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.

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