SPJ in the COVID-19 Age

SPJ remains in COVID-19 mode, along with the rest of the world.

But even in lockdown, with staff and board members mostly working from home, we’re focused on serving members:

  • We’ve hosted two online discussions with the next one tomorrow. If your schedule allows, please join SPJ Executive Director John Shertzer and IRE Executive Director Doug Haddix, with a panel of four health reporting pros, at 2 p.m. ET for “Fact-Checking Coronavirus Stories.”
  • We launched the Collegiate Coronavirus Coverage contest, attracting nearly 500 entries from about 160 news organizations in our first two weeks. If you’re a student or work with students covering the story, we’d love to have your entries. It’s free with a weekly 11:59 p.m. Friday deadline.
  • We’ve released results of seven of our regions’ Mark of Excellence competitions. With 11 of our 12 regional conferences canceled, we are missing in-person celebrations of our students – but are happy to share news of their MOE wins with the world.
  • We’re accepting nominations for most of our big national member awards (among others) through this coming Monday.
  • We’re continuing to feed the special COVID-19 front page on spj.org – with dozens of helpful resources. Of note: a full, frequently updated calendar of online seminars related to virus coverage; our  “Journalist’s Toolbox” page with dozens of resources to enrich your reporting; and a jobs page if you are on the hunt for a new position.
  • We’re staying on top of dramatic and disheartening changes in the industry – mostly via our Twitter feed and the weekly SPJ Leads newsletter – as news orgs close or cut jobs from coast to coast. This Poynter Institute update is crushing to read, but important to know.
  • We’re tracking conversations about what might be ahead for journalism – with renewed interest in the possibility of government funding.
  • Soon, we’ll join other pro-press groups and launch an initiative for members to help members who are finding themselves under- or unemployed because of the pandemic.

At present, your boards (SPJ and its foundation) are prepping for their April 18 online meetings. Both will be livestreamed with a link coming soon on our board meetings page. The foundation board will meet 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET, with the SPJ board following, 3-6 p.m. We’ll get out the agendas, with supporting documentation, next week at this time. The SPJ meeting will include time for public comment and questions.

Among our topics: good news on SPJ’s database needs; less good news on the financial  front as we continue to grapple with a deficit position in our operating budget.

The boards will also talk about two of our largest annual priorities – the awards dinner for our annual Sigma Delta Chi competition in June, and the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, set for Sept. 10-12. Both are still on the calendar. But as with everything in this COVID-19 climate, it’s hard to predict the near-term future.

We’ll let you know, of course, if those plans change.

Wishing you and yours good health and fortune in these most unsettling of times.


SPJ, COVID-19 & you

Dear SPJ Friends:

As COVID-19 has disrupted your work and personal lives, it’s interrupted SPJ’s world too.

The Seattle Times has been on top of COVID-19 news for weeks and weeks.

As you’ve learned from headquarters in recent days:

  • Eleven of our 12 regions have postponed or canceled spring conferences, with the final one scheduled for fall.
  • The SPJ board and the board of our foundation will conduct a virtual spring meeting, instead of its usual in-person meeting in Indianapolis.
  • Our staff members – like most of us — are now working remotely from home.
  • At this writing, we are hoping we can go forward with two of our signature events, both in Washington, D.C. — the awards dinner for our annual Sigma Delta Chi competition in June, and the annual Excellence in Journalism conference, set for Sept. 10-12. We’ll let you know ASAP should those plans change.

I write today to first offer my thanks.

As an SPJ lifer, I know how much time and effort it takes to produce big events. So I know how disappointing it is to cancel or delay them – and very much appreciate that you made those hard but appropriate decisions.

I’m writing today, too, in hopes that you’ll do what you can to stay engaged with SPJ.

Among the possibilities:

  • Check out spj.org’s “Journalist’s Toolbox” page, with lots of great resources for your coverage of coronavirus news. Thanks to fellow board member Mike Reilley for continuing to update the site with relevant links.
  • Take advantage of other spj.org resources, including
    • a special COVID-19 page, with more updates to come.
    • our FOIA page, with ways to keep fighting for access as you report during what is, after all, Sunshine Week!
    • our ethics page, for reminders about the ethical implications of your coverage and a link to our ethics hotline for real-time answers to your questions.
    • our Leak Seeker project, if you are working with nervous sources.
  • Stay on top of national coronavirus news from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Host an online meeting that features journalists in your community – and how they are covering this critical and fast-moving story while staying safe.
  • Stay abreast of – and share with me and SPJ HQ – any anti-press activity in your markets. Today, we issued a statement condemning China’s effort to oust The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. We also signed on to a letter urging governments to maintain transparency, even as many entities move their proceedings online. (Here’s hoping other agencies DON’T follow the lead of the FBI in limiting FOIA requests.)
  • Visit some of our peer organizations for online training and tips:
  • Finally, take advantage of a generous offer from Region 3 Coordinator Michael Koretzky to teach you how to meet via the Zoom video-conferencing platform. He’s offering free, one-on-one tutoring to the first 10 small and student chapter leaders who reach out. You can reach him at michael@koretzky.com.

I’m proud to stand with SPJ and its members at a time when so many of you are at the frontlines of bringing important, accurate COVID-19 updates to your communities.

I hope you’ll connect with each other – and with me, too, to let me know how SPJ can be of help.

We need you in 2020

2020 promises to be productive for SPJ.

It’s a new year, with a new(ish) board, a new executive director and new energy for new (and old!) tasks.

But as in all things SPJ, we’ll need your help to make the most of the year ahead.

Most pressing, at this date: Ideas for our annual Big Show – the Excellence in Journalism conference.

As you likely know, EIJ2020 is set for Sept. 10-12 in Washington, D.C. The hotel is long booked (the Hilton at 1919 Connecticut Ave. N.W.); the website is up (but, of course, mostly empty); staff and volunteers (both at SPJ and our partner group, RTDNA) are already at work.

Now – we need great programming to fill three days.

That’s where you come in. Between now and the Jan. 26 deadline – that’s this coming Sunday night! – we need a flood of great program ideas. What kind of workshop (usually, half days) would make you and your friends in journalism sign up? What kind of one-hour breakout session would help you in your day-to-day life? What speaker would knock your socks off? What, in short, would it take to get you to Washington? That’s the kind of idea we’d love you to propose. If you can make it happen – that is, serve as producer of your own idea, lining up guests/experts as needed, great! If you just want to suggest the idea and leave the production work to someone else, we’ll take that too!

Check out the tips on the Call for Programs page – and send in your best ideas! (Questions? Be in touch with me or anyone else on the EIJ2020 Programming Committee: Matt Hall, AmyJo Brown, Mike Reilley, Daisy Contreras or Dee Ann Divis.)

What else is on the near-term horizon for SPJ leaders?

  • Ten folks, with staff support, are hard at work on the Strategic Planning Task Force. President-Elect Matt Hall, who is chairing that effort, is aiming to put recommendations before the full board during our April meeting. Joining that effort is me, Mike Reilley, Yvette Walker, April Bethea, Kimberly Chin, Victor Hernandez, Alex Tarquinio and Taylor Mirfendereski. You can get up to speed on the Task Force page.
  • Another nine SPJers have returned to the topic of EIJ sponsors, as the EIJ Sponsorship Task Force. Task Force Chair Nerissa Young, SPJ adviser at Ohio University, has moved that group along quickly, with a draft of its recommendations now in the works. You’ll see that soon, thanks to the efforts of Young, Matt Hall, Rob Elder, Joel Bellman, Colin DeVries, Andy Schotz, Becky Tallent, Maria Ortiz-Briones and Rebecca David.
  • Our Membership Committee, with Colin DeVries as chair, is working on two projects with HQ, soon to be announced.
  • Most of our 12 regions will have spring conferences, with planning well underway. You’ll find what you need about those on our SPJ Regional Coordinators page.

Finally, you’ll hear more about most of those initiatives during Board of Directors meetings this year. Please consider this your invitation to sit in and share your input during regular public comment periods.

The first meeting of the year will be Saturday, Feb. 1, noon to 3 p.m. ET, with the agenda going up soon on the SPJ.org “documentation” page. Please count on joining us online, via the Zoom conferencing site.

After that, we’ll meet in person April 17-19 in Indianapolis; and June 27, in Washington, D.C., the day after the annual SDX Awards event there.

Each of the meetings will be streamed live, with recordings posted on the SPJ site after the fact.

There’s much work ahead for 2020 — and we’d be happy to have any help you might offer.

Who doesn’t need a deadline?

I’ve been out of the newsroom longer than I was in it.

But I still need deadlines to get anything done.

Grades for the classes I teach? In – the day they are due. Travel plans? Completed, just before ticket prices rise. B-days, holidays, anniversaries? Strictly, just-in-time execution.

Assuming SPJ members likewise live by deadlines, here are some to add to your 2020 calendar now:

EIJ2020 invades D.C. in September.

Excellence in Journalism 2020. — Washington, D.C., in September?!? Why wouldn’t you want to be there? Planning, a year-round endeavor, is already underway for a great EIJ. Bookmark the site and watch as it fills with everything you’ll need to be up to speed. A key date: Ideas for super sessions, workshops and breakout sessions are due Jan. 19. All ideas are welcome – but remember the best ones win. We expect more than 150 pitches and take about a third of those. For best results, make sure your proposal is on-point and lively, and your guests confirmed. Questions? Review all the ins and outs on the Call for Programs page.

Mark of Excellence 2019. — Collegiate journalists, time to get busy! Pull together links to your best work of 2019 – whether for college news orgs or off-campus internships – and enter before midnight on Jan. 14. If selected as a finalist or first-place winner, you’ll be honored at your regional conference. First-place finishers then have a chance for national recognition. Tip I’ve shared before, that bears repeating: Ask your school to pay for entries. Students at my university – Miami of Ohio – began winning once we found a way to cover one entry per student.

EIJ News. — Another deadline for students. Dying to get to EIJ in DC? Short of funds? Apply for EIJ News, the site that covers all the action at the conference. If selected, you attend for free. Applications for the 10 EIJ News internships open April 1 and close at midnight May 24.

Sigma Delta Chi Awards. — SPJ’s most-prestigious annual contest for professional work opened Nov. 25 and closes at 4 p.m. on Feb. 18. The SDX Awards, which date back to 1932, recognize the best of the best in print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online work and research. Winners – many of whom pick up Pulitzers and other prominent awards for their work – are recognized in June at one of my very favorite annual events. What could be more thrilling than feting a room full of journalists at the top of their game at the National Press Club in DC? Not much.

Year-end gift giving. You knew this was coming! No time like the present to give SPJ a year-end present. You’ll find four options on our giving page.

Want more? Review our other opportunities and fill your 2020 calendar with SPJ deadlines. Then join me in resolving to get ahead of deadlines in the coming year – and enter early and often!

Happy Holidays and Happy 2020 to all.

Welcoming our new ED

Welcome, John Shertzer!

Yes, OK, that’s a little early, as our new executive director’s first day in the office won’t be until Dec. 2.

But forgive me if I’m overly excited about this big hire for SPJ.

If you read the press release we put out last Friday, you already know a few key facts about John.

He’s currently the founding executive director of a group called Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council, a student advisory group to Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett. The mayor tapped John for the job last year, recruiting him from Indy-based Kiwanis International. At Kiwanis, the international service group, John was ED of Kiwanis Youth Programs for seven years, and head of its Key Club International youth service arm.

John has also been a consultant and trainer for non-profits, a VP with the North American Interfraternity Conference, with time on two college campuses in leadership and residence life management. 

On the volunteer side, he puts in time for a K-5 charter school in Indianapolis he co-founded; serves as commissioner of the Zionsville Little League, where he and his family live; and serves on the board of his local Kiwanis club.

And yes, in case you missed it, he earned a BS in mass communication at Miami University, where I’ve been on faculty since 1998. (And no, I’d never met him before!) John also earned a master’s from Iowa State.

‘Right ED for right now’

In announcing his hiring last week, I called John “the right executive director for what SPJ needs right now.”

By which I mean:

  • He’s got solid ED credentials: At Kiwanis, he oversaw a budget of $6 million, a staff of 15 and a large cadre of boards and volunteer groups. In his current gig, he built the mayor’s group from the ground up, securing funding from Indianapolis’ Lilly Endowment.
  • He values journalism: As a mass comm major, John considered a career in broadcasting until campus leadership positions pulled him in that direction. He calls himself a news junkie. Asked for a comment for our press release he offered this: “The mission of SPJ to perpetuate a free press has never been more important.”
  • He’s a strong communicator: Throughout the interview process, he offered plentiful evidence of the kind of elevated verbal and written skill SPJ needs in an ED.
  • He knows membership: Throughout his career, John has worked with members of all ages, with particularly relevant engagement with younger members. I think we can all agree that is something SPJ sorely needs.

Search process

As you likely know, our last ED resigned in April. Very quickly, the board decided to bring on a search firm to help us move forward. By late spring, we hired Talbott Talent of Indianapolis to lead the search and provide assessment services. By June 1, we had a Search Committee from SPJ leadership. The assessment of HQ operations began very shortly thereafter. On the search side, Talbott then surveyed the staff and members of the SPJ board and its foundation board to create a job description. We officially kicked off the search at the beginning of August.

Between then and the end of October – with a little pause for EIJ19 in San Antonio! — Talbott put the job in front of about 300 candidates; conducted an initial screening interview with 95 candidates; a second interview with 70; and a third interview with 15. Of those, the Search Committee conducted online interviews with three candidates. We interviewed two finalists twice more — once online and once in person. After the in-person interviews, the Search Committee voted 6-0 to recommend John to the full board. (The committee included seven members, but one could not attend the in-person interviews.) John’s Nov. 3 call with the full board was his ninth conversation with us. 

Back in June, the 2018-19 board voted for three candidates to be interviewed by the full board. On Oct. 19 the newly seated board reversed that decision, 7-2, with at-large members Lauren Bartlett and Mike Reilley casting the dissenting votes. On Nov. 3, the vote to offer John a contract was also 7-2, with the same split. Lauren and Mike made clear that they objected to the process, not the candidate. 

Concerns raised

Lauren considered the hiring process flawed:

“There is no way for SPJ board members to know if we truly had the best candidates for the position because the board only was given information about one candidate. 

I still believe the right process is the one the previous board approved – having the board interview three finalist candidates via videoconference. While the search committee and outside consultant played important roles, it is the responsibility of the Society’s board of directors, which hires the executive director, to have direct involvement in the process to ensure we have the best possible executive director to help us lead the Society.

I also want to be crystal clear that my comments are about the process, not the person who we hired as executive director.”

Mike took a similar stance when he explained his vote of Nov. 3:

“The nay vote is not a reflection on the candidate. The person may very well turn out to be a fine executive director and will be great to work with. But we’ll never know if this is the best candidate because the search committee failed to follow protocol and bring the board to three candidates required by the motion passed by the SPJ board earlier this year.

Shame on you all for failing to do your jobs and putting the SPJ board in this position.” 

Some chapter leaders share Lauren and Mike’s concerns. More than a dozen – in leadership positions with chapters in Chicago, Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, San Antonio and Western Washington  – shared this note:

“The long-awaited announcement of what looks to be an effective and energetic leader to join our organization should also be a springboard to fix once and for all a breakdown in process on the board. Now that we have a leader who looks like he can take our organization to the next level and help restore its trust among members, we can turn our attention to internal processes. Long before any particular person was considered to become the next executive director, the board made what a group of local chapter boards and their leaders believes to be one of a series of missteps. Instead of the board adhering to the search process they agreed to just months earlier, the board over the objections of two members decided to not allow the entire board to get key details about the search process. 

We nonetheless have confidence that our new leader is going to do us all proud. And that John is the right candidate. We look forward to working with him and helping him in any possible way. We think that this board and future boards can better support John and the organization as a whole when they default to transparency and good process.”

Note of thanks

For the record, I support the process we employed to hire John. I believe it was robust and thorough. So while I understand and appreciate that not everyone agrees, I absolutely think we made a great hire – and could not be any more thrilled to be heading toward 2020 with John in place at 3909 N. Meridian.

Finally, sincere thanks to members of the Search Committee; members of the board; and our search consultants for their work. Heartfelt thanks, too, to our staff for keeping us moving forward through a challenging year. And thanks most especially to John Shertzer for accepting our offer to lead SPJ.


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