cover the hearing.


SPJ Georgia president Sharon Dunten issued this statement from her board…

It has been a turbulent couple of months for journalists in the Atlanta metro area as a Dekalb County Commissioner, Elaine Boyer, admitted to stealing more than $90,000 from taxpayers during the past two years. As new candidates announce their intention to replace Boyer’s position on the county commission, Atlanta and Georgia journalists are closely vetting the new candidates, including Georgia journalist George Chidi.

SPJ Georgia supports Chidi for vetting Tom Owens, who is running for the empty commissioner position. As part of the vetting process, Chidi approached and asked Owens questions at two public forums, sent emails and left messages on voicemails.

In return, Owens found a judge to grant a temporary stalking protection order against Chidi, who was just doing his job. In addition, days later when Chidi did publish a blog about Owens online, he was served a notice of civil contempt for violating the TPO.

Since when does a county temporary protection order require a journalist not to publish an article online or in print?

SPJ Georgia will be closely following any developments until this controversy is resolved.


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NO RESTRAINT

This Vietnam veteran is afraid. Of a reporter. Next week, we’re really gonna scare the crap out of him.


Tom Owens is running for an empty commission seat in DeKalb County, which is next door to Atlanta. On Monday, Owens filed a restraining order against a freelance reporter who kept asking him annoying questions.

Such as…

• Did you really threaten to kill the imam of a mosque that opened behind your house? Did you really offer to leave him alone if he bought your house, appraised at $100,000, for a cool half-million?

• What’s your take on a police report that says a city councilman in the small town of Doraville accused you of “showing up on his doorstep to berate him for offering condolences to the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting”?

• After you pled no contest to stalking in nearby Forsyth County, you were ordered into mental health counseling and assigned 30 days of community service. Did you complete both?

Somehow, Owens found a judge crazier than he is to issue the restraining order.

Pity George Chidi. He’s a reporter with a restraining order.


Chidi freelances for various publications and is writing a big book on civic engagement in Georgia. Owens had successfully ducked Chidi until last Sunday, when Chidi showed up at a public candidate forum where Owens was speaking.

Owens had a friend record this “evidence” of Chidi’s intimidating behavior…

…but on his YouTube page, Owens claims this is tame in comparison to their first encounter, which happened in a church: “He was unidentified and stated he wanted to ‘destroy’ me in his introductory statement.”

Sadly, there’s no evidence of that, and Chidi denies it.

“I never said it,” Chidi told me this afternoon. “I looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re not going to like this story,’ but that’s as far as it ever got.”

Chidi says the same guy who shot the video above also recorded him at that first encounter. “But he hasn’t released that,” Chidi says, adding with just a hint of sarcasm, “I wonder why.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Owens filed his restraining order the same day Chidi posted an unflattering column about the candidate. Yesterday, Chidi says, “the sheriff’s office dropped off a notice of civil contempt” because he had violated the restraining order by “contacting third parties via social media.” Whatever the hell that means.

Chidi had to get a lawyer so he won’t end up in jail. He has a hearing on Oct. 22. Chidi’s laywer is from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and is representing him for free. But Chidi is losing time and money dealing with this, so he’s crowdsourcing on his own.

I emailed Owens earlier today, but he hasn’t replied yet. Maybe he’s afraid of me. Maybe he’s asking for yet another restraining order. You want one, too?

We’re looking for journalists who can’t show restraint.


To highlight the ridiculousness of a candidate for public office successfully getting a restraining order against a reporter with zero evidence of threatening behavior, I’m looking for a few Georgians who’d love a restraining order from Tom Owens.

All you gotta do is approach Owens at any of his next several campaign events and pose the three questions above.

I’ll provide you the intel on those appearances, and I’ll pay for any legal expenses you may incur. If you indeed get slapped with a restraining order, I’ll even pay for you to get it framed for your home or office.

If several journalists pepper Owens with the same questions Chidi did, and if he doesn’t file restraining orders against all of them, it’s sure to convince a judge − even one in DeKalb County − that Owens fears not for his personal safety, but his political future.

Email me journoterrorist@gmail.com.


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White guys: all is Wells

Want to nominate someone for SPJ’s “highest honor”? Better buy stamps.


The Wells Memorial Key recognizes “a member who is judged to have served the Society in the most outstanding fashion during the preceding year or over a period of years.”

You can nominate anyone you want, but they don’t really encourage it. The website says…

Submit all nomination materials unbound on 8 1/2 x 11 paper.

That’s right. Dead trees, not digital. They don’t make it easy for you. I think they like it that way.

Old white men, mostly.

Over the past 10 years (2004 to 2014) only one woman has won a Wells Key. In the previous 10 years (1993 to 2003) seven women won.

The last African-American to win was back in 1992. Last Sunday, another white man won a Wells Key. He’s the fifth in a row.

The Wells Key is perhaps the only awards program getting less diverse with each passing year.

If an award’s winners lack diversity, it’s a good bet the judges do, too.

The Wells Key is bestowed by SPJ’s “executive officers,” led by the president. Since 2000, only two women have served as president. A third started her one-year term just last weekend.

It probably won’t shock you to learn: The five consecutive white-guy winners were all former presidents.

One Wells Key winner suggested the ex-presidents win because they’re the ones who are “willing to do the work.” But it’s also true we tend to more easily recognize effort when it’s being done by people who look like us.

As an SPJ board member, I want to diversity the Wells Key winners by adding more judges. Last weekend, I made a motion to have SPJ’s entire 23-member board bestow the honor.

That’s not an ideal solution, since our board has only one Hispanic, one Native American, and no African-Americans. But at least we have 10 women and a mix of old and young. It’s a start.

It’s also a fight.

After I made my motion, old white men immediately (and condescendingly) undermined the idea…

• You’ll wilt under the workload – Past president Dave Cuillier said culling through all the nominees “is time-consuming” and “a lot of hard work.” (Apparently, lots of people mail in sheets of paper.) He doesn’t want to burden us.

• You can’t keep a secret – Wells Key winner Robert Leger, who’s president of SPJ’s foundation, said the award’s signature feature is its surprise – the winner isn’t announced beforehand. Leger said the board would let the winner slip and ruin everything.

• You got better things to do – Cuillier also suggested my motion was “ticky tack.” He suggested we stick to “bigger issues.”

I’d quote you exactly what both men said, as well as some other men, but for some reason, SPJ’s recording of that part of the board meeting cuts off. It’s the only board meeting video on the SPJ website that does that.

Regardless, these arguments offended me and at least a few others….

• The board already works hard. In fact, we could easily delegate more mundane governance so we’d have more time to look at “bigger issues.” I wouldn’t be the first SPJ board member to wonder if presidents load up their agendas with minor items so the board doesn’t have time to delve deeply into protected traditions.

• This is a big deal. How can deciding “SPJ’s highest honor” not be considered a “bigger issue”? How is diversity not a “bigger issue”?

• We’re not gossips. The SPJ board is loaded with journalists who have protected juicier sources than a Wells Key winner.

After much debate and urging, I amended my motion. It now simply instructs SPJ’s senior leaders to devise their own plan for expanding the Wells Key judging. They have until April.

When I asked if that would make the deadline for next year’s winner, the answer was a very squishy “maybe.”

My fear…

The old white men will simply delay, wear down, and outlast the reformers. That’s so common, it’s almost a cliche.

The fact is, there are nearly as many Wells Key winners in leadership positions as there are non-winners. SPJ’s foundation, called Sigma Delta Chi, has four officers – and three are Well’s Key winners, as are 10 of its 29 members. That’s a lot of status quo firepower.

Thing is, I haven’t even gotten to the most controversial part. First, I wanted to get my original motion through before I proposed this…

SPJ should mimic the NFL.

Since 2003, the National Football League has operated under something called the Rooney Rule. It requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for high-level coaching positions.

The Rooney Rule doesn’t set quotas. It simply forces you to consider people who don’t look like you. And it’s worked. NFL teams have hired more minority coaches since the rule passed.

I want a Rooney Rule for SPJ.

There are many Wells Key winners I deeply respect (even though they might not respect me after this post). David Carlson, Steve Geimann, Irwin Gratz, Bill McCloskey, Mac McKerral, just to name a few.

SPJ wouldn’t be where it is today without those old white guys. But it needs more than old white guys if it’s going to survive tomorrow.

If you doubt that, here’s what one Wells Key winner told me – and the entire foundation board – when I mocked the paper-only application process…

It’s hardly burdensome to ask for hard copies.

Yup, that’s how you endear yourself to the next generation of journalists.

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One unethical weekend

Is SPJ even ethical?


That’s not a click-bait question. Over the weekend, SPJ approved a new Code of Ethics. SPJ leaders decided its vaunted  code – last updated in 1996 – needed an update because technology has changed the essence of journalism.

I’ve written about this crazy process before (and before and before and before), but this isn’t a rerun. This is all strange new shit.

Here are five ridiculous moves SPJ leaders made in just one weekend…


1. Selective tech

The code may have needed a tech update, but on Saturday, SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.

Why? Because SPJ clings to an arcane “delegate” system that’s akin to the Electoral College. Except for one weird thing.

Delegates come only from SPJ’s 60 pro and 160 student chapters and vote only in person at SPJ’s annual convention. So even if you were a delegate but couldn’t afford to come to Nashville, you couldn’t vote.

Even worse, 43 percent of SPJ’s members aren’t in chapters. They’re just regular ol’ members who either do their own thing or (in most cases) don’t live near a chapter. They get no vote and no representation – even if they show up at the convention. They aren’t allowed to even speak in front of the delegates who do vote.

Of course, the technology exists to allow everyone to vote online. SPJ uses it for electing the board of directors. I’m a national board member, and I was elected through online voting last year.

At the delegates’ meeting Saturday afternoon, I urged the “old white men” who run the show (that’s what they jokingly called themselves) to let all members vote on big decisions. They hemmed and hawed and said that was too hard.


2. Shut up and vote

As delegates filtered into the exhibit hall, they were handed a brand-new draft of the code. It had two dozen changes from the one they were emailed in the days before the convention – which was intended to give them time to review it.

The old white men quickly and sometimes confusingly reviewed those changes on a projector. Some delegates proposed more changes. But at one point, the president said, “We only have 15 more minutes.”

The delegates in front of me said they didn’t know there was a time limit. I said I didn’t, either.

The wife of one of the old white guys made a motion to end all debate. It was seconded by a woman who sat on the code revision panel that was hand-picked by the president – without board approval.

The president, Dave Cuillier, let another woman speak after that – she’s a member of SPJ’s foundation board – but tried to cut me off by saying the question had been called two speakers ago, and that “the people” had spoken. I had to stand firm and raise my voice before I was allowed to say…

If delegates comprising 2 percent of SPJ’s membership and not representing 43 percent of SPJ’s membership vote for a new Code of Ethics without putting it back to the members, I believe that is unethical.

You said you wanted to change this Code of Ethics because you said technology has changed so much, it has materially affected the way we do our jobs. In 1996, when I was a member of this society, the delegate system WAS the only way to pass anything. The technology did not exist to let more people speak. This system, at the time, was high tech. If we’re going to say this is the system we have, that’s the excuse of anyone who tries to deny representation.

…and then Cuillier cut off debate. Several new delegates – I’d guess half of all the delegates are new each year, with no clue what the hell is going on – told me later they wanted to speak in support. But it was too late.


 3. Your opinion is stupid

The day before, Cuillier and his panel hosted a “town hall” so delegates could “ask questions, comment, and make suggestions.” Except when they tried, Cuillier was so dismissive that one woman chastised him from the back of the room: “You’re being disrespectful.”

Cuillier, to his credit, later issued a public apology for, and I quote, “being a douchebag.”

Kevin Smith, the ethics chair, wasn’t so contrite. He shot down each suggestion with, “We worked really hard on this! We spent hours on it!” He interrupted delegates so often that one woman got a laugh from her neighbors when she muttered, “This is a real testosterone-fest.”


4. Rank and revisions

Fearing he had lost the room and his shot at glory (more on that later), Smith agreed afterward to make some changes. But that wasn’t publicized, so few delegates knew about it.

Those delegates also didn’t know – because no SPJ leader told them via email, social media, or the convention app – that the Northern California chapter also wanted changes. It got ’em because one chapter member is an SPJ foundation board member and chatted up Smith in the lobby.

Smith and some of his group met with leaders from that chapter and made more changes (which the board of directors also didn’t know and wasn’t told about). Other chapters who didn’t have insiders as members didn’t get the same opportunity.

That’s why the delegates got a new draft as the filed into the meeting room, with only minutes to peruse it. Executive director Joe Skeel joked it was literally hot off the press – and it was. What he handed me was still warm from the copy machine.


5. We’re awesome

After the vote, the insiders let out a whoop and high-fived. Some delegates also applauded. But others just looked confused. This long, out-of-context meeting was finally over, and the social functions were soon starting.

Three hours later, Smith was bestowed with SPJ’s highest honor, called a Wells Memorial Key. From the podium, Cuillier cited one reason for the award: getting the new ethics code passed. Of course, the Wells Key was decided months ago – and of course, not by the board of directors but a small group of SPJ insiders.

Some SPJers wondered if the fix was in.

Cuiller and Smith were lame ducks last weekend. Their terms ended hours after the code passed. Was all of this strong-arming and bum-rushing because Smith needed to get his Key before he stepped down?

(It may seem overwrought to some, but Wells Key winners often weep from the podium when they deliver their acceptance speeches at a banquet. I once thought that was odd, but many of the winners are dedicated journalists. While I don’t quite understand the emotions myself, some of these winners are awesome guys – and sadly, most are guys – who I truly admire. So if this is what floats their boat, I’m glad for the rising tide.)

The question on the lips of some was: Will Cuillier get his Wells Key next? He was president when the code passed, and he was one of the small group who bestowed the honor on Smith.

So overall, SPJ leaders are quite pleased with themselves, even as some rank and file are confused and/or concerned and/or bored. But from bad things, sometimes good things come. Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ Code of Ethics. Learn more in this space, coming soon.

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