Dear SPJ Member:
If you took the time to read my memo regarding SPJ’s future, then you were among select company. It was made available to membership as part of the board materials for the April 26 SPJ Board of Directors meeting.
I’m not offended if you missed it. With 7,500 members, it’s impossible to ensure that every member receives all of our communication. Besides, many SPJ members don’t have an interest in the Society’s governance or internal issues.
But as a member of SPJ, it’s important you have an opportunity to help steer the Society.
I hope you will take the time to read the following post and share your comments below.
This is as good of a time as any to point out that the board supports the vision I outlined in the memo, as do most Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board members and several past SPJ leaders. I should also point out that the ideas in this memo aren’t mine alone. They are a culmination of comments, conversations and ideas I have heard from various SPJ leaders, members and fellow journalists over the years. I merely pulled them together.
In August, I was asked by SPJ leadership to provide my vision of where SPJ should be in 50 years. As the Executive Director, it’s my job to have one eye (if not both) on the road ahead. Truth be told, I’ve been evaluating SPJ’s role in journalism and democracy since I was hired as Quill editor in December 2004.
But it wasn’t until I became Executive Director in 2009 that my vision for SPJ began to clear a bit. This is a result of having the opportunity to listen to SPJ members, think big picture, study trends, listen to association experts and meet regularly with other journalism organization leaders.
This brought me to a few overriding – if unpleasant – realizations:
- During the past 20 years, SPJ has focused too much on internal matters and not enough on journalism.
- There isn’t a single group in the United States that is effectively serving the watchdog/advocacy role on behalf of the profession.
- SPJ will likely not survive as a membership association – as we define membership today.
For the purposes of this post , I am going to focus mainly on items 1 and 2. For more detailed explanation of No. 3, you can read the full memo.
I should say that I don’t see SPJ dying any time soon. We could remain on course and be just fine for the next couple of decades. But 50 years from now, if it remains on its current path, I believe SPJ will be non-existent (or most certainly irrelevant).
More importantly, if the media landscape (as it relates to democracy) doesn’t change for the better, I question if the work of journalists will make a difference.
In August, leaders asked me to evaluate “what is SPJ’s role in journalism?” The broad answer is simple: To be a leader in the industry on all fronts – advocacy, training, membership, etc.
But the more I pondered, I realized the question wasn’t broad enough.
SPJ doesn’t want to just improve journalism. Our mission is based on the belief that SPJ will strive to improve and protect democracy. We do that through journalism.
So, the real question is: How can SPJ most positively affect and protect democracy through journalism?
TOGETHER WE FIGHT
Since 1909, we have felt the best way to achieve this goal is through individual members. The more journalists that are exposed to our mission, the greater likelihood we would be successful in improving and protecting journalism.
For the first 75 years of SPJ, it was probably a decent approach. It works fairly well when the majority of U.S. journalists are in your ranks – as was the case up until the 1950s or 60s. It probably still works well if you have 15,000-20,000 members. But today, no single journalism association in the U.S. has this many members. SPJ is the largest with 7,500.
Speaking of journalism associations, today there are about 60 in the United States. Nearly all are dedicated to a niche, whether it’s a beat, ethnic group, medium, etc. These groups focus primarily on their members and their narrowly focused missions, as they should. The downside, however, is that no membership association is effectively championing the causes for ALL journalists in the United States.
Journalists and the associations that support them have become fragmented. We have lost our collective voice on issues that are important to journalism and democracy: open records, open meetings, ethics and diversifying news coverage are just some examples. The list is long, and it grows by the day.
Someone must stand up and take on the role of organizing that collective voice. Someone must be keeping an eye on the big picture. I think that someone is SPJ.
Nobody is better suited for this mission. SPJ has a track record when it comes to journalism advocacy. Being a 501(c)6, we have the legal standing to lobby for legislation (many journalism associations are limited by their 501(c)3 status). We have a staff capable of managing the workload that will be required.
In my journalism utopia, SPJ carries the advocacy torch on behalf of all associations. We work to bring everyone together on all fronts, including cross pollination of training and networking. Meanwhile, our peer groups double down on what they do best: providing resources and training to their respective interest groups.
With all groups focusing on their areas of expertise, and SPJ serving a role to keep us all connected, we stand a greater chance of making a meaningful impact.
The question is, are other groups interested and willing?
THE EVOLUTION HAS STARTED
The answer is a resounding “yes.” I meet regularly with executive directors of other associations, and a good chuck of our conversation centers around ways to partner. We all have the same goal: maximizing our strengths while not duplicating efforts. We often ask “how can we work together to make journalism better?”
To that end, we will host a summit of leaders from various journalism associations at EIJ14. The goal is to find common ground and discover ways to work together. We want to form partnerships that don’t yet exist. Credit for this idea goes to Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editor’s Society. Her work in pulling this together speaks to the desire we all have in maximizing our collective strength.
You have probably noticed that SPJ already partners with other associations. The most obvious example is the Excellence in Journalism conference, put on jointly by SPJ and the Radio Television Digital News Association. In 2013, we welcomed the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to EIJ in Anaheim. We will do so again in 2015.
But most of you probably don’t know that SPJ also has a business agreement with both groups outside of the conference.
SPJ serves as the back-office bookkeeping firm for both RTDNA and NAHJ. We also manage NAHJ’s membership. We do this for two reasons:
1. Because we charge rates below industry standard, our partnership provides significant savings for NAHJ and RTDNA. This allows them to focus more resources on the programs and services they offer their members. Translation: more money going toward improving journalism – not association management.
2. It is an extra unrestricted revenue stream for SPJ. This provides additional money that can be used for lobbying and advocacy. Why is unrestricted revenue important? Because money that comes from donors and grants must be used for a specific purpose, e.g. usually educational programming or scholarships. Unrestricted revenue can be used for any purpose.
In a nutshell, these partnerships are a key cog that will allow SPJ to take on more of the advocacy responsibility. That’s why SPJ is taking steps now to become a unifying force. We are doing this a few different ways, all of which were discussed during the April meeting:
- HIRING A COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGIST: In an effort to up our game in the advocacy realm, and to help bring other groups together, we have created a new staff position. This person will develop and implement an overall strategy for the Society’s communication efforts. In particular, this person will be proactive regarding journalism advocacy and our role in the profession and democracy.
- ADVOCACY ENDOWMENT: President David Cuillier is working to create an endowed war chest that can be used to fund SPJ’s advocacy efforts long after we are all dead. It won’t be easy, because as a 501(c)6, contributions to SPJ aren’t tax deductible. But we march forward undeterred. SPJ must work to ensure we will always have the money to fight for press freedoms.
- SPJ/SIGMA DELTA CHI RELATIONSHIP: Many members don’t know the SDX Foundation exists. It’s the charitable/educational arm of SPJ. It grants thousands of dollars every year to support SPJ’s training efforts. Work is under way to streamline our operations. In the short-term, it means almost nothing to members. But the idea is to let the Foundation manage all of SPJ’s training programs instead of simply issuing grants. This would allow SPJ to focus more keenly on advocacy. With each group having a clear direction, the plan is we will divide responsibilities for maximum results. Moving forward, each will operate in a more entrepreneurial spirit, instead of the status quo.
- ETHICS CODE REVISION: Don’t misunderstand advocacy to mean only “government” activities. I strongly believe that SPJ must be more involved in advocating for better journalism among those producing it. And we must do a better job of explaining why credible journalism is important to the general public. In my opinion, SPJ’s Code of Ethics is one of the best tools available to do both. We must be more vocal in calling out journalism that ignores ethical standards, which can further erode the credible work thousands do every day. Furthermore, if the public better understands the difference between credible journalism and “media,” then democracy is better served.
These are just some examples of the steps SPJ is taking to reposition itself as a meaningful voice in journalism and advocacy. Moving forward, SPJ will take on more projects. We will develop more partnerships. We will evolve as necessary to accomplish our goals.
All of this will be done with one question in mind: How can SPJ most positively affect and protect democracy through journalism?
Thanks for reading,
SPJ Executive Director