The last roundup

Below is my column for the July/August 2016 issue of Quill:

This column for Quill is the last one I will write as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. As I take a look back on the year, I see, with great satisfaction, many accomplishments from the work of many people. Here’s a quick rundown:

MEMBERSHIP. In my induction speech last September, I noted that SPJ leadership hadn’t looked at membership in about 10 years. Virtually every professional association has had issues and declines in membership, especially since the 2008 recession. SPJ was not alone or immune.

We convened two different meetings, one in Arizona in January and the other in New Orleans in April, to brainstorm and determine ways to enhance membership, both for existing and potential members.

Two tracks emerged. The first, to be rolled out this fall, is designed to enlist people interested in fighting for journalism and freedom of information and to help those already doing so.

In tandem with this effort, SPJ President-Elect Lynn Walsh led a task force looking for a way to pull in all people who were interested in backing quality journalism and the causes we fight for. Her group developed the “supporters” of SPJ idea, and you’ll see a proposed bylaws change at EIJ16 to make this a reality. It’s an excellent idea, and a way to expand SPJ’s reach and influence.

The second membership track will be coming next year – it’s an emphasis on how SPJ helps a journalist at every step of his or her professional career.

Tara Puckey, our membership strategist, and Robin Davis Sekula, chair of the Membership Committee, also have been partnering this year on some well-executed and successful membership marketing campaigns.

SPJ GOVERNANCE. I wrote in my recent Quill column about the 41 percent problem: SPJ governs itself as a representative democracy, with all decisions coming from the annual convention.

But the only delegates at convention are those that represent SPJ chapters. We did a data-dive in late 2014 to learn that 41 percent – nearly half – of our membership is not affiliated with a chapter. In other words, they have no voice at convention.

I chaired a task force to study this problem, and possible solutions. When I became president, I asked Alex Tarquinio to continue and finish the work. She and the other task members did a great job in coming up with a proposed change to the SPJ bylaws, which you’ll also see at EIJ16, to establish a system of regional at-large delegates, truly making SPJ a representative democracy.

This summer, the SPJ board considered a proposal to redraw the regional lines and reduce the size of the board. While that effort wasn’t successful, it prompted us to think about a more global look at SPJ governance and the board itself. Region 4 Director Patti Gallagher Newberry will be chairing a task force on governance, starting this summer and continuing into Lynn’s term.

PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICERS. In December, I led a group to the White House, where we spoke with President Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, on behalf of 53 journalism organizations.

The topic: The trend by public information officers at federal agencies to prevent journalists from doing their jobs and getting information to the American people. The problem has gotten worse, not better, under the “most transparent administration in history,” which is what the president called for the day after his inauguration in 2009.

PIOs have become a stifling pinchpoint for information, or in the case where interviews actually are allowed, minders who seek to make sure that the company line is preserved.

Earnest was cordial and the conversation was candid. But we haven’t seen any follow-up as the Obama administration plays out the clock.

I choose to be an optimist on a daily basis, but this problem is only going to get worse. And it doesn’t matter which candidate wins the presidential election in November.

FIX FOIA by 50. Finally, this was a big one. SPJ is a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a combine of nine journalist and open-government groups. SGI worked tirelessly on behalf of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, a measure that passed both houses of Congress unanimously. “Fix FOIA by 50” was the mantra, seeking passage of the bill before the 50th anniversary of the act’s initial passage.

The bill brings FOIA into the 21st century; among other reforms, it allows for electronic requests and requires electronic documents to be created. There will be a single online portal to submit FOIA requests to agencies. It establishes, by statute, a presumption of openness in our government.

President Obama signed the bill on June 30, just a few days before July 4, the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the first FOIA in 1966. We fixed FOIA by 50, and we gave America a little something extra to celebrate on Independence Day this year.

Let me close with a couple of thank yous:

To all our professional staff in Indianapolis for the hard work they do for us, and to three people there in particular with whom I have worked closely: To Joe Skeel, for his steady hand as executive director; to Jennifer Royer, our communications strategist who keeps watch on the issues of day and connects SPJ to the media; and to Tara Puckey, who as member strategist is taking the ideas we’ve developed this year and pushing them to reality.

To the other leaders on the ladder with whom I have served over the past three years – Dave Cuillier, Dana Neuts, Lynn Walsh and Rebecca Baker. It has been a real pleasure and honor to work alongside you.

To all the members of the SPJ board. Your service, ideas, passion and hard work on behalf of journalists and journalism are vital.

Above all, thank you for the opportunity to serve as your leader this year.

Despite the many issues in the profession, I can’t think of a better, more fulfilling way to earn a living.

See you in New Orleans!


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