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 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 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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Wearing your emotions

Wanna change SPJ’s name? Get a change of clothes.

This cotton T-shirt is available FREE in small, medium, large, and extra-large, while supplies last. Hat and cigar not included.

Terms and conditions…

You must attend the Excellence in Journalism convention in Nashville, specifically the session called Should SPJ Change Its Name — and Mission? It’s Saturday, Sept. 6, at 1 p.m. in Ryman Studios H.

 I’d love for you to wear it that same afternoon, although once it leaves my grubby hands and gets into yours, I have no way to enforce that.

• Delegates will receive shirts before the mewling masses do – as long as they promise to wear their new shirts to the closing business session. Can’t enforce that, either, though.

You can get a shirt even if you hate the idea of changing SPJ’s name. As long as you don it that Saturday, you can wear it ironically.

Got no idea what I’m talking about? Here’s some bathroom reading…

More than a name change
Old excuses for new name
Fly in the newsprint

If you want to reserve your shirt, email me at journoterrorist@gmail.com. Include your desired size, then pick it up at the session in Nashville. If you’re a delegate, mention that. Questions? Holler. But don’t ask me why I’m doing this. Because I dunno.

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5 hard questions

questionWho you gonna vote for in next month’s SPJ elections?

If you don’t know the candidates personally, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Read their campaign statements, and you’ll learn they all want to “celebrate journalism” and “help grow SPJ’s membership” and “maintain its dedication and commitment.”

In other words, crime is bad and jobs are good. And specifics are rare.

As a three-term SPJ board member, I know how hard it is to articulate a clear vision in a single statement. And let’s face it, no one is hosting SPJ debates, because no one would tune in.

So welcome to the Real Quick Real Controversial Candidate Q&A.

I recently posed five questions to the candidates. I isolated the biggest controversies currently rending our fine organization. Of course, I’m biased: I started all these controversies. So if you don’t give a crap about them, can’t say I blame you.

Still, their answers tell you something about how they’ll handle trouble – especially those who didn’t respond at all. At the very end are my conclusions.

No editing was done, and answers appear in order received…


Patti Gallagher Newberry (Region 4) – I support the name change.

Rebecca Baker (Region 1) – Yes.

Ellen Eldridge (college student) – I like the idea that SPJ is an organization for defining journalism and not journalists. I joined SPJ to be part of an organization for my industry. I have much to learn still and hope my involvement with SPJ will continue helping me understand and improve in my field as a journalist.

Mike Reilley (campus adviser) – We need to revisit this and strongly consider expanding SPJ’s horizons to recruit new members, including young members and retaining campus members as they graduate.

Lynn Walsh (treasurer) – I am in full support of SPJ becoming more of an advocacy group and less of a trade organization as you describe it in this question. That said, I do not know that it needs to change the name of the organization to do so. I think it needs to make a commitment and investment into advocating more for what we as journalists do every day and why it is important for communities around the world. Some of these include First Amendment rights, FOIA and government access and transparency issues and the importance of freedom of the press. In order to do this we need to not just include journalists in our organization, but need to reach out and openly welcome lawyers, activists and other leaders in these areas.

Matt Hall (Region 11) – No. I don’t believe rebranding makes sense at this time, and this conversation should be put behind us. The board should focus on actual ways to improve membership, training and journalism instead of debating a name change I humbly suggest is unnecessary despite the arguments you’ve shared and the time you’ve spent on it.

Ernest Owens (Region 1) – No, because there needs to be an organization that is helping to protect and inform journalists. There are already enough programs focused on journalism advocacy and yet the professionals themselves can hardly get one. SPJ needs to remain the same in that regard.

Paul Fletcher (president-elect) – I personally favor the new name. I don’t know that it is the will of the members or the Board to make the change. There also will be a straw vote on this question on the EIJ14 ballot, and I look forward to hearing what the membership thinks. I think advocacy is an essential part of SPJ’s mission.

Jimmy McCollum (campus adviser) – I like the new name, as it is more inclusive of students.

Gideon Grudo (at large) – Yes and yes. If SPJ doesn’t adapt to a new universe where the word “journalist” has barely retained any of its classic definitions, it will suffer the consequences of a new universe where an old-fashioned organization barely retains its members (hey!).

Tony Hernandez (at large) – Personally, yes. An SPJ task force has polled our membership, and more feel the name should remain instead of changing it. So, I support the consensus that the name should remain the same.

Daniel Axelrod (student) – I believe that SPJ’s name should not be changed. This debate is a distraction and a red herring. Changing SPJ’s name to the “Society for Professional Journalism” wouldn’t alter the organization’s mission. The Society’s advocacy efforts are already (and long have been) strong and explicit in SPJ’s support of a shield law and the Society’s constant fight to promote freedom of information and free speech. Now, if SPJ’s members and its leadership want the organization to devote even more time toward those and other advocacy initiatives, the Society can do just that without changing a name that has become a strong, reputable brand over its many decades of use.

Jordan Gass-Poore’ (student) – No. The people in the trade are the trade; without journalists there’s no journalism. The emphasis needs to be on educating people on how to uphold the principles of professional journalism and how to advocate on its behalf, regardless of medium and title. 


Patti Gallagher Newberry (Region 4) – All members.

Rebecca Baker (Region 1) – 7,500 members.

Ellen Eldridge (college student) – I think all 7,500 members should be allowed to vote, but I believe many will not make use of their right to vote.

Mike Reilley (campus adviser) – Yes. One member, one vote.

Lynn Walsh (treasurer) – I am OK with just the delegates voting on the updated Code of Ethics. But, that does not mean I would be opposed to having all of the members vote on it. I have been involved with the process of updating the Code and feel as if some of the transparency issue your brought up in the beginning have been addressed.

For me, SPJ’s Code of Ethics started out as a broad look at how journalists should act professionally and I think it should stay this way. My only hesitation is that by allowing everyone to vote, nothing will ever be updated and that to me, is the worse-case scenario because it needs to be updated and has needed to be updated for awhile now.

Why do I think it will not be updated or pass if everyone votes on it versus just the delegates? I think there is a great possibility people will get caught up on one phrase or one word and vote against it for that reason. And that is not what the code is for, in my opinion. The code, to me is meant to be a guide, and we as individual journalists have to decide what we will agree with or not — we create our own individual codes and I hope look to others for advice with this.

Matt Hall (Region 11) – The process is what the update process is, and if the board wants to discuss changing the process, that conversation should be held — and be resolved. But I will say this: Delegates of any group are elected to represent membership, study alternatives and make decisions that could drag on if a much greater number of people were voting on anything. We are where we are in the process, and I can’t imagine this will be a simple up or down vote in September; it’s more complex — and potentially more acrimonious, to use someone else’s word — than that, as it should be.

Additionally, all chapters know this issue is coming up in September and should be discussing their positions on it with every representative they are sending to Nashville. Beyond that, each chapter has also had multiple chances to weigh in during the review. The San Diego Pro Chapter, for one, posted the code on our Facebook page on March 27 and again on July 7, seeking input and trying to foster debate.

Ernest Owens (Region 1) – SPJ’S 7500 members should because the Code of Ethics affects us all and if we are to elect members, we should also elect new revisions collectively as well.

Paul Fletcher (president-elect) – As you know, I favor adopting one member, one vote for SPJ decision-making, and I will be working on that in the coming year if elected. But OMOV requires a bylaws change. Even if it is adopted by the delegates at EIJ15, it wouldn’t be in effect until EIJ16. I don’t think we want to wait that long for a revision to the Code of Ethics.

We have system in place for EIJ14 that provides for input from both groups. There will be a straw vote on the revised Code of Ethics draft on the ballot sent to all members. The delegates will have the benefit of that input before the discussion and vote on the Code in the final business session of the convention.

Jimmy McCollum (campus adviser) – 150 delegates.

Gideon Grudo (at large) – We’re an OMOV group now, so I favor the latter. If it’s too late to practically bring this into effect for this round of the revision, a new round should open up for EIJ15 (or EIJ16 if the red tape is real nice and thick) and solidly involve every single member of SPJ.

Tony Hernandez (at large) – I think the more eyes on the new Code of Ethics the better. In a perfect world, all 7,500 members should review and cast a vote on the Code of Ethics, however given that online voting is just a few years old, a small percentage of our 7,500 members have actually voted. I think our leaders need to encourage more of our membership to vote before we start solely relying on One Man One Vote for crucial decisions. I think our delegate system has been established to carefully vet chapter representatives to consider important SPJ issues, like the new Code of Ethics.

The short answer to your question: let both bodies vote.

Daniel Axelrod (student) – If there is a hue and cry from the regular members, and a great many of them want to vote on a new ethics code, then the Society should consider changing its voting process. But, for now, why fix a system that doesn’t seem to be broken? The delegates closely follow SPJ’s news, deal with the Society’s dilemmas, and thoughtfully consider SPJ’s initiatives. The delegates are among the most dedicated and passionate media professionals, journalism teachers, and communication students in the country. And they represent — and act in the best interests of — the rest of the Society’s 7,500 members.

Jordan Gass-Poore’ (student) – Yes. All of the SPJ Code of Ethics revisions should be made available to its membership in a timely fashion with the dates those revisions were made and the names of those who helped make the revisions. The revision should reflect the current state of journalism, and the only way for that to happen is to have input from as many journalists, members, as possible – crowdsourcing is the most efficient and transparent way to do this.

Patti Gallagher Newberry (Region 4) – Abstain.

Rebecca Baker (Region 1) – Staying out of this.

Ellen Eldridge (college student) – I don’t know, but I don’t see anything I know to be factually inaccurate. I can see where your blogs would rattle Cuillier, but as far as I understand libel nothing on the blog was libelous. I appreciate that you are unafraid to stand up for your beliefs, and I appreciate the chance to read your perspective. I’m trying to stay informed, but I’m new to SPJ and have much to read and learn.

Mike Reilley (campus adviser) – I haven’t read the blog so I don’t have an answer on this one.

Lynn Walsh (treasurer) –I do not think you were libelous while discussing SPJ Code of Ethics on your blog, BUT I also do not think that the process has been unethical.

As someone who has spent long hours to help make the process more transparent, all of which as you know is voluntary, I think the process has changed and become more transparent. Could it be better? Yes, I think everything we do, you will find there is a way for it to be better. But, I also have noticed when you or others have raised complaints or issues about something, I see and saw changes.

I think sometimes what we all have to keep in mind is that all of the people involved in this process and other changes and issues in SPJ are volunteers, as you are. I truly believe everyone tries their best and is doing everything they can. I think it is OK to criticize and I love seeing processes and things improve, but the approach of how this happens is important, in my opinion. I always welcome criticism and suggestions for improvement and hope that sort of thing continues, and continues respectfully.

Matt Hall (Region 11) – I’m not sure what was said in the discussions between you and David because I wasn’t there. I respect both your rights to speak your mind and appreciate both your efforts to make the board more transparent. I see that you and David worked together to foster positive changes in the industry before this disagreement. All part of the back and forth on a board, I guess.

Ernest Owens (Region 1) – No, you are entitled to your own opinion and you openly had legitimate concerns that supported your argument. You statements had merit based on your visible findings and personally the term “libel” was inappropriately used in this case.

Paul Fletcher (president-elect) – You are asking for a legal conclusion in this question, so I decline to answer.

Jimmy McCollum (campus adviser) – No.

Gideon Grudo (at large) – You mean, “when I criticized the Code of Ethics revision process.” And: No and no.

Tony Hernandez (at large) – Not touching this one with a 10-foot pole.

Daniel Axelrod (student) – I take no stance on this question. If elected to the SPJ board of directors, this is exactly the sort of non-issue that I will strenuously avoid. The American journalism industry has been through the most tumultuous 10-year period in its history. Newspapers alone lost one in three of their newsroom employees between 2000 and 2010, according to an estimate by Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media economist. Meanwhile, SPJ’s membership has dwindled from well in excess of 8,000 to 7,500. These are the challenges, and the backdrop for action, that the Society as it continues to both support journalism and journalists for years to come.

Jordan Gass-Poore’ (student) – No. Your blog posts weren’t damaging to SPJ’s reputation, but served as a checks and balances for the organization’s leadership, especially those who were elected based on the idea that they would help the organization continue to be an “advocate for the First Amendment and work on becoming increasingly relevant in the age of technology and innovation.” 


Patti Gallagher Newberry (Region 4) – Yes.

Rebecca Baker (Region 1) – I think the 2 at large directors have done and would continue to do a good job choosing the chapters but I wouldn’t oppose a change.

Ellen Eldridge (college student) – I believe the more people who can weigh in on an important vote the better so, yes. I’m a bit surprised to learn only two directors decide. I would have assumed the entire board voted.

Mike Reilley (campus adviser) – Yes, the entire board should vote on these. It’s an important honor and it needs broader input. We also need more clearly defined criteria for the chapter awards, particularly for the campus ones. And I say that as adviser to a student chapter that has won National Outstanding Campus Chapter of the Year twice.

Lynn Walsh (treasurer) – I would support this completely and think it is a great idea. It allows more people who may have less of a bias to make a decision on who should be awarded.

Matt Hall (Region 11) – I don’t know enough about this issue. I can see why you might want more than two people choosing victors among the various regions, but there is likely a legitimate reason it was set up this way: Maybe keeping the regional directors on the sidelines at that stage avoids conflicts of interest. Perhaps this is something to discuss among the board.

Ernest Owens (Region 1) – Yes, the entire board should because the importance of the honor should have a more diverse and larger input in the decision.

Paul Fletcher (president-elect) – You presented a well-reasoned request that we try a board-wide vote for chapters of the year for 2014. We are proceeding with that experiment. I think that was and is a good idea.

Jimmy McCollum (campus adviser) – Yes.

Gideon Grudo (at large) – I’m running to be one of these at-large directors. So on one hand I should recuse myself from this answer, but on the other hand: Yeah, two people voting on something like this is messed up, to say the least. Two people can handle the tasking task of coming up with finalists. The board can vote on the winners.

Tony Hernandez (at large) – The more eyes the better, but I don’t think the board should have to review all 12 recommendations submitted by Regional Directors for pro and student chapters, or 48 chapters in total. I think the two, at-large directors should continue to vet the RD recommendations and provide the top 3, 5, 8 or whatever recommendations for the board. If that were also the case, I think the RDs who have chapters nominated abstain from voting.

Daniel Axelrod (student) – This question represents yet another non-issue. If the present system of picking “Chapter of the Year” nominees has worked relatively well (and without many complaints), then it should be left alone. There are far more important issues for the Society to focus on. News organizations are still eviscerating their staffs. Newly minted reporters can’t get jobs. And when media companies aren’t being sold for pennies on the dollar, they’re going bankrupt. Veteran reporters need more training to adapt and thrive in the new media ecosystem. And, in the struggle between the market and the mission, all journalists also need support against corporate owners, who increasingly make questionable decisions that place profits above public service. Young reporters need more opportunities to get their feet in the door of news organizations. And news consumers need media companies to stanch the flow of reporters because the watchdogs are disappearing and democracy is threatened.

Jordan Gass-Poore’ (student) – Yes. I also support allowing all SPJ members to vote for a new set of rules prior to a revision of the organization’s code of ethics. Once a new set of rules are in place then all members should have the opportunity to vote for a new code of ethics. All interim board positions and award changes should also be voted on by the organization’s membership. 


Patti Gallagher Newberry (Region 4) – Yes.

Rebecca Baker (Region 1) – I don’t object to the presidential appointments but I wouldn’t oppose a change.

Ellen Eldridge (college student) – Yes, as long as the board members have a chance to make informed decisions and aren’t just playing eenie meanie miney mo.

Mike Reilley (campus adviser) – Yes, the board should vote on the committee chairs. There was an issue with this a few years ago with the Digital Media Committee. A board vote would help deter such issues.

Lynn Walsh (treasurer) – I would also support this. As with the suggestion in your previous question, it opens the decision up to more people who may not be as close to the person being appointed, making the decision less bias in the end.

Matt Hall (Region 11) – Not at this point. Many organizations allow presidents to appoint committee chairs, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable. I’d be happy to listen to arguments on either side if there is a debate on this, but it seems to me that the bylaws give the president that authority, and members get a chance to elect a president they believe will follow the spirit and letter of those bylaws to the best of his or her abilities.

Ernest Owens (Region 1) – The board should appoint these members because they will all have to work with these individuals, not just the president, and that is important. Plus, American history has taught us about the ills of the ‘spoils’ system and how former president Andrew Jackson used to abuse his presidential privilege when appointed his friends to cabinet. This should not be happening at SPJ!

Paul Fletcher (president-elect) – Ever since Andy Schotz asked me this question early last month, I have said I have no problem with some form of confirmation process for board chairs. While there is no requirement (and imposing one would mean a bylaws amendment), incoming President Dana Neuts will be submitting her chair choices voluntarily to the board in September for their consideration.

Jimmy McCollum (campus adviser) – Yes.

Gideon Grudo (at large) – Yes, but this is low on my totem pole, and its implementation could get kinda dicey. I just hope that committee members don’t quit if a chair ain’t pulling his or her weight, but instead take action to remedy the issue.

Tony Hernandez (at large) – I think President-elect Dana Neuts is planning to submit her committee chair appointments for board review, and she doesn’t have to do that. She asked me last month what I thought about the issue. Here’s a portion of my response:

“I’m in agreement with you about having the board ratify a president’s selection of chairs and vice chairs. However I would hope you (and future presidents) provide enough information to justify the selection of the chairs/vice chairs. I don’t need a life’s story or full professional breakdown. Maybe SPJ can create a boilerplate form/application for all chair/vice chair candidates to fill out and send to the board.

I’m also in agreement the board doesn’t need to waste time selecting 100-plus committee members, but that doesn’t mean the board shouldn’t be informed of who our boots-on-the-ground committee volunteers are. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually found the committees page on SPJ.org. Some committees have bios on all members, other just have emails and job title. … My suggestion would be, once the board ratifies committee chairs (if that’s the route we choose to go) those committee leaders would have a one-month deadline to compile information on their members for the board and the public.”

Daniel Axelrod (student) – Once again, this question misses the mark by a mile. Any board member who views this as an “issue,” let alone a pressing concern, is lost in the minutiae of trivial procedural matters. What can SPJ do to best serve journalists, and the journalism industry, in the digital age? That’s the operative question. If SPJ doesn’t focus on that question, there will be no chapters, committees and bylaws (or very weak ones). In the meantime, I see nothing wrong with SPJ’s president nominating the leaders of the organization’s committees. If the President of the United States can pick his cabinet secretaries, why can’t SPJ’s president appoint good, competent folks to serve the organization?

Jordan Gass-Poore’ (student) – Yes. I believe this helps provide more people with more opportunities to have a voice in SPJ.


• I don’t care if these candidates agree with me. (I don’t always agree with myself.) I only care if they took a stand or weaseled out of one. I know I’m not always right, and the best way for a loudmouth like me to realize I’m wrong is to engage in rigorous, dispassionate debate – you know, sorta like how journalists are supposed to do their jobs. Then, win or lose, we should go drink and laugh. Also like journalists are supposed to do.

• Journalists make lousy politicians. When we cover elections, we try like hell to force candidates to reveal what they really think. Yet when journalists run for SPJ office, they try like hell to be vapid and vague. I appreciate the candidates above who gave short, sharp answers.

• Controversy is good for SPJ. Want to boost both SPJ’s membership and its competitive races for the board? Embrace the hot topics and hard choices. We’re journalists, not podiatrists.


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Libeling SPJ

This blog post might be libelous. My last couple were, according to SPJ’s president.

I’ve been writing about the secretive way SPJ’s leaders are revising the organization’s Code of Ethics. After my last post, SPJ president Dave Cuillier called me and said I was “libeling SPJ.”

Before I recount that strange conversation, let me commit more crimes…

SPJ continues to unethically update its Code of Ethics.

On Saturday, the Ethics Code “working group” met in Ohio to keep discussing their revisions. After I blasted SPJ’s top leaders for not telling the board of directors (or anyone) it was spending up to $11,000 on this gathering, Cuillier promised it would be open and live-streamed.

It was. But SPJ waited till less than 24 hours before the meeting to tell anyone how to tune in. And it never told its membership anything: Wednesday afternoon, in its weekly newsletter to its 7,500 members, SPJ didn’t mention the meeting at all.

Thursday night, I emailed my fellow SPJ national board members and asked if the meeting was still on for Saturday – because no one had told us anything for weeks.

The answer from Cuillier was yes. After I complained it hadn’t been publicized at all, the meeting was announced on an interior page of SPJ’s website late Friday morning. A single tweet went out Friday afternoon.

(Privately, Cuillier emailed me, “The meeting has been advertised for some time – months – through various modes.” When I asked for links to those “modes,” he sent me this. Scroll down to the third-to-last entry.)

The meeting itself lived down to its promotion.

So much for “transparency.”

First, the meeting agenda didn’t include any names, and the live stream camera wasn’t placed to include everyone. So you couldn’t tell who was talking, and you didn’t know who they were.

They never introduced themselves at the beginning of the meeting, so I availed myself of this: “You are invited to participate in the process before, during and after the meeting in the comments section below.”

After the first 10 minutes, I posted…

Who’s talking right now? Who’s in the room? Any chance you’re going to introduce yourselves so the viewers who learned about this live stream yesterday can figure out what’s going on?

After 20 more minutes, I posted again…

Is anyone reading your comments? Can you please introduce yourselves? Who’s talking?

I tried again after 90 minutes. No reply. Instead, they watched a slideshow that couldn’t be read from the camera view, and they read handouts that weren’t shared online.

As this group of an unknown number started rewriting the Code on a computer hooked up to a projector, a commenter asked, “Is it possible to reposition the camera to focus on what’s being written? At this point, the language is more important than seeing the people at the table.”

After 2 1/2 hours, the camera finally moved in front of the screen. After 5 1/2 hours, they introduced themselves. Telling you this will probably earn me another weird phone call from SPJ’s president.

“You’re libeling SPJ, Michael.”

On June 24, SPJ president Dave Cuillier called me, and we spoke for an hour and 15 minutes. He was mad about the blog post I wrote the day before, and the one I wrote the week before that. Both accused SPJ of revising its Code of Ethics in less-than-transparent ways.

When Cuillier uttered the accusation above, I asked him for specifics.

“Well, Michael, you wrote: SPJ is revising its Code of Ethics in a most unethical way. That’s libel, in my opinion.”

I was stunned.

“Really, Dave? Are you threatening me or something?”

He sighed.

“You know, Michael, you can twist this any way you want, which I know you’re gonna do.”

“How do I twist You’re libeling SPJ, Dave? Do I need to get a lawyer here?”

Another audible sigh.

“I didn’t say that at all. But you just keep writing all this wrong stuff…”

His voice trailed off. I told him I wouldn’t write more “stuff” if nothing else stupid happened.

“I get it, Michael. We all get what you’re saying. I’ve told you that next month’s meeting will be very, very open. You just need to stop now.”

“OK, Dave. I’m done. If everything goes well from here on out, I’ll shut up for a while.”

That didn’t last long. Anyone know a good lawyer?

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3 “huh?” reasons

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Last Wednesday, I accused SPJ of being unethical. Last weekend, SPJ responded. Sort of.

SPJ’s Executive Committee met Saturday in Washington, DC. These senior SPJ leaders briefly discussed the revisions being made to the Code of Ethics, which hasn’t been updated since the mid-’90s.

For the first time, SPJ president Dave Cuillier explained how he decided to spend $11,000 on a meeting of the Ethics Committee in Columbus, Ohio, without telling the board of directors (or anyone else) about it.

His explanation raised more questions than it answered…

We had a grant application for the SDX Foundation for $6,000 to have this in-person meeting. They denied it for various reasons, the main one being: They didn’t feel that was something SDX money should be used for, and if SPJ thinks it’s important, SPJ should fund it itself.

Sigma Delta Chi is SPJ’s philanthropic, nonprofit foundation. Why did Cuillier go there for $6,000 when he later raided SPJ coffers for $11,000? How come he didn’t tell the SPJ board he was going to SDX? How come he didn’t send them an email afterward?

I wasn’t in DC to ask these questions. I was listening to a live stream (which I agitated for a few years ago and, to SPJ’s credit, is now a regular feature). I heard Cuillier wrap up his story like this…

So we just had to move forward, with SPJ carrying the ball. Michael raised the question, “What’s the process on that? Who gets to decide whether money is spent on this or not?” I think the technical answer is, well, it’s the prerogative of the executive director and the president.

So Reason No. 1 boils down to…

The SDX board of directors said no. We didn’t have a Plan B, we didn’t have time to ask the SPJ board, and besides, they might’ve also said no. So we just did it on our own.

But that’s not as illogical as the second reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 2: You should know what you don’t know.

Executive Committee member Bill McCloskey followed up…

I disagree the board didn’t have an opportunity to talk about this. The board reviewed the budget, the board asked no questions about the budget. If the board wanted to read any of those 30 pages of budget and ask, “What is this line item? Is there enough money here if we decide to have an onsite meeting?” – they could have asked that question. No one asked that question. What’s the problem?

SPJ board member Andy Schotz, who was sitting in the meeting as an observer, asked executive director Joe Skeel: How much money was allocated in the budget for this meeting?

Skeel replied, “There’s no specific line item for a meeting of the Ethics Committee to do the revision.”

So Reason No. 2 is just plain crazy…

You approved the budget – and you never asked about something that doesn’t exist in its 30 pages. Thus, you have no right to complain.

But that’s not as surreal as the third reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 3: Ethics are like air-conditioners.

Skeel added this: “There’s also no budget line item to hire a part-time person to make membership calls.”

Cuillier elaborated…

Things come up during the year unexpectedly. The air-conditioning unit [at headquarters] breaks down, we hire a student to make membership calls, things like this the board doesn’t approve, and Joe takes care of it. So technically, there’s been nothing wrong. Nothing illegal or inappropriate.

So Reason No. 3 is the lawerly answer…

A meeting that costs $11,000 you didn’t know about for a group of people you didn’t approve (the president picked them) is no different than an AC unit that burns out or a kid calling lapsed members to urge them to renew.

This isn’t the first time SPJ leaders have given lame answers that would make journalists shake their head if their sources said the same things with straight faces.

In my three terms on the board, this has happened with three different groups of leaders. So it’s not personal, it’s institutional. How to fix it? Come back next Monday.

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SPJ is revising its Code of Ethics in a most unethical way.

I’m a three-term member of SPJ’s national board of directors. I recently learned this by accident…

Sometime in the next few weeks (I don’t know when), SPJ will pay up to $11,000 for a group of people (I don’t know how many) to spend several days (I don’t know the number) in Columbus, Ohio.

Those people (who the board of directors didn’t approve) will revise SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics. They’ll work off a first draft (written in secret by unknown authors) and submit their shiny new Code at SPJ’s annual convention in September – where 200 SPJers in attendance (out of 8,000 members) will endorse it in a single meeting at the end of the last day of the convention.

And then the SPJ Code of Ethics will officially change.

As a board member who knew none of this – and never voted on any of it – I complained. (It’s what I do best.)

The reply from SPJ’s senior leaders? Sorry, pal, that’s the way we’ve always done things.

Which is true. SPJ’s rules are literally 100 years old. They predate not only the Internet but also commercial radio.

(SPJ was founded in 1909, before refrigerators and zippers and crossword puzzles and women being allowed to vote.)

So I want to change SPJ’s rules before we change its Code of Ethics. Not surprisingly, SPJ leaders have told me I’m being “melodramatic.” You decide…

SPJ doesn’t want to hear it.

I asked SPJ’s president and his inner circle why the board of directors didn’t get to vote on – and wasn’t even informed of – the $11,000 meeting of the so-called Ethics Committee “working group” we didn’t know about.

The answer: It was a “management decision.”

So who decided that? Apparently, I did.

Without a hint of doubt or irony, and totally on the record, a senior SPJ leader told me I couldn’t complain – because I had approved the organization’s entire fiscal year budget…

“By voting to approve the budget, you lost the right to say the board did not have a say.”

…which, by the way, didn’t contain a line item for this $11,000 meeting. SPJ’s executive director admitted to me, “This wasn’t budgeted.”

But SPJ wasn’t budging. This is happening, SPJ top leaders tell me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So here’s what I’m doing about it…

I’m going to lead a probably futile attempt to convince SPJ’s delegates to oppose whatever this “working group” comes up with in Columbus.

Then I’ll ask those delegates to do two things…

1. Start over again, and do it openly

This $11,000 meeting is just the latest episode in a ridiculously secretive process I graphically illustrated in April. Coincidentally, ONA and SPJ are both working on ethics codes. But they’re going in opposite directions.

2. Vote to let everyone else vote

SPJ’s arcane rules only allow delegates to vote on changes to the Code of Ethics. These delegates are appointed according to century-old bylaws and represent a fraction of SPJ’s membership. Before the Internet and even fax machines, this was the only way to efficiently conduct business. In this century, all SPJ members should vote on a new code.

Times have changed – that’s why SPJ says it wants to update its code. But how silly is it to modernize a Code of Ethics using 100-year-old rules?

Email me if you want to join my quest or complain about it.

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Schick hits the fan

Sam Olens

If only they were all this quick and easy.

Yesterday, I wrote about Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general, who was picking on a University of Georgia journalism student named David Schick.

I described how Olens was demanding Schick erase four pages of very public records from his personal blog. Last week, Olens filed a motion with a judge to force the 28-year-old to comply.

Yesterday, Olens withdrew that motion.

Why? Who knows.

I’d like to think it had something to do with SPJers posting those same public records on their own blogs in protest. Not ony did I do that, but so did SPJ President Dave Cuillier.

At least one attorney is convinced SPJ had something to do with it.

“Whenever there’s a blogger whose rights are being threatened, SPJ is the first to ride to the rescue,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “There’s no question this needless intimidation tactic would have dragged on for many more weeks without SPJ’s timely intervention. The attorney general’s office thought they could push around one little student blogger, but they didn’t realize they were taking on an entire profession.”

As for Schick, he’s happy yet confused: “I’m very glad the Attorney General’s office withdrew their motion, but I still don’t know the reason why.”

He concludes…

It’d be great if the AG’s office withdrew the motion because they realized it was legally unsupportable in the first place. But if they just withdrew it because they now realize — in the age of the Internet — it would be impossible to track down everyone who might already have republished this material, that’s less encouraging.

I disgaree with Schick. I doubt Sam Olens jumped out of bed yesterday morning and blurted, “My God, what have I done?!” before rushing to work and withdrawing his motion. He’s an elected official who saw some bad publicity barreling towards him, so he smartly got out of the way. I find that very encouraging.

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Schick vs. hick

Sam OlensWant to enrage this guy in Georgia? Copy 21 pages of public records to your own website.

Somewhere in those pages are four that so offend Georgia’s Attorney General, he’s demanding a college journalist erase them from his personal blog. Last week, he asked a judge to force the kid to do it.

So what does Attorney General Sam Olens fear the public will learn? NSA snooping secrets? Benghazi scandal evidence? The recipe for Coca-Cola? (Coke is based in downtown Atlanta.)

“The four pages of documents,” says the motion Olens’ office filed last Wednesday, “contain the names of a number of individuals who applied for the position of president at one of the Board of Regents’ colleges or universities. None of these individuals was selected as a finalist for the position for which they applied.”

That’s right, Olens doesn’t want you to know the names of people who applied for a job and didn’t get it.

Perhaps Olens wants to spare those fine folks the embarrassment of everyone knowing they were passed over. Then again, they were outed only on an obscure blog written by a University of Georgia journalism student named David Schick.

So how did Schick get those names? Simple. He asked for them.

Olens’ motion contends Georgia officials “improperly” released those names, buried in 700 pages of public records Schick had been requesting for nearly a year.

Frank LoMonte

Want to enrage this attorney in Washington, DC? Whisper “Sam Olens” in his ear.

“It’s outrageous that Attorney General Sam Olens apparently doesn’t understand basic principles of First Amendment law that have been set in concrete for decades,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“The Supreme Court has said again and again and again that journalists have an absolute right to publish information they obtain without breaking the law, and no court can order them to stop the presses – much less the more drastic step of ‘unpublishing’ something distributed months earlier.”

What angers LoMonte is the triviality of it all.

“States have been conducting college presidential searches in the open for many, many years,” he says. “The idea that there’s some privacy right in being a candidate for college president that overrides the First Amendment is frankly nutty.”

LoMonte concludes, “Courts can’t stop a journalist even from publishing leaked classified documents or the names of rape victims, and the evaluation of candidates for college president looks like pretty small beans next to those. I’m certain that the judge will laugh this motion right out of his courtroom.”

Davd Schick

Want to assist David Schick? Annoy Sam Olens.

Click the image below to view 21 pages of public records from Schick’s original 700-page request (more on that in a minute). Then post them on your own website and tell Olens about it. I just did…

Mr. Olens: I heard about your office’s motion to compel a college journalist to remove four pages of public records from his website. Since the motion didn’t specify exactly which pages those were, and since David Schick and his attorney won’t tell me – it’s “pending litigation,” after all – I’ve discovered 21 pages that qualify. Since I’m reasonably sure the four pages that offend you are among them, I’m posting the 21-page PDF to my blog and asking others to do the same with their blogs. 

The reasoning here is simple.

If many others post the PDF, the judge will likely conclude it makes no sense to grant Olens’ motion. Because as often happens in these cases, Olens’ heavy-handed tactics have made those public records even more public.

So what did Schick want with 700 pages of records? I wrote about Schick last year, when he was investigating a $16 million budget shortfall at Georgia Perimeter College – where he went to school, and where his newspaper adviser was laid off due to budget cuts.

Obviously, administrators weren’t keen on Schick’s digging, and they stymied him at every turn. As I wrote last April…

First, the school charged him $2,963 to forward him emails. When he got a volunteer lawyer who threatened to sue, the price tag was knocked down to $291. But then administrators printed out each email and then re-scanned them – which meant Schick couldn’t search them for keywords.  

Undaunted, Schick secured a pro bono attorney in Atlanta-based Daniel Levitas and sued the Georgia Board of Regents for “failing to produce public records.” After a 2 1/2-day trial in April, Schick and Levitas are awaiting the judge’s verdict.

How long will that take?

“I have no way of knowing,” Levitas says. “There may be a decision very soon or there may not be a decision for many months. Following the trial, we’ve received no instruction from the judge.”

That might seem like the wheels of justice grinding exceedingly slow, but Levitas says it was a speedy trial that the judge “rocket-docketed.”

He also doesn’t know when the judge will rule on Olens’ motion. But Schick, who now attends the University of Georgia and is president of the school’s SPJ/ONA chapter, is more patient than most journalists. In fact, he says this experience has emboldened him to become an attorney himself.

He already speaks like one. I asked him what he could say, given that we have no idea when the “pending” will end on the case and the motion. He replied via email with this lawyerly statement…

This is a rather extraordinary motion and raises profound First Amendment concerns of prior restraint and government censorship. Time and time again, the right of journalists to publish controversial and even classified government documents has been supported by the courts. The ability to publish controversial information — even information that allegedly jeopardizes the supposed “privacy rights” of individuals — is a cornerstone of press freedom in our democracy.

He concluded like this: “I look forward to responding further in the proper forum — in court by and through my attorney.”

When Schick passes the bar, I got to keep him on speed dial. Because I might want to hire him to represent me someday.

Make Olens mad

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Can’t wait till Dave’s dead

dave cuillier legal offense fund

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