Old excuses for new name

I’ve mentioned five reasons to change SPJ’s name. Here are five excuses not to.

1. It’ll cost too much.

2. It won’t lure new members and will scare off existing ones.

3. That’ll dilute our commitment to journalism.

4. It’ll be PR/branding nightmare.

5. Even contemplating a name change will devolve into a bloody battle, pitting SPJ brother against SPJ sister.

I’ve heard all these concerns since I proposed changing our name to the Society for Professional Journalism. So last week, I asked Mike Cavender about them.


Another journalism group has already been through this, and it has zero regrets.

Mike Cavender is executive director of RTDNA – which stands for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

But four years ago, it was RTNDA – the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Cavender, who had previously served as chairman of the RTNDA board, helped lead the name change.

Here’s how it went…

1. It didn’t cost a lot.

Cavender concedes, “You got everything from stationery to the website that’s gotta be changed.” But those don’t consume a lot of calories and cash.

(Indeed, SPJ webmaster Bill O’Keefe told me last week that updating the website “wouldn’t really cost anything.” He said, “Barring any rude surprises or unexplained phenomena, it would take a day of combing all our sites and networks for every instance of the name and switching out the ones that apply.”)

The big expense is legally changing the name, from IRS documents to the Articles of Incorporation. So Cavender just didn’t do it.

Instead, he used a DBA. That’s short for doing business as.

“We’re the Radio and Television News Directors Association dba RTDNA,” he says. “Many companies out there are DBAs, and their real corporate names are totally different. You just never see it. It’s totally acceptable and totally legal.”

And totally easy and totally cheap.

2. It may have boosted membership – or maybe not.

Cavender says the name change kicked off a new mission…

“We have become, over the last few years, far more inclusive in terms of members who are reporters and multimedia journalists. Did our name change have anything to do with that? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ve been able to communicate that we’re more inclusive.”

Has RTDNA lost members because of the name change? No. Cavender says some old-timers still aren’t pleased – “anybody who’s been there for awhile might not get used to the new name” – but they haven’t fled in a huff, either.

3. It changed the membership, not the leadership.

One question I’ve heard several times…

What if hundreds of non-journalists join SPJ and nominate one of their own for  president? They’ll take over the organization!

To which I say: Outstanding!

The past four SPJ presidents have run unopposed. In fact, since 2008, only a handful of races have been contested – and there are 23 positions.

If “non-journalists” run for office and so offend the journalists, then perhaps the latter will start voting. The last national election three weeks ago turned out less than 700 of SPJ’s 7,800 members – and the voting was online.

So I question SPJ’s commitment now.

But if anyone frets SPJ’s board will be seized in a bloodless coup, consider RTDNA’s board. It’s been four years since it expanded beyond TV and radio directors to everyone in those fields, plus digital journalists.

Yet the RTDNA chairman, chairwoman-elect, past chairman, treasurer,  secretary, and its nine regional directors are all still directors, managers, or even vice presidents. So no coup there.

4. It helped the PR and branding.

Recalls Cavender…

Five years ago, we began to look at the rise in digital journalism, which was pretty young at that time. But clearly, that was where the electronic media was going to gain strength. We wanted to be perceived as an organization that represented all electronic media –not just TV and radio.

So how’d it go? Cavender says the new name was perfect PR: “I would absolutely do it again.”

For SPJ, I fail to see how a similar discussion reflects poorly on our goals of an ethical and free press. After all, I’m not proposing we rename ourselves the Society for Pedophilia Jokes.

5. It didn’t descend into open warfare.

But it wasn’t a walk in the park, either.

“I recall board meetings that were very much contentious,” Cavender says. “We probably considered this issue for the better part of a year before we were able to make a sufficient case.”

The final vote “was convincing but not unanimous.” Still, there were no lingering animosities, and Cavender says everyone got over themselves pretty quick.

Many SPJ old-timers recall the 1988 fight that got us the name we have now. Back then, it was SPJ-SDX, and before that, just Sigma Delta Chi. (SPJ started as an all-white, all-male fraternity.)

Of course, that was the pre-Internet era, when it was hard as hell to scrutinize an issue in advance. As RTDNA learned, you can muse online and defuse emotions.

I’m hoping SPJ will learn from RTDNA’s experience and follow its path. Alas, I’m skeptical because…

SPJ moves with all the speed and grace of an oil tanker executing a three-point turn.

On Aug. 26, SPJ’s delegates ordered the board of directors to discuss a name change.

The next morning, SPJ president Dave Cuillier announced he’d appoint a task force to study it.

But as of today, still no task force. How long does it take to task such a force? When does a task force become a tardy force?

All I know for sure is that I’m on this force. Cuillier emailed me Sept. 6 to confirm it. Maybe he’s just having a hard time finding anyone to serve on the damn thing when they learn I’m already on it.

Still, if RTDNA can change its name within a year, SPJ should be able to do the same. So damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.

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  • Andy Schotz

    People concerned about the costs want to know more than 1) offers. What do you consider low in calories and cash? Everything that says the old name would have to be discarded. What is the HQ inventory of swag, banners, clothing, etc.? What do the chapters have? I guess it’s up to our soon-to-be task force to try to tackle those numbers…

    Under 2., perhaps we won’t lose members. But isn’t gaining members supposed to be the appeal?
    Regardless, I don’t think the RTDNA switch was meant to broadly swing open the doors for that group like Michael’s proposal does. If we are the “Society for Professional Journalism,” and we’re now inviting anyone who supports journalism – i.e., I love to read the newspaper everyday during breakfast – that’s much more sweeping than clarifying that you don’t have to carry the title “news director” to be part of the broadcast business.

    I’m with you on 3., kind of. I wouldn’t expect a flood of new people to come in and take over the national board, when the current pool of candidates year to year is relatively small.
    But… could, say, a radio personality of national renown urge millions of followers to join en masse and try to lead SPJ in a different direction? Probably just fanciful paranoia, right? (until it happens…)

    You’re right, in 4., that the name doesn’t create a distasteful new brand.
    On the other hand, would we be correcting a flaw in the current brand?
    If, as you have vividly pointed out, groups such as NOW and NAACP are not exclusive in the ways their names might suggest, why can’t it stand that SPJ is not just for “Professional Journalists”? (Because it isn’t.) Can’t the public simply deal with that? (It does.)

  • I am an independent journalist and member of the SPJ Western Wash Pro chapter. Often I find myself referring to SPJ in an email, an application or other correspondence where I am writing out the full name of the organization. Inevitably, I’m searching for my membership card or going back to the website to confirm: is it the Society “for” or the Society “of”?

    As a journalist who covers press freedom around the world, I’m making the case that we all, not only journalists, must defend the profession because freedom of the press is an extension of freedom of expression, of speech, of religion, assembly — the First Amendment, which everyone has a stake in.

    We journalists do not own journalism. It’s a public profession, like firefighting, that serves the community. Unfortunately, issues related to how journalists are treated are often only of interest to fellow journos.

    As a college educator, I believe we need to encourage a younger generation to care about journalism whether or not they actually choose the profession full-time. Buy/subscribe to local news, participate in civic discussions, attend city council meetings and follow issues related to your right to speak freely.

    How journalists as individuals and journalism as a whole are treated in our society is a barometer of how we as a culture view our freedoms — to speak out, to challenge, to act as whistleblowers and to express ourselves.

    I think it’s a good idea to explore the name change, costs, pros/cons, etc. I’m in favor of including members who are non-journalists to show their support for the profession. Of course, I’d prefer to see working journalists in SPJ’s leadership roles, but if non-journalists are running for these positions, what does it say about the strength of the profession? Maybe we need mutual aid and support from the sidelines?

    Thank you for this discussion.

  • Victoria Reitano, Chairman of SPJ GenJ

    I agree with you 1000% about changing the name. I would love to be part of an organization that not only helps journalists (and those, like me who, despite their official professional titles, still think of themselves as journalists) meet other journalists but also fights for what that group as a whole thinks of as journalism. Journalism isn’t just writing stories anymore…and really, it was never about the “inches” you wrote or the photos you filed…it’s about standing on the sidelines of history, taking events and distilling them down into something digestible. About staying with viewers/readers through good times and bad…about reassuring people that tomorrow will be a better day no matter what happened today. We’ve lost that. We’ve gotten caught up in metrics, in being “famous” in scandals…in paying for stories. Journalism needs to have a renaissance, in my opinion. We need to keep pushing limits instead of being afraid of them — and if the organization that represents journalism/journalists is afraid, what hope do we have?

  • Jacqueline Jordan

    I have been a member for 20 years. I have a few questions. What about the bylaws? Would we have to change those in order to admit non-journalists? I belong to a nonprofit composed of 36th Division veterans and soldiers currently serving in the Texas National Guard. For many years, we have allowed associate (non-voting) members. Would the leadership of SPJ consider admitting non-journalists as associate members? Some organizations lend themselves to broadening their membership bases. Some do not. I am just asking that the leadership consider the possible ramifications of a name/policy change.

  • MK — Thanks for the Mouth. Makes interesting reading and pointed to some things of which I had lost track. Locally, have not heard thing one about SPJ for a long time, and if something is active it must be buried on the University of Nevada-Reno campus. My J-school head was a “newspaper only” type and it drive him nuts when I interned at our local then-McClatchy radio station. Of course, I then went daily newspaper, then corporate internal. And as we said then, “stay tuned.” — Len

  • Andy Schotz

    Victoria, I think SPJ currently serves the function you suggested. I don’t think a name change will affect that.

    Jacqueline, SPJ already allows non-journalists to be associate members if they “don’t qualify for the above [referring to the categories of professional, retired, lifetime, household, post grad and college student] but support SPJ’s mission.”

    However, associate members don’t have the same rights as full members. Here’s what SPJ’s bylaws say:
    Section Nine. Associates shall not vote, hold national or chapter office, be delegates to the national convention, nor be counted in determining the voting strength of a chapter as defined under Article Ten, Section Three.

  • Andy — SPJ may serve that function but I don’t feel that as a member. I think we’re getting bogged down in discussion when we should be taking action.

  • Colin DeVries

    It seems like RTDNA has had few problems with their name change, and that’s encouraging.

    Still, I have a few reservations:

    As a professional journalist, I wanted to join an organization made up of other professional journalists. And I love being part of SPJ and on the board of my local chapter, the Deadline Club. If there is an influx of non-journalists, my worry is that that could change the mission of the organization. And I’m not sure I would still want to be part of an organization that does not support my desire for camaraderie, skills development and networking.

    On that “influx of non-journalists,” I’m not even sure that would happen. Before anyone signs up with an organization and writes a dues check, they usually wonder about the benefits. And if our organization continues to shrink year over year, it could be that the benefits we are offering our current members are not enough to retain them much less bring on new members.

    We should spend our energy on looking into new member benefits that not only retain CURRENT members but grow. Perhaps the best thing is to create a task force (I can hear Michael groaning already) on growing membership that will investigate new benefits, particularly to our independent journalists, which, I understand, are a growing part of our organization.

    One popular benefit other organizations geared toward independent journalists have offered is health care. I’m sure it’s complex and a ton of work, but it may be worth at least exploring the options and costs. Perhaps we should look at the Freelancers Union and the Editorial Freelancers Association to find out what makes it work for them. I’m not sure if EFA has been that successful in offering their limited benefits, but the Freelancers Union has turned into quite an enterprise.

    We should be looking at ways to enhance benefits for our current members before exploring a name change designed to draw people who may not be interested in joining anyway.

    Also, the Quill must never change.

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  • Jenn Mackay

    The proposed name change seems so minor. It doesn’t seem like it serves much of a purpose. We’ll all keep just keep calling it the wrong name for years to come.

  • Dana Gower

    How about Sigma Delta Chi? The Sigma Delta Chi Awards and Sigma Delta Chi Foundation still exist, do they not? If so, the name is known. Why worry about professional journalists or non-professional journalists or professional or non-professional non-journalists when the organization could simply once again honor its roots?

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