SPJ Renaissance

Having found ourselves at a crossroads, with the recent departure of our executive director, the national leadership of the Society of Professional Journalists debated the most promising way forward. After due consideration, we have committed to the pathway that we believe leads to the brightest future.

As I reported to members in this column last week, the Society’s national board of directors unanimously approved a plan in our June 1 meeting that prepares for both the executive search and the transition period. (See the June 5 ‘Freedom of the Prez’ column for the plan in detail.) Our vote was contingent on approval by the Foundation because the two boards share the expenses and oversight of our headquarters in Indianapolis. At the time, the Foundation’s president was out of the country. I am glad to report that the Foundation’s president has since decided that a vote by his board is unnecessary because we will be working within our budget. A detailed analysis by our financial controller shows that the cost of hiring a consultant will largely be covered by the savings of not paying for a full-time executive director over the summer.

Pending a review of the contract by our lawyer, we hope to have a signed agreement by early next week. As soon as the electronic ink is dry, so to speak, we will announce the name of the consultant in the SPJ news section of our website.

Firstly, we are taking a different approach to the executive director search than in the past, when an all-volunteer committee performed the time-consuming task of screening the applicants. This time around, we are hiring an executive search consultant, more commonly known as a “headhunter.” They will be conducting a nationwide search to recruit promising candidates with backgrounds in the nonprofit sphere. Simultaneously, we will inform our members and other journalists of this opportunity. Candidates who have been recruited and those who step forward themselves will receive equal consideration in the application process. The consultant will then vet the applicants and create a highly-qualified pool of candidates for the search committee to consider.

One of the consultant’s initial steps will be to conduct two separate surveys—one of our employees and another of both boards—in order to form a better conception of the ideal candidate to lead our dedicated staff at HQ. Only the consultant will see the full responses. The search committee will see the consultant’s conclusions but will not have access to the original survey responses, thus guaranteeing complete anonymity.

As I announced last week, Hagit Limor will chair the Executive Director Search Committee, which includes the top leaders of both boards. As well as being a past national president of SPJ and the current vice president of the Foundation, Hagit served on the last two search committees, including chairing the committee that selected our previous long-serving executive director who led HQ until 2017. Once the consultant has lined up the top candidates for our consideration, Hagit will lead the committee meetings and draft the final report for the SPJ board’s approval. The consultants will remain with us as advisers throughout the interviewing process, right up until we sign a contract with our new executive director.

Secondly, the same firm will be hired to perform a necessary on-site assessment of our needs at HQ. The consultant will be there two days a week over the summer and will give us a head’s up if there are any pressing issues that cannot wait until we have a new executive director in the corner office. This consultant is a human resources specialist who will serve as a part-time chief operating officer, helping to smooth the work flow during the transition. Her role will largely be operational, whereas the staff will continue to reach out to me with questions about programs. Having an HR expert on site this summer will be key to making sure we are all hitting our marks as we approach the Excellence in Journalism conference.

It is my fervent wish for the Society’s board of directors to select our next executive director in time for EIJ. I always like to leave every organization on a better footing than I found it. Although the search committee will aim for that goal, which would be next to impossible without hiring a consultant, it is still an aggressive timeline.

Once I hand over the gavel in San Antonio, my work here will be ended. It will be up to the next national president and board of directors to manage HQ if we do not yet have a full-time executive director. Until that instant when I pass the gavel, I will remain focused on supporting the staff during this complex transition so they can keep executing on our programs and serving our members. The oath of office that I took in Baltimore demands nothing less.

— 30 —


Executive Director Transition Plan

I am pleased to report that the SPJ national board of directors unanimously approved a plan for the executive director transition that I presented in our June 1 board meeting. The plan includes hiring an outside search firm to work with the Executive Director Search Committee and a consultant to work on an organizational assessment, which among other things, will aid the new executive director.

Naturally, hiring an outside consultant will result in a higher cost than doing the search entirely on our own. However, a financial analysis shows that much of this cost will be offset by not having to pay salary and benefits to a full-time executive director for several months.

These consultancy fees will need to be shared by the Society and the Foundation. The next step is for SPJ Foundation President Irwin Gratz to present the plan to his board. I reached him by phone while he was on vacation, and he approved of the memo below. He plans to present the plan to his board upon his return.

The original memo, which was discussed in executive session, has been edited to remove confidential details about contract proposals, salary and other human resources information. The names of specific consultants who submitted proposals have also been removed. We will announce a consultant once one has been hired. Nothing has been added to the memo below that was not in the original memo approved by the board.

 

From: J. Alex Tarquinio, SPJ National President

To: SPJ Board of Directors

Re: Executive Director Transition Plan

Date: May 31, 2019

This report provides the following:

A) An overview of the leadership transition process if consultancy services are retained;

B) a recap of the evaluation of the firms examined, including one recommendation for an organizational management consultant for the interim, and two options for executive director search consultants;

C) a financial analysis of the project; [Not Included in Freedom of the Prez]

D) personal recommendations;

E) work proposals from the consulting firms. [Not Included in Freedom of the Prez]

A)

An Overview of the Recommended Executive Director Search Process

The circumstances leading to this executive director transition and the immediate and long-term needs of the staff and the organization should lead the board to adjust its approach.

The core of this search process, however, will remain the same. This has been clearly identified in Bylaws and policy, namely: “The Presidents of SPJ and the SDX Foundation shall appoint an equal number of members to a search committee.  The SPJ President shall appoint one additional member to serve as committee chairman with voting privileges. The committee will forward a list of one or more candidates it deems qualified, from which the SPJ Board of Directors will vote to hire the Executive Director. The SPJ Board of Directors shall immediately notify the SDX Foundation of its decision.”

Irwin and I were in touch about this before his departure, and I am pleased to announce the Executive Director Search Committee at this time. Irwin has appointed himself, Dr. Battinto L. Batts Jr. and Michael Bolden. I have appointed myself, Patti and Matt. Finally, I have invited Hagit to chair the committee.

In every SPJ executive director search in recent memory, the Executive Director Search Committee has completed the task without the benefit of an outside search consultant. The primary costs included flying in candidates and the committee members for interviews in Indianapolis and a background check of criminal and credit records for the finalist only. While this approach is economical, it is not generally considered among a nonprofit board’s best practices.

After a great deal of study, guided by an ad hoc transition committee, I recommend that the board approve funding for both an organizational assessment and a retained executive director search firm. (Find my specific recommendations at the report’s conclusion.)

An Overview of the Recommended Interim Plan

An ad hoc transition committee with leaders from both boards—which included the six members of the SPJ executive committee, plus Irwin and Hagit—met on May 13. It expressed a strong preference for hiring a consultant to perform an organizational assessment that would benefit the new executive director. They also advised having the management consultant work part time from our headquarters to provide a level of staff oversight and guidance during the interim. This would obviously raise the cost of the study but would be dramatically less expensive than hiring a full-time professional interim executive director.

Under this plan, the management consultant will work in the office on Mondays and Wednesdays. The consultant and I chose these days because they coincide with the days that Jake is on site, and because the weekly staff meetings have been held on Wednesday mornings and we felt it would be best for staff morale to continue familiar routines during the transition.

The consultant plans to meet regularly with the staff while simultaneously developing a long-term organizational assessment that will be completed by EIJ. This assessment will focus on three critical areas: human resources, financial operations and technology. We identified these as most in need of both immediate support during the transition and long-term improvement. The consultant is a human resources expert who will look at work flow, capabilities and communication. The financial assessment will look at current operations and recommend best practices both during the transition and once we have a new executive director. Finally, the consultant has advised clients on implementing new CMS software for HR departments, so although she has not worked with NAME OF SOFTWARE, which has its own support services, she is familiar with best practices for transitioning to a new CMS. (See attached proposal from NAME OF CONSULTANT.)

Additionally, the consultant would be a troubleshooter. She would communicate with me weekly and perhaps more often if she discovers issues that she feels require swift action. Linda will still be the go-to staff member in terms of HR questions. If the staff has top-level questions about programming, they will continue to come to me. I have also told the staff I will be visiting the office more frequently over the summer. (As an aside, it is my hope that my next swing through Indy will be to introduce the new consultant to the staff!)

Recap of the Evaluation Process and Recommendations

1)

Organizational Management Assessment (part-time on-site)

One Recommendation: NAME OF CONSULTANT

Patti laid the groundwork for the May 13 meeting by speaking with three management consultancy firms for half an hour each about their rates for three distinct services: an interim executive director, an organizational management assessment and an executive director search.

First, the ad hoc committee discussed the fact that we had no budget for an external ad interim executive director, which came in at a weekly rate of $3,500 to $6,000 (an annualized cost of $182,000 to $312,000). It should be noted this cost would only provide an interim director on site and would not include an organizational assessment. Additionally, the staff had clearly expressed a strong preference for not hiring an outsider to manage them during the transition. Therefore, the ad hoc committee unanimously agreed to continue as we had done since the executive director’s departure. I informed the staff of this decision two days later, during the weekly staff meeting, and Linda explained it succinctly. She told them she would keep the lights on, and if they had programming questions, they should ask Alex. I will also continue to receive regular reports from the staff that will inform the Weekly Reports.

Although the ad hoc committee found the cost of an interim executive director prohibitive, they did think it might be wise to have a management consultant spend two days a week in the office to support the staff and alert me to any unknown issues. Ultimately, the consultant would be working on a report that the ad hoc committee felt was key to SPJ’s long-term success.

Based on Patti’s initial research, we had identified our top two choices, both local Indianapolis firms recommended by our auditor. Patti’s third call was to a consultant in NAME OF STATE. Patti described a general lack of enthusiasm, “as if they were taking the call mostly because NAME OF PERSON asked them to.” We also felt there were advantages to working with a local firm.

I had multiple hour-long phone calls with each of the two Indianapolis firms to describe the project in detail. When I told them about the hybrid role of providing two days of oversight plus a consultancy report, one firm was interested: NAME OF FIRM. The second, NAME OF FIRM, said this would not play to their strengths, but recommended another local consultant. In a phone call with the referral, the owner struck me as disinterested and said she would talk with her associates to determine their capacity. Ultimately, she decided not to submit a work proposal.

In short, only one of the firms canvassed was interested in this hybrid project, but fortunately, it is a terrific fit. The firm was recommended by our long-time auditor. Indeed, NAME OF PERSON, NAME OF FIRM’s owner, used to work for the auditor and participated in an SPJ audit about five years ago. She will oversee the project, and her background in finance complements the HR background of NAME OF PERSON, her colleague who will be on site. Their office is only a few minutes from our headquarters so it will be easy for her to work from our office two days a week while keeping in touch with her colleague. I believe they will blend in nicely with our staff culture. Even better, they are familiar with SPJ and our mission, and excited to work with us.

When I visited headquarters on Wednesday, I informed the staff that the board was considering hiring a management consultant to do an organizational assessment and to work in the office two days a week. This was my first opportunity to discuss the interim plan with them since the staff meeting two weeks before and I emphasized that it would require budget approval by both boards. I then met off site with the two NAME OF FIRM consultants for 2.5 hours to discuss the project so they can prepare a project plan if budget is approved. I have since followed up with NAME OF PERSON by phone to discuss the proposal she sent late Thursday night.

 

2)

Executive Search Service

Two Options:

  • Full-service Retained Search: NAME OF FIRM
  • Discounted Facilitated Search: NAME OF FIRM

The ad hoc committee did not reach a consensus about hiring an executive director search service, with some members worrying about the cost while others thought the main benefit would be speeding up the search. The last executive director search required six months, with additional time for a background check and relocation. Both firms listed below said the Sept. 5 board meeting was an ambitious goal, and although it may be possible, they would not commit to a project end date. It should be noted, however, the likelihood of meeting that goal by EIJ without a search firm is almost nil.

Below are brief descriptions of the work plans for both firms who submitted work proposals.

NAME OF FIRM

NAME OF FIRM will only perform a full-service “retained” executive search. This means we would retain the firm on a 100-day exclusive agreement, which may be renewed if we have not yet hired a candidate. NAME OF FIRM would work with the Executive Director Search Committee to draft the new job description, including developing surveys for the staff and board to gauge their goals. Based on this input, as well as information from the simultaneous organizational assessment, they would develop the candidate pool by contacting strong candidates at national nonprofits who may not be currently looking for a new job and pre-interviewing them to gauge their potential interest in the opening. They would not passively publish job board ads, although we would be welcome to do so if we so desired, and of course we would notify our members and use our social media to promote the opening. These candidates would receive the same screening as recruited candidates. Finally, they would guide the Executive Director Search Committee through a series of interviews with the finalists.

NAME OF FIRM

The owner of this firm described it as “more of an alternative to the board doing it themselves rather than a traditional search firm.” NAME OF FIRM would perform a locally-sourced “facilitated” search, contacting nonprofit leaders in the Indianapolis region and telling them about the opening. They would not conduct a national search or do the same level of pre-screening of potential candidates. They would screen the submissions from SPJ networks or job board postings. They would work with the search committee during the interview process but would not “build the candidate pool” in the traditional sense.

C)

Project Financial Analysis

The financial analysis of our cost savings was provided by Jake, who as our CPA, believes this plan to be a wise investment of our funds.

First, Jake says both the Society and the Foundation have the assets to fund a robust executive director transition plan. The Society has around $850,000 in a rainy-day fund, and the Foundation has assets of around $12 million.

Furthermore, he points out, there will be considerable cost savings while we are not paying a full-time executive director.

A DETAILED FINANCIAL ANALYSIS OF THE RECENT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SALARY AND BENEFITS AND THE SAVINGS OVER A PERIOD OF TIME HAS BEEN REMOVED, AS HAS A DETAILED ANALYSIS OF TWO BIDS: OPTION ONE FOR THE ASSESSMENT AND RETAINED SEARCH BY THE SAME FIRM, AND OPTION TWO FOR THE ASSESSMENT BY ONE FIRM AND FACILITATED SEARCH BY ANOTHER. THE FIRST OPTION WAS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.

D)

Personal Recommendations

My strong recommendation would be hiring NAME OF FIRM to perform both services. This plan would immediately provide the support the staff needs during the transition, while ultimately setting the new executive director up for a higher likelihood of success. Furthermore, retaining the same firm for both services would lead to synergies because the consultants may discover issues during the assessment that informs their candidate pool recruitment.

I do not recommend the second option. However, if the boards decline to fund the full project, my secondary choice would be hiring NAME OF FIRM for the assessment and NAME OF FIRM for the facilitated search. I believe the first option is more likely to secure the best possible candidate.

I strongly advise against foregoing either of these services.

Respectfully submitted,

J. Alex Tarquinio

SPJ National President

— 30 —


Witnessing the testimony of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée

Seven months after Jamal Khashoggi was brutally slain inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, his fiancée traveled to the United States for the first time to testify before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for Human Rights.

 

Hatice Cengiz, center, ahead of testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights. Also pictured are Joel Simon, executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists, Sarah Repucci, senior director of Freedom House, and Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighar reporter for Radio Free Asia.

 

At this May 16 hearing, Hatice Cengiz called on the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia to investigate the case and bring the perpetrators to justice. As Congressmembers pointed out during the testimony, the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the killing.

In emotional testimony, Cengiz called on Congressmembers to live up to the country’s historical role as a model of press freedom and to pressure Saudi Arabia to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“I cannot understand that the world has not done anything about this,” she said through a Turkish translator. “We still don’t know why he was killed. We don’t know where his corpse is.”

She described how the late Washington Post columnist would tell her about the beauty of Washington, D.C., saying she would not miss Turkey when they moved there after their wedding. Cengiz was the last person to see Khashoggi before he entered the Saudi consulate to get paperwork required for their marriage.

Cengiz described Khashoggi’s admiration for the American values of freedom of expression.

“The reason why Jamal came to the U.S. was because people like him were in jail in Saudi Arabia, and here he could be their voice,” she said. “It wasn’t only Jamal who was killed, it was the American values we are discussing here today.”

 

Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus. We discussed press freedom after the testimony.

 

I traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to watch the two-hour testimony about the dangers of reporting on human rights. The high-level session also included Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sarah Repucci, senior director of Freedom House, and Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighar reporter for Radio Free Asia.

The Society of Professional Journalists has joined press freedom groups from around the world in pressuring Washington, and in particular, the Trump administration, to demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice. In October 2018, I wrote an open letter to the White House on behalf of SPJ urging it to insist on a full and transparent independent investigation.

The world, and Cengiz, are still waiting.

–30–


Speech at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on World Press Freedom Day

These remarks were delivered at the start of a panel at the United Nations on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2019. Watch the panel. My remarks begin at the 1:20 mark.

This followed the Society of Professional Journalists media nonprofit summit a week earlier, known as Quo Vadis Democracy in an Age of Digital Disinformation.

 

Pictured from left to right, Ricardo de Guimarães Pinto, liaison officer for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Warren Hogue, senior adviser for external relations at the International Peace Institute and a former New York Times foreign correspondent, Meredith Broussard, associate director of the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Moderator Emanuele Sapienza, global policy specialist for civil engagement at the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at the United Nations Development Program, Stephen Adler, Editor-in-Chief of Thomson Reuters, and me.

 

Remarks at the United Nations on May 3, 2019

Thank you, Maher, and I’d like to extend my especial thanks to Ricardo for giving me this awesome privilege to represent my organization, the Society of Professional Journalists, here at the United Nations. It is an honor to be able to speak alongside such highly esteemed journalists. I had to pinch myself to make certain that I am actually speaking between Stephen Adler and Warren Hogue.

I also want to thank UNESCO for weaving together press freedom and electoral integrity into a timely theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day.

Although this is a global event addressing the challenges that disinformation poses to the core democratic values of press freedom and electoral transparency, an issue that has emerged again and again, from Brazil to India, it strikes me as appropriate that we’re meeting today here in New York.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which concluded with an all New Yorker finale, put the institutions that defend democracies worldwide on high alert.

To be sure, there was already no shortage of electoral threats, from unintentionally flawed ballots – think of the hand recount in Florida in 2000 – to outright forms of coercion.

Likewise, on the many long campaign trails, not a few politicians over the years have repeated half-truths and outright falsehoods in the hope that the election may be won by the time their deceptive campaign messages were debunked.

But in 2016, we woke up to the reality that freedom of expression itself had been weaponized.

The enemies of strong democratic values had learned a new trick. They had turned the power of self-expression on social media platforms — which only five years earlier had helped unleash the natural desire for self-determination in the Arab Spring — into a cloaking device that allowed them to wage a surreptitious influence campaign.

Social media bots generated by troll farms; deceptive political banner ads; and spear-phishing computer hacks coupled with selective leaks became low-cost, highly effective disinformation tools requiring little technological know-how.

Over the last two years, the major platforms have retaliated by employing internal checks, automated by algorithms, alongside small armies of human content moderators to try to combat the malicious trolls spreading deliberate disinformation. However, we know very little about these defensive maneuvers because the platforms are controlled by private companies not subject to the strictures of public entities obeying guidelines of transparency and accountability.

The organization that I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, held a summit last weekend to discuss this nefarious synergy between anti-democratic forces and digital disinformation. More than 30 press freedom groups convened in New York to hear experts on cyber security and digital disinformation dissect what had happened in 2016, much of which has now been verified by the Mueller report, and more terrifyingly, what might occur as the opponents of democracy become more technologically sophisticated.

For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, described how hackers might in the future break into electoral systems to alter the voting rolls in such a subtle manner that voters may not realize why they are being turned away at the polls. She pointed to a line in the Mueller report briefly mentioning that the electoral systems in Florida were breached in the 2016 election.

Of course, this scenario involves a higher degree of technological sophistication than Internet trolling and goes well beyond the type of online misinformation that the press can correct in real time. Government agencies and cyber security consultants will need to ensure that electoral systems are protected against such cyber threats and this seems to have been the case in the 2018 congressional elections. But henceforward journalists covering elections will need to be more vigilant, and particularly more tech savvy, than ever before in order to observe potential voting system threats and by doing so preserve the democratic process.

Deliberate disinformation, on the other hand, whether spread by state or non-state actors with the intent of skewing an election, may have an even more insidious purpose. Another one of our summit speakers, Laura Rosenberger, now the director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, was the foreign policy adviser for Hilary Clinton’s campaign. She pointed out that when the trolls began to operate, there was no emergent Republican candidate. The real goal, she asserted, was undermining public faith in democratic institutions.

At this time, we’re being asked to put our faith in algorithms to solve this crisis. These same algorithms failed to block one in five of the videos of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. The numbers are staggering. Users tried to upload one and a half million videos after the shooter livestreamed his attack. Although most were blocked before they could be uploaded, some 300,000 of these videos got through this cyber security net.

Another serious concern is the increasing sophistication of so-called “deep fakes,” digital audio, video and still images that are hyper-realistic forgeries that blur the lines between fact and fiction.

This battle against disinformation and deep fakes is likely to rage for some time, as each defensive measure is countered by new technological advances on the other side, making it akin to an arms race we’re already only too familiar with.

As someone who represents other journalists, I ask what measures can journalists effectively take to counter this potential tsunami of digital disinformation as elections come into the forefront of the news?

Firstly, more than a dozen of the press groups that gathered for last weekend’s summit drafted a resolution to reaffirm our role as watchdogs. This may sound an obvious statement on World Press Freedom Day, but we must recommit ourselves to presenting the public with the factual information that it needs to make sound decisions on vital questions, to include electoral decisions.

However, in order for citizens to be well informed, journalists must be free to do their jobs without fear of reprisal, intimidation or threat of physical harm. This is a tall order. We were honored to have Maria Ressa at our summit, where she eloquently advocated for the rights of a free unhindered press before leaving for the Philippines, Duterte and her destiny. She reminded the room full of journalists who are relatively safe within the borders of the United States that staying free sometimes takes genuine courage.

Secondly, our summit resolution encourages journalists to invite the public to become our allies in this fight. We urge the public to help journalists correct mistakes and counter misinformation they find online, whether that information appears to be malicious or simply mistaken.

Finally, we should all hold governments and private platforms to account, pushing them to develop technological and regulatory solutions, but at the same time making sure their actions are more transparent and they remain engaged with the public so that our right to freedom of speech and association are not infringed upon without the people’s consent.

Together, we must tackle this threat to our democracies pro-actively and with the optimism that we can preserve our dearly won freedoms. Journalists here in the United States can be encouraged that our Congressmembers recently submitted a resolution expressing their sense of the, quote: “importance of local print and digital journalism to the continued welfare, transparency, and prosperity of government at every level and the continuation and freedom of the United States as it is known today.”

This is a global problem, and U.S. Congressmembers introduced several bipartisan bills this term recognizing that. For example, The Global Electoral Exchange Act would promote the exchange of electoral best practices internationally, particularly in the areas of cyber security and data transmission.

In conclusion, democracies have collectively tackled worse foes. Arguably, the democratic world faced a far greater threat from fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s. Out of that global conflict emerged the intergovernmental institutions such as the UN, and high moral standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This challenge may require a similar collaborative effort to stand against the forces of disinformation.

Thank you.

–30–


Speech in Seoul about the role of journalists in peace negotiations

Note: At the start of my term, I vowed to post the significant speeches that I made in this space. Well, it’s been a busy couple of months so I am getting caught up. Here’s the remarks that I made at the World Journalists Conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, March 25, 2019. The theme of the conference was Role of the Press for Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and World Peace.

 

 

A Free Press Lights the Way Forward

As the President of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, I am honored to speak to such a distinguished gathering of global journalists. We meet here at a pivotal moment on the Korean peninsula.

Many of you are visiting South Korea for the first time. Those of you who were here at the World Journalists Conference last year will remember the hopeful political climate. We met a week after South and North Korean athletes marched arm-in-arm into the stadium of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

That was such a surprising sight after a nerve-wracking period of North Korean missile and bomb tests, which began with the North conducting its first intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4, 2017, provocatively the same day as the United States celebrated its national Independence Day. Yet more ICBM launches followed, and most alarmingly, the country’s sixth, and most powerful nuclear test, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.

Amid those fearful developments, bellicose taunts were exchanged between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. Who can forget U.S. President Donald Trump calling Kim Jong-Un “little rocket man,” or Kim denouncing him as a “dotard?” Nevertheless, the world was forced to sit up, it could hardly do otherwise, because even though this name-calling was school boyish, the words were backed by nuclear arsenals. Then, just as startling, we journalists from around the world, gathered here last February, heard the announcement that the U.S. president had agreed to a bilateral summit with the North Korean leader. All this augured well for a step forward toward world peace.

Since then, for the past year, close observers of events related to the Korean peninsula have been witnesses to a five-act drama. In the first act, the global press speculated about where, when, and even if, the two men would meet. Then the world was mesmerized by the theatricality of the Singapore summit, which turned more on the personal chemistry of the principals than on the preparations of professional diplomats. In the months of uncertainty following the initial summit, which did not produce much in terms of concrete results, questions emerged about the utility of bilateral negotiations at the highest level. Then came the disappointment of the Hanoi summit, which ended prematurely, without a formal declaration. Finally, satellite images pointed to the rebuilding of test facilities in the North.

As this story played out, journalists have been there every step of the way, documenting not only the words of the principal protagonists, but also the insights of political operatives and policy experts, the history of the Korean peninsula, and public reactions to the high-stakes nuclear negotiations. In short, they have not stinted to report on the hope, the danger, and yes, the occasional absurdity of the situation.

In monitoring these unfolding momentous events it has been refreshing and an inspiration to note how press freedom has improved by leaps and bounds here in South Korea. While you tour the country this week, as I did last year, you’ll see dozens of national and regional newspapers on newsstands. The current government can rightfully boast that it healed a longstanding rift at the public broadcasters, and the country jumped ahead 20 places in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

This renaissance of the free press here, part of a broader trend of growing freedoms in the country since the late 20th century, goes hand-in-glove with the culture of innovation and progress. In the span of a few generations, South Korea has evolved from a poverty-stricken, war-torn land to one of the wealthiest and most vibrant of the global economies, and we Americans are proud to call South Korea our ally — one of our most stalwart.

From the standpoint of the organization I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, a free press is like a beacon that, by radiating the light of truth outward, helps expose to the public gaze even the most sophisticated subterfuges. By contrast, limiting the coverage of negative outcomes darkens the way forward.

Of course, when we talk about concepts such as press freedom and impartiality, we are discussing ideals. These are goals that we, as journalists, must constantly strive toward, rather than destinations to attain. In some countries, there are still many roadblocks along the way. Without a strong judicial framework protecting the free flow of information, governments can cut off access to news outlets and journalists may work at their own peril. In such difficult cases, we need not only journalists dedicated to the highest ethical standards of the profession, but also a legal community in support of freedom of information and of the press.

Journalists are widely perceived as the eyes and ears of the public. They are not diplomats. They do not represent their government, nor do they speak for special interests, such as political parties or social groups with which they may privately identify. When events take a turn for the worse, when summits collapse without results, when there is evidence of retrenchment, they must focus on the events as they unfold.

To be sure, there is more than simply firsthand reporting; there is a legitimate role for opinion journalism. This goal of denuclearization warrants plenty of opinion pieces, but they should be clearly indicated as such. That permits readers and viewers to understand that the selection of facts has been guided by the desire to validate an opinion.

But reporters writing the first draft of history — particularly those covering crucial events such as nuclear disarmament negotiations that so profoundly influence world peace — should render a full and impartial account of events. It is especially important that a free press functioning in an open society behaves responsibly by focusing on the legitimate security concerns of each side; but it should not omit to report on troubling developments. Journalists must report what is done, what is said, and whenever possible, what is unsaid.

To obtain the fullest possible picture of key events like the summits with North Korea, it is important to cover the public reaction. After the Hanoi summit, the Washington Post published an account of the disappointment felt by many South Koreans. One South Korean expert described his fellow citizens as “heartbroken.” A free press provides an impartial chronicle, and in this case, informed Americans of the sentiments of their allies halfway around the world.

With such high stakes, the public has a right to as complete and realistic an account of events as possible. As the Washington Post’s own logo proclaims, “Democracy dies in darkness.” When reporting on nuclear negotiations, this adage may be taken literally as well as figuratively.

A story of the scope and potential impact of the nuclear negotiations on the Korean peninsula is, naturally, of interest in every country around the world. You’ll each produce stories during your time here for your compatriots back home. The greatest contribution that we, as journalists, can make to peace on the Korean peninsula is to report back honestly and fully what we see here.

Thank you.

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The Departure of SPJ’s Executive Director

This is a personal note to members who may have questions regarding this week’s news that Alison Bethel McKenzie has left the Society of Professional Journalists.

First, I wish to reassure everyone concerned that this transition is running smoothly. Naturally, some people have been asking about how this came about. To be clear, Alison submitted a letter to me announcing her departure. After the recent posting on our website with the news, Alison commented publicly that she wished the organization success and plans to remain a member.

As for SPJ’s valued leaders — whether at the regional, chapter, committee or community levels — the national board is keen to reassure you that the SPJ staff will continue to support our members throughout this transition. Each staff member received a personal phone call from either Foundation President Irwin Gratz, Foundation Vice President Hagit Limor, SPJ President-Elect Patti Gallagher Newberry or myself before the news was announced on our website. The staff has been remarkably calm and professional in their actions all week.

In short, SPJ headquarters in Indianapolis is running normally. The office manager, Linda Hall, a 13-year veteran of SPJ HQ, is handling any questions about the day-to-day running of the office, schedules, etc. — as she always has done with her usual aplomb. I’m there for the staff should they need to consult me on any questions that may arise about the programs they manage. We plan to hire an interim executive director in the very short term; however, I have no qualms about the staff keeping to their high standard of work as that person settles in.

Our partners are also responding superbly. Yesterday, I personally contacted each of our partner organizations, i.e. the Radio Television and Digital News Association (RTDNA), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), the American Society of News Editors (ASNE),the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS), Google and Facebook. In many cases, we had conversations of up to half an hour reviewing the current needs of their programs. Similarly, the entire planning committee for this year’s Excellence in Journalism Conference held a meeting to discuss the next steps in detail. The partners were invariably optimistic about future collaboration, and all seemed to appreciate the personal phone call. Several of them offered to help SPJ out in any way they could during our search for a new executive director.

Over the next couple of weeks, our primary goal is to hire an interim executive director to help the staff keep the trains running on time. I will also be appointing an executive director search committee. Irwin has shared his notes with me from the executive director search committee that he chaired last year. We may tweak the process a bit, but of course, the national boards of both the Society and the Foundation will be represented on that committee because the new permanent executive director will work for both. More information about that search committee will be shared as it becomes available.

Finally, this is a particularly auspicious week for SPJ, as well as for journalism. The staff is creating communications and social media planned around both SPJ’s Ethics Week, which Ethics Committee Chair Lynn Walsh is leading, and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Press Freedom Day, which I’ve personally taken charge of. The staff continues to hit the marks we set for these important programs ahead of this eventful week, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. The next time you see one of our hard-working staff — whether at an awards show, training program or our annual conference — please share with them how much you appreciate their efforts.

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Sunshine Week begins early this year

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual rite of spring for media nonprofits. As the days lengthen, we are reminded that the framers of our constitution, among them James Madison, had a vision of government transparency that was a radical break from the world they were born into. Madison, a consummate publicist in an era before his name became associated with that art, first tried to sell the public on the need for federalism in the Federalist Papers. When the Constitution continued to encounter opposition, he proposed the articles that came to be known as the “Bill of Rights.”

Sunshine Week was created by our friends at the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) to coincide with Madison’s birthday on March 16. Since the first Sunshine Week in 2005, the annual celebration of open government has grown to include many partners. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is proud to count ourselves among them.

In advance of Sunshine Week, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill with our friends in the News Media for Open Government, an alliance of news media and journalism organizations that includes SPJ. I joined with alliance members from ASNE, RCFP, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the National Newspaper Association and the News Media Alliance.

Together, we met on Monday with legislative aides for Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, who both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

We discussed the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) portal, the signature achievement of our media coalition: the #FixFOIAby50 campaign. This campaign successfully sought to modernize this crucial tool of government transparency by FOIA’s 50th anniversary on July 4, 2016. The passage of this legislation created a unified portal to act as a clearing house for FOIA requests to government agencies. Now, our goal is to push for the improvement of the portal so that requests are smoothly handled and more swiftly fulfilled. In particular, we want documents that are repeatedly requested to be made public.

We also talked about the Journalist Protection Act, a much-needed new law that would help safeguard the act of newsgathering. This failed to win passage in the last Congressional session, and it is one of our coalition’s top priorities for the current session.

The Journalist Protection Act would amend the federal penal code to make it a crime to assault a journalist on the job. It would punish an individual who knowingly injures a journalist with the intention of intimidation or to impede the act of newsgathering.

Sadly, this law has become necessary in the hostile climate for American reporters that has evolved since the 2016 election. Congressmembers of both houses began talking about reintroducing this legislation in February, after a Trump supporter violently shoved a BBC cameraman filming President Donald Trump giving a speech at a rally in El Paso, Texas.

“This is what happens when a President calls a #FreePress the ‘enemy of the people’ and whips his rallies into a frenzy. Assaults must not be tolerated, and I look forward to re-introducing the #JournalistProtectionAct along with @SenBlumenthal,” California Democratic Congressmember Eric Swalwell wrote on Twitter at the time.

Likewise, we at SPJ, and the other members of the News Media for Open Government, look forward to advocating for this legislation during the 116th U.S. Congress.

World Press Freedom Day

The following day, I went on my own to meet with legislative aides on the other side of the Capitol Building, in the offices of Congressmembers Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican.

I had met with both Congressional aides previously in September. Their bosses co-chair the Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus, which focuses exclusively on threats to press freedom outside of the United States.

Among the occasional statements made by the caucus is an annual resolution in support of the United Nations World Press Freedom Day, marked each year on May 3. This year, we at SPJ plan to celebrate World Press Freedom Day in a big way. (For more about those plans soon, keep an eye on Freedom of the Prez.)

On Tuesday, we chatted about the greatest risks to global press freedom and the need to advocate for journalist safety overseas. Earlier this year, the caucus held a meeting in D.C. spotlighting their demand for a thorough investigation into the death of Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. SPJ will watch for future caucus events and share them with you on our social media.

After these meetings, it was on to the National Press Club, where I met with the newly-installed president, Alison Kodjak. In her day job, she’s an NPR health policy correspondent.

We talked about the Club’s plans for a Night Out for Austin Tice on May 2, a day before World Press Freedom Day, in order to raise awareness about the only American journalist currently being held hostage overseas. Participating restaurants have pledged to donate a portion of their proceeds that evening to a fund that will add to a $1 million reward established by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for information leading to the safe return of Austin Tice.

Tice, an award-winning freelance journalist and veteran U.S. Marine Corps officer, was abducted while covering the civil war in Syria in 2012. Kodjak said one of the most important aspects of the May 2 event is to raise awareness about his captivity.

At the start of Sunshine Week, it’s important to remember the many ways we can advocate for press freedom — whether by striving to improve upon our federal and state freedom of information laws, to protect the act of newsgathering, or to raise awareness of the efforts to intimidate or impede journalists at home or abroad. Pick your cause, then go forth and fight for it.

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EIJ has a new sponsorship policy

As I wrote in this column in the fall, we’ve been hammering out a new sponsorship policy for the annual conference that we co-host with our friends at RTDNA.

Until this month, our Society had effectively been without a written policy since the first Excellence in Journalism conference (EIJ). Although the SPJ national board approved sponsorship policies in 2003 and in 2008, these policies were superseded by the 2010 legal agreement to co-host conferences with RTDNA, which states that both groups must agree on sponsorships.

The new policy, which both group’s national governing boards have now approved, allows media and non-media entities to sponsor sessions or events and to propose session ideas and speakers. However, these sessions will now be required to be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee, which includes elected representatives and staff members of each of the co-hosts of the convention in a given year. As before, the executive directors of each EIJ partner retain the right to refuse or decline contracts from any sponsor, exhibitor or advertiser. But the new rules give the EIJ Planning Committee a formal role and the final word in the review process.

EIJ partners will disclose the new sponsorship policy to potential conference sponsors in sales materials and other appropriate publications or web pages.

Officially, the new policy now agreed to by both partners states:

  • Both media and non-media entities will be allowed to sponsor sessions/events, and to propose session ideas and speakers. Proposals will be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee. Once proposals are accepted, the Committee and its designated producer will assume full responsibility for participants, topics, times, places, etc.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may offer speaking fees for sessions/events they sponsor. SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to provide fees to speakers.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may cover expenses for speakers participating in sessions/events they sponsor. SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to cover speaker expenses.
  • EIJ partners will retain the right of refusal over all sponsors, exhibitors or advertisers, with contracts reviewed by the executive directors of partner groups before accepting.
  • EIJ partners will disclose its policies on sponsorship of sessions/events to potential sponsors in sales materials for EIJs and other appropriate publications or web pages.

As soon as we closed the doors on the last EIJ in Baltimore, I appointed a task force to draft the policy. This task force was chaired by SPJ President-Elect Patti Gallagher Newberry and included high-ranking officers and the executive directors of both conference partners, as well as others with experience in media conference sponsorships. A key goal of their work was to ensure that the EIJ Planning Committee, which I have been a part of for the last two years, was consulted on sponsorships and took the lead on producing any sponsored sessions.

In December, the task force presented the above recommendations to the SPJ national board of directors, which passed it with two amendments. After consultation with RTDNA, the SPJ board elected to drop both amendments at its meeting earlier this month.

One amendment that the board later rejected would have banned the conference organizers from offering honorariums to speakers. In practice, that rarely has happened, as EIJ speakers volunteer their time and expertise, but the conference partners decided to retain the flexibility to consider such payments in the future.

Another amendment at the December meeting that the board later overturned would have banned EIJ sponsors from suggesting participants for sponsored panels or other events. In the past, some events have included participants suggested by sponsors. Both boards agreed to continue that practice, with the additional oversight from the EIJ Planning Committee.

The new sponsorship policy increases transparency and puts firm control of the process in the hands of the EIJ Planning Committee. This is an important step to build on EIJ’s already considerable standing as a leading national journalism conference.

Personally, I’m thrilled that SPJ and RTDNA agreed on a responsible sponsorship policy for the conference that we have hosted as co-equal partners for nearly a decade. This is a huge step in validating our close partnership.

The two groups have collaborated on EIJ every year since 2011. From time to time, they have been joined by other groups, notably, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), which has joined the conference every other year since 2013; while the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) was a welcome addition to EIJ in 2016 and 2017.

This year, EIJ will be co-hosted by SPJ, RTDNA and NAHJ from Sept. 4-8 at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio. For more information and to register, visit www.excellenceinjournalism.org

–30–


Giving the thumbs up to Reuters’ jailed journalists

Giving the thumbs-up gesture in solidarity with Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, jailed in Myanmar one year ago today.

Dec. 12 marks the disgraceful anniversary of the detention of two courageous Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. And if the authorities in Myanmar have their way, they will spend the next six years in jail.

A “thumbs-up” gesture has become a global symbol of solidarity with the pair of Reuters reporters, so today, photos of believers in press freedom giving the familiar gesture along with the hashtag #FreeWaLoneandKyawSoeOo have been circulating on social media.

The journalists were detained last year after reporting on a massacre of Rohingya in a broader effort by the government to suppress the minority group that the United Nations has called a genocide. The result of their reporting: a chilling story filed in February, Massacre in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize-winning leader of the country, has not used her position to defend or pardon the jailed journalists.

The Society of Professional Journalists has advocated on behalf of these brave Reuters reporters, as well as the other journalists who made the four covers of TIME Magazine’s “person of the year.” We sent a letter to the White House demanding that it push for an independent investigation into the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. We released a statement last week urging the Philippine government to drop the politically-motivated charges against news website Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa. And we held a forum about the attack on the Capital Gazette at our annual conference in Baltimore in September.

We will keep advocating on behalf of these courageous journalists until the last one is freed or vindicated.

–30–

 

 

 

 

 


EIJ sponsorship update

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken an important step in the creation of a sponsorship policy for the modern era. As I wrote in this column when we launched the Sponsorship task force this fall, the Society has effectively been without a written policy since the first Excellence in Journalism conference (EIJ). Although the national board approved sponsorship policies in 2003 and in 2008, these policies were superseded by the agreement to co-host conferences with other journalism groups beginning in 2011.

First and foremost, it is important to understand what a sponsorship policy is. It is a set of guidelines for approving sponsors and for what sponsors will be permitted to do. A sponsorship policy must at the outset be impartial. It does not state which particular organizations will or will not be authorized to sponsor an event, but rather, lays the framework so future boards can make decisions on whether or not a prospective sponsor conforms to the proposed organization’s policy on sponsorship.

I decided to create this task force in mid-August, after learning that there were objections to a sponsored program that had not been approved by the EIJ planning committee, a committee which I have been a member of for the past two years. Although our staff had brought other sponsored sessions to the committee’s attention, I discovered that there was no existing rule or policy requiring this. As the Society’s incoming national president, I asked Patti Gallagher Newberry, who was then running unopposed to become our president-elect, to chair a task force to develop a set of standard operating procedures for EIJ sponsorships.

No conference sponsorship policy should ignore or make light of the fact that EIJ is a partnership. Indeed, the spirit of cooperation among the conference co-hosts is the very heart and soul of EIJ. With this intent uppermost, our first step was to invite our longstanding partner, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association (RTDNA), to join the task force.

Since 2011, we have co-hosted our annual conference with RTDNA. Together, we have had the good fortune to also partner with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), who we’ve been pleased to have join us every other year since 2013; while the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) was a welcome addition to EIJ in 2016 and 2017. As nobody can deny, there is strength in numbers, especially in these challenging times for our profession.

High-level leadership from RTDNA participated in our Sponsorship task force review, and later this month, their board intends to consider the recommendations of this task force and the motion approved by our board.

In our most recent board meeting, conducted by video conference on Dec. 1, the SPJ board decided that both media and non-media entities should be allowed to sponsor EIJ sessions or events. However, sponsored sessions will now be required to be vetted by the entire EIJ planning committee, rather than leaving the decision to do so up to the staff. Although the sponsors can indicate which topics they would like to sponsor, they cannot select the speakers. Furthermore, the planning committee, or the producers that it designates, will now take control of producing the sponsored sessions.

As before, the executive directors of each EIJ partner retain the right to refuse or decline contracts from any sponsor, exhibitor or advertiser. But the rules that SPJ’s board approved earlier this month would give the conference planning committee, which includes elected officers and staff from all of the EIJ co-hosts in a given year, a formal role and the final word in the review process.

The next step is to wait to hear from our friends at RTDNA. Their board may decide to adopt or to reject our guidelines. Once the two established EIJ partners have decided how to collaborate on conference sponsorships, we can inform other groups who partner with us on EIJ conferences now and in the future.

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