SPJ’s inside baseball: a hit!

Star ranking systems.

Annual report requirements.

Inactive chapters vs. deactivated chapters.

If you don’t know what any of this means, you haven’t served on SPJ’s national board of directors. I have – twice. And even with a year in between my terms, these same boring topics have been discussed to death both times.

SPJ is obsessed with its own inside baseball. I realize every organization – especially one as large and as old (and yes, as lovable) as SPJ – needs to handle its mundane logistics. But SPJ tends to debate this stuff without truly resolving it.

It’s no one’s fault, really. It just sorta happens with a 23-member board. But now I can proudly report: One officer is fixing one problem, and that might show SPJ how to hit others out of the park.

The pros and contests

If you’ve ever organized an SPJ chapter’s contest, you know the agony of buying the easiest/cheapest software and recruiting the fastest/bestest judges. But SPJ’s secretary-treasurer has devised a way to lessen the pain.

Dana Neuts personally interviewed executives at three companies that sell software for contests. She tried to negotiate package deals, which didn’t work this year but might next. (I don’t know Neuts very well, but she strikes me as stubborn in all the right ways.)

More importantly – and more successfully – she’s created a centralized, organized system for finding contest judges. The old way was for each chapter hosting a contest to beg other chapters to swap entries – because you certainly can’t judge your own stuff.

But that led to all kinds of disasters. I’m the past president of SPJ South Florida, and I remember a few years ago when some other chapters judged nothing we sent them. And they wouldn’t return our calls or emails, either. (No names, but you know who you are.)

If you’ve suffered through the same thing, join Neuts for a free webinar at noon EST on Thursday, Dec. 20. She’ll explain how the judging swap works, give you a plain-English rundown of the software that’s out there, and answer your contest-related questions.

Neuts is nuts

So why am I shilling for Neuts? Because I’m helping her any way I can and she wants. I like Neuts for two reasons…

First, she doesn’t just ponder problems, she attacks them.

Second, we got in a big fight a few months ago.

Neuts was upset about my coverage of this summer’s controversy at the University of Georgia student newspaper. She publicly accused me of insulting SPJ’s president. (Peruse the post under this one to see what I mean.)

So we talked, found common ground on some stuff, agreed to disagree on other stuff, and kept working on her contest plans.

(Even after the blog posts about him, that SPJ president showed up at an annual program I help organize called Will Write For Food – and he worked his ass off.)

To me, those are the ingredients SPJ should be cooking with – strong arguments, thick skins, and real work. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing more hypocritical than a thin-skinned journalist. So Neuts and the SPJ president she accused me of disrespecting are currently the two SPJ leaders I respect the most.

Whether that’s philosophically consistent or psychologically unhinged, I leave it for you to decide.

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  • MeganEspinal

    “So why do the actual community newspapers not understand this? Probably
    because many of them let their readers dictate their every move.
    Newspapers should be leaders in their communities, not followers. If
    they build digitally, the readers will come.”

    For a ‘lowly communications coordinator,’ you’re already able to see one of the key reasons so many publications are struggling, something many with far more experience are still failing to grasp.

    And if I were you, I would own being a millennial. The stereotypes exist, yes, but we’re not all so similarly molded. You can’t change the perception if you aren’t willing to be an example of someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Just a tip from an early (1986) fellow millennial. :)

  • AndySchotz

    Not sure if this link will be readable, but I wrote a Quill column about suicide coverage that has a different approach. Not that reporting on suicide shouldn’t be sensitive, but we shouldn’t automatically start with an assumption that it’s taboo, even when private citizens are involved.


    Doesn’t an accidental death in a home have an assumption of privacy, too? Why not tell journalists to tread lightly in those cases, too?

    The taboo is based on an outdated societal belief that there is, and should be, shame attached to suicide and it shouldn’t be discussed. Actually, it’s a serious mental health issue in this country and should be discussed often – tastefully.

    The question about reporting on specific details of Robin Williams’ death is another matter. The New York City tabloids and their ilk are always going to run roughshod on ethics; they thrive on pandering to lurid curiosity.

    The addition to the code has the opposite effect, inadvertently affirming the tabloids’ decisions. It makes it sound as if all bets are off when reporting on the death of a public person or public place. I would strike it.

  • Ryan Horns

    After 16 years in journalism, I’ve dealt with the suicide coverage many many times and it never gets easier. It’s a bit lengthy, but here is a column I wrote about it recently:

    “Sense and sensitivity”
    by Ryan Horns

    In the course of almost 20 years spent as a journalist, I can definitely say I have helped a lot of businesses and organizations make a lot of money. I’ve also helped highlight a lot of amazing people, heroes and idealists.
    Similarly, I’ve probably ticked off a bunch of people at times as well. Maybe I put your drunk driving charge in the police beat and you lost your job. Maybe I didn’t write about your granddaughter. Maybe I wrote about someone else’s granddaughter. Maybe I questioned a decision you made or covered your court case. Maybe I spelled your name wrong once and you’ve cursed my name ever since.
    I’m comfortable with this because I know I’m just the messenger. People sometimes make bad decisions. Those decisions put them in the newspaper, not me.
    Over the past month, however, I’ve learned without a doubt that writing about suicides is the single most sensitive topic a journalist can cover. This has bothered me.
    After being told off by a girl in the Journal-Tribune offices last week, the fact truly hit home.
    When investigators determined January’s house fire arson was a suicide attempt, I reported the story. That prompted the girl’s visit to the newspaper office: How I could write what I did? Why couldn’t I bury the story on page two? Why did it have to be on the front page? Why do I care more about selling newspapers than the feelings of the family? Why couldn’t I hold the story for an extended period of time so the family could properly mourn?
    Of course, I also admired the guts it took for her to stomp down to my office and confront a guy more than twice her age. She meant business.
    The only stammering answer we could give in the newsroom was that we are journalists. Good or bad, we “journal” what happens in the community every single day. When a house burns and countless firefighters and emergency responders go inside and put their own lives in danger to save someone, it becomes news. Whether I like writing about it or not doesn’t matter.
    Some media outlets pride themselves on only reporting good news. I understand the desire, but I don’t see how that is a service to the community. Newspapers must deal with reality and facts. This past month I’ve written about fatal car crashes, ice storms, groundbreaking ceremonies, a canine service dog helping a handicapped boy, veterans being honored, snow rolls and thieves. This is our story as Union County, the good and the bad.
    We are all merely humans; just as capable of being heroic as we are admitting defeat. The role of journalism is not to help a community avoid dealing with reality. It is about helping them learn to understand it.
    Then, I started noticing how many suicide attempts there were over the past two weeks. Almost two-dozen Union County people tried to take their own lives in the first half of February alone. Why isn’t anyone talking about that?
    Meanwhile, I was trying to write an article about Marysville resident Amanda Stidam as she trains for her annual Suicide Sucks marathon run to raise funds for suicide awareness. Stidam lost her own mother to suicide, and feels the more people talk about the reality of suicide, the greater chance society has to get people the help they need and save more lives.
    In full disclosure, during the early 1990s, I lost a family friend to suicide and wondered what I could have done to prevent it. After years spent getting to know such an interesting person, all I have left is a Bob Dylan record he gave me once.
    The irony of the situation is that while I was getting yelled at for bringing attention to a suicide; local agencies were simultaneously asking me to write about suicide awareness. It seemed clear that a gray area needed addressed.
    During last week’s Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) meeting, I decided to find out. In a room full of people affected by suicide at one point in their lives, I asked how a journalist could realistically write about it without offending anyone. One member asked what news purpose there is to writing about a suicide. Another suggested I treat the story as if I were writing about my own mother.
    I pointed out that I don’t typically write about suicide attempts, and rarely print the names of the victims – unless they burn down a house, or shoot guns, or drive their cars into ponds, or generally involve the entire community. Some people kill themselves to get attention; others quietly want a way out.
    Honestly, I wish I wrote more often about suicide victims. Maybe I should do feature stories about every single one, what led them to take their own lives and then ask their family and friends to comment.
    When it comes down to it, it’s not my job to uphold this myth that suicide doesn’t exist. Especially not when 20 people have tried to kill themselves over the past month in our community. These are our friends and neighbors. We can pull the wool over our eyes and pretend these deaths aren’t happening, or we can raise awareness, provide the help and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    -Ryan Horns is a reporter for the Journal-Tribune

  • AndySchotz

    Good column. Very thoughtful.

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