Posts Tagged ‘New Mexico’


Looking back on “20 SPJ ideas” two years later

Two years ago while running for SPJ secretary-treasurer, I proposed an ambitious program called “20 ideas in 20 days.”

It represented my thinking back in 2010 on ways in which we could move SPJ forward.

I was careful to describe them as ideas rather than pledges or promises or a platform, because I know from experience that my ideas don’t always work.

I do believe, however, that it’s important to try and find ways to further the core missions of SPJ.

Recently Andy Schotz invited me to respond to his campaign post in which he listed 10 of the ideas I circulated two years ago in an abbreviated list.

First off, I’m honored that Andy took the time to remember and keep that document.

And I was curious to see how my ideas fared two years later now that I am approaching the end of my term as president.

So, here is a rather long post that recalls those 20 ideas, plus my evaluation on whether they worked.

1.    Quarterly board meetings. Two in person. Two by phone. More democracy, not less. We often end up doing telephone conferences calls during the year anyway, so why not do two that we could schedule in advance. True a conference call with the full board can be awkward at times, however, there are web conference programs available now that could make these sessions more efficient and interactive.

This definitely worked. We held five board meetings this year, two in person, two by conference call and then our first ever virtual board meeting. As a result, the board had a lot more input. Plus our in-person meetings were not as packed with what I call housekeeping matters, leaving us time to talk about larger policy issues.

2.    Use travelling programs such as Tom Hallman’s Narrative Writing Workshops as kindling for starting or reviving chapters. Schedule them in such a way as to help provide the spark to beef up or revive local chapters.  I realize this program is not aimed at membership recruitment. However, there’s nothing that prevents a local chapter from using the event as a catalyst for membership building. In New Mexico, the group that attended Tom’s workshop eventually formed half of the interim board of the newly revived chapter.

This idea worked well in New Mexico, where Tom’s appearance helped us revive the pro chapter. But it was difficult to replicate on the national level.  The funding for programs like Tom’s were not earmarked for membership development.

3.    National speakers’ office. Use the bulk power of SPJ to connect chapters with authors on tour, film previews, ect. If we do this with some regularity, eventually the speakers will come to us looking for venues and trying to connect with local chapters

This idea proved impractical. During the recession, many publishers cut back dramatically on author tours, making this practice harder to tap into

4.    Encourage chapters to use regional conferences as a way to draw in new members by pegging the price of the conference to one year’s membership. This year in Region 9, we made the price of conference registration $99 for non-member pros and $62 for non-member students. As a result, we ended with 47 new members in a single day. That represented an 8 percent increase in the region’s membership numbers. At this point in our history, after losing nearly 2,000 members nationwide, it seems to me wiser for chapters to be member-rich than dollar-rich.

While this idea worked very well in Region 9, it met with resistance elsewhere as many regions preferred, quite reasonably, to focus on posting a profit from their conference rather than gaining additional members.

5.    Shared use of iContact, Constant Contact or a similar bulk e-mail service so that chapters can communicate better. These programs are capable of allowing any chapter to produce crisp, graphically interesting e-mails that will help their message stand out from ordinary text e-mails.

This idea proved impractical.

6.    Fall and Spring membership drives with discounts and premiums. Let’s take a page from the perennially successful campaigns of public television and radio by concentrating our recruitment efforts to a 10-day period twice each year in which we offered premiums such as an SPJ mug or ball cap as a reward for joining during that time frame.

We were able to launch a membership drive this fall, but held it over the span of a month without the gimmicks of premiums.

7.    Set aside a room at the national convention to serve as “Studio SPJ,”a place where members could be asked to tape one-minute interviews stating why they joined and what SPJ means to them. Then post these videos on the website on a rotating basis.

This idea fell by the wayside, but I’d like to reserve the chance to try it at our 2013 convention in Anaheim.

8.    Present an annual award at the national conference for the fastest growing chapters, both pro and student. Honor both those chapters with the highest percentage increase (typically small to medium chapters) and the greatest numerical gain in members (typically the larger chapters.)

This idea also fell by the wayside, although I still believe it has merit.

9.    Appoint a programming czar to help chapters stage programs. Have that person create a programming committee with a representative in each region. This is a crucial step in growing membership since active quality programming goes hand in hand with membership recruitment and retention.

This idea is still a work in progress. I tried doing it through a 12-member committee last year, but that proved unwieldy and ineffective. This year, I’ve volunteered to serve in this national role and incoming President Sonny Albarado has given me the permission to do so. I’ll be working with SPJ staffer Tara Puckey to help bring programming to local chapters.

10.  Task the programming chair to attend the annual BookExpo America in New York City in late May. This event – which draws 500 authors and previews 1,500 books due out in the fall – would be a perfect opportunity for an SPJ representative to make contact with publishers and help line up author events with chapters nationwide.

Also in progress. I hope to attend the Expo this spring.

11.  Line up a journalism-themed movie premiere as SDX or LDF fundraiser. Over the last few years, there have been several popular feature films about journalists: George Clooney’s Murrow-biopic “Good Night and Good Luck” or Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart” about Daniel and Marianne Pearl. The next time such a movie comes down the pike, let’s approach the film makers about staging a benefit premiere in a city of their choice.

This idea failed, but not for lack of trying. I tried to convince the makers of “The Bang Bang Club,” a film on photojournalists covering the fall of apartheid in South Africa. But we couldn’t reach an agreement. I haven’t given up on this idea either and will keep an eye out for any new journalism movies.

12. Do an online auction in advance of the convention to raise money for LDF. Not only would enable people not attending the convention to bid on items, it would build interest in the live auction and help us increase the proceeds.

This proved impractical, however, I would still like to explore putting up some LDF items up for auction during the year via e-Bay.

13.  Volunteers are the glue that holds SPJ together. Honor their service with a monthly volunteer of the month program. Ask each regional director to nominate one person from their region and highlight that person’s accomplishments.

This idea worked quite well. We not only honored 12 volunteers across the county, two of them went on to win the Howard Dubin award for outstanding SPJ member.

14. Explore finding a service that would enable all regions and local chapters to convert their journalism contests to an online entry system. Currently, regions and chapters are being approached individually by such vendors. By aggregating our buying power, we could get a much more advantageous deal.

This idea morphed into marketing SPJ’s own awards platform, which we were able to sell to a few chapters and journalism organizations. This is still a work in progress.

15. Create An SPJ listening tour. One way for national SPJ leaders to get a feel for the issues affecting the organization is to listen in – when invited – to an occasional chapter board meeting that are conducted by telephone conference call. Just to listen, not to meddle or talk.

This idea worked although I modified it a little bit. I hosted a series of virtual town hall meetings with 11 of our 12 regions and hope to do one final session later this month. While none of these drew large audiences, each once sparked worthwhile conversations that I found quite useful.

16. Candidate’s forum. Instead of forcing national board candidates to dash to 12 regional meetings in an hour at the convention, why not hold a candidate’s forum earlier in the day where people can ask questions of the candidates in a town hall-like forum.

This idea was rendered somewhat moot by the adoption of the one-member, one-vote system this year. However, I was able to do a version of these forums during the above mentioned town hall meetings.

17.  Vox Pop. Use the Democracy function on our WordPress blog software to put an occasional question to the membership. While this method is hardly scientific, it would give SPJ’s leadership a quick take on what members think and show a willingness to listen to the membership.

This idea worked very well. I included polls at the end of several columns I posted on the Freedom of the Prez blog.

18.  Survey new members on what led them to join. In recent years, we’ve done some careful research on why people drop out of SPJ and who they are. But we’ve not devoted as much attention to where our new members are coming from. What specific things convinced them to join. The more we know about this the better we’ll get at recruitment.

This idea worked. I did my own email survey of new members who joined SPJ this spring. The results made it clear that we enjoyed a spike of new members who joined to get the member rate in our Mark of Excellence journalism contest.

19. Sponsor international journalists. Every Spring, the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship places about 10-12 young journalists from countries with an emerging free press into newsrooms across the United States. What if we made a concerted effort to invite these folks to be our guests at various regional conferences? Many of them practice journalist at considerable more peril than we do. They would learn a lot about SPJ and perhaps make excellent speakers.

This idea worked, albeit in a limited manner. Two international journalists attended a regional conference in San Diego and had a great experience. A decrease in funding with the Friendly Fellowship program made it difficult to arrange more of these opportunities.

20. Hold a half-day summit during the Spring board meeting to help draft a national membership recruitment and retention strategy. Task the membership committee to come up with several proposals to that end and then try to do what we can on the national level to see that those suggestions are carried out.This idea proved impractical. I relied instead on our membership committee to vet and develop strategies for growing the membership.

So by my count, that adds up to

8 ideas that worked, in full or part.

8 ideas that failed or proved impractical.

4 ideas that are still a work in progress.

In baseball, going 8 for 20 would be considered a good stretch.

But I’m actually just as interested in the ideas that failed. Frequently those failures lead to other more successful approaches that we would not have reached if we hadn’t at least tried.

Unconventional convention coverage

This weekend, I’ll be giving a talk in Charlotte, North Carolina to a group of journalists who will be covering the Democratic National Convention there on September 3-6.

I’m no expert, but I have covered three national political conventions. In 1980 I covered the Republican National Convention in Detroit when Ronald Reagan was nominated. I also covered the Democratic National Convention in New York City when President Jimmy Carter was the nominee.

Then in 2008, I was part of a team that covered the Democratic National Convention for The Rocky Mountain News.

Here are a few lessons I learn from those experiences.

1. Think Big. At the Rocky my editor assigned me one big topic: race.

During Barack Obama’s historic campaign, race was one of those big lurking topics that surfaced over and over again.

So I spent time leading up to the convention interviewing people in settings as various as an African-American barber shop to an Ethiopian restaurant where many of the city’s cab drivers hung out.

I even found a German scholar visiting Denver that summer whose specialty was the American civil rights movement.

So don’t be afraid of tackling large topics as a mini-beat during a convention. Perhaps it could be immigration or the Tea Party or income equality. You’ll be surprised how far this approach can take you.

2. Don’t overemphasize the obvious stories like traffic or parking problems. Cover them sure, but don’t lose track of the big picture. I think back to how news coverage of the Woodstock music festival focused mostly on traffic jams, permits and Port-O-Potties. Not many reporters grasped the cultural significance of what they were seeing, not until much later.

3. Designate a Wild Card reporter. Every day will deal at least one completely unexpected good story. Plan on it by designating a reporter and a spot on your budget.

4. You can’t start too early. At the Rocky, our coverage plan started very early that year. It’s not too late though to do great work in advance of the convention.

5. Think beyond the printed page or the broadcast.. A national political convention generates more stories and content than you can’t possibly fit into the print edition or a broadcast, even with a generous news hole or time frame. Use your web-only space to the maximum to capture all these stories. Doing so will make your print edition or your broadcast even better and the readers/viewers will be thankful.

6. Be careful what you tweet. Social media was still relatively new in 2008 when the Rocky decided to run a stream of reporters tweets live on the web page. This worked out fine until one reporter, thinking he was tweeting a friend, used an expletive. There was no way to remove it, so the editors told all of us “Tweet something.” That way the offending tweet quick moved down stream and out of view.

7. Keep your skepticism alive. Question stories just like you would any other day of the year. In 2008, I covered a press conference where police announced they had arrested three men on drug and gun charges in a case with “federal implications.” A local television station reported that police had arrested the men in connection with an alleged plot to kill Obama.  That seemed like a huge story at the time, but as it turned out, federal authorities knocked down the story. This only became apparent through persistent questioning that evening.

8. Tap your sister news organizations. In Denver, the Scripps newspapers from around the country provided additional reporters who help supplement our coverage. That made a big difference.

9. Go remote. Sometimes the best stories are far from the convention floor. For example, when Obama gives his speech in the stadium, I was watching it in the living room of an elderly African-American woman who told me she never thought she would live to see that day.

10. Expect the unexpected.  One night during the convention, I was driving back to the office when I pulled behind an odd looking police patrol car. At first I thought it was one of the other agencies that were helping Denver out that week.

But then I noticed the motto on the side of the patrol car “To Serve and Project.” The windows on the back seat of the vehicle were actually video images by a conceptual artist who was trying to make a statement about immigration enforcement. I followed the car until it parked, then interviewed the driver and got a great story. Conventions are chock full of such stories.

11. Stay frosty. Conventions in recent years are mostly scripted and staged to death. But occasionally, the unexpected happens as it did in Detroit in 1980 when Reagan made a last minute decision to name George Bush as his vice-president.

I remember watching Walter Mears of the Associate Press writing fluidly through all that tumult in the smooth clear prose that made him a great reporter. When events get crazy, try to channel your inner Walter Mears.

12. Have fun. Conventions are about the most fun you can have as a journalist and still get paid for it. Go to the parties. Take in the spectacle. Work hard crazy hours but relish every minute of every long day and night.

I also asked two friends who covered the convention in Denver for the Rocky in Denver for their advice.

Sara Burnett is an excellent reporter who now works for the Denver Post and will be covering the conventions again this year. Here are some of her recommendations:

1. Wear comfortable shoes. Seems trivial, but when I think back on the 2008 conventions in Denver, a handful of memories stand out: Traveling with the Obama campaign from Montana to Denver on the campaign plane, having a prime seat to watch him make history at Invesco Field at Mile High, and the long, hot and painful walk to the Pepsi Center on the first day of the convention. I thought my sandals were comfy enough. Which would have been true if there had been any kind of transportation available. But every shuttle was full and every cab taken. So I walked, with what felt like a 20-pound laptop bag in 100 degree heat. By the time I got through security and to our workspace I wanted to cry because my feet hurt so bad. So wear comfortable shoes.

2. Have clear delineations of work. We split up the teams of reporters to include: The presidential candidate; the VP candidate; the “other candidate” (Hillary Clinton); the Colorado delegation; the parties, concerts and celebrities; fundraising and fundraisers; protestors; police; Republican response and economic impact on your city (to name a few). Know in advance what each person is supposed to do but also be ready to be flexible, and have a few people who are there to cover whatever breaks that you didn’t expect.

3. Don’t be overly focused on the convention hall. Many of the best stories don’t happen during the highly scripted made-for-TV evening programming. In 2008 I went to a really interesting Q&A with David Plouffe that happened in the middle of the afternoon, for example. Another big story for us was a mass arrest of some protesters.

4. Get to know the sources you’re going to be covering well in advance and have a database of their cell phone numbers, etc., so you can reach them easily and so that you can be sure they will return your calls when you need them to. There will suddenly be national news outlets and the Anderson Coopers of the world there – and if something huge happens, people’s natural instinct is to talk to the reporters/anchors they see on TV before they talk to you. Having a relationship with them before the convention starts will help get that return call.

4. Have alternate forms of communication. Especially in or near the convention hall you may have cellphone reception problems. have a laptop or ipad or whatever else you need ready in case your phone doesn’t work.

5. Go to some parties. As journalists in a host city, by the time the convention finally starts, 90 percent of your work has already been done. So don’t let the craziness of that week overwhelm you. You will be tired but you should be sure to go to some parties. Develop some new sources (or improve relationships with existing ones). Meet people you’ve always wanted to meet. And have some fun.

Next, here is some sage advice from M.E. Sprenglemeyer, another excellent Rocky alum who now owns and edits a weekly paper in New Mexico.

ME did some extraordinary reporting during the last presidential campaign. He took the bold innovative step of moving out of DC where he served as the Rocky’s Washington correspondent and move to Iowa for the year.

It provided him with invaluable insight into the campaign as well as access to the candidates.

ME’s basic advice to reporters covering this convention is this: think unconventionally. Here are a couple of his   suggestions as well as an observation of my own.

1. Think outside your Rolodex. One of the things that made ME’s pre-convention coverage brilliant was the way in which he expanded the pool of people he interviewed well beyond the conventional cast.

No where was this more apparent in a series of 10 stories he wrote for the Rocky called “Unconventional Wisdom,”

The frame of the story was simple yet large: interview people, famous and obscure from previous Democratic conventions for their insights and advice to  the current candidates. (Remember this was when Hillary Clinton  and Barack Obama were in close competition.)

2. Look for the not-so-obvious people. One of ME’s favorite stories from this series was his profile of a soldier whom Obama cited in a pivotal speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Click here for a link to that story:

It turns out that Obama kept in touch with that soldier, Seamus Ahern, long after the convention and got a fair amount of his information about the war from that exchange.

So look for that person who is “one off” the principal newsmakers and don’t be surprised if you find a great story.

3. It’s not too late. Many of you have been planning for the DNC for over a year. With the convention now just over a month away, you can’t do some of the things ME did in the lead up to the 2004 convention.

But there is still time to do these projects. Perhaps a single story interviewing people from past convention. Or perhaps focus on one convention that seems relevant to this race. ME is convinced he could start work on Monday on a story like this and have it done in time for Sept. 3.

Credentialed journalists are assigned to a coveted bit of real estate, a place to write their stories. But spend as little time there as possible. Don’t be a spectator to the same event that every other journalist in the room is watching.

5. Avoid writing anything that a person watching the convention can get by watching television. Your readers/viewers expect something more from you. There are so many stories at a convention. Find one that the national networks overlooked. Give people something they didn’t see.

6. Analyze the Speech. To prepare for covering Obama’s acceptance speech, ME watched and read several decades worth of acceptance speeches from past convention.

Presidential campaign speech writers are a small fraternity. They are a bit like film makers or jazz musicians in the way they borrow riffs from one another. It’s not plagiarism so much as paying homage to great speeches of the past.

By doing this advance research, ME was able to deliver on deadline a crisp analysis story that pointed out those allusions to speeches by other candidates.

7. Find a green delegate. Many news organizations do mini-profiles of the delegates from their coverage area. This is a sound practice. But ME suggests going one step further: focus on seeing the convention through the eyes of a first-time delegate. They are more likely than most to retain a sense of wonder about the convention. This is a valuable point of view to explore.

Finally, here is some advice from my friend Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.

Mickey is a photo-journalist turned lawyer who has done yeoman’s work this year representing journalist who were arrested or detained  while doing their jobs covering various Occupy street demonstrations this year.

If you are covering protests outside the convention hall, here are links Mickey offers with some practical suggestions for journalists trying to cover the story and not become part of it.

NPPA list of resources regarding rights: https://www.nppa.org/member_services/advocacy/restrictions_on_public_photography.html

CPJ blog on what to know regarding covering conventions: http://cpj.org/security/2012/07/what-to-know-““about-covering-the-conventions.php

RCFP hotline: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-committee-announces-political-convention-g-8-hotlines-journalists

RCFP new app: http://www.rcfp.org`/reporters-committee-launches-rcfp-firstaid-mobile-app-reporters

If you are arrested in the line of duty,  Mickey will be here in Charlotte to represent journalists if they do get in trouble for doing their job.

Keep in mind also that SPJ has a Legal Defense Fund that can make grants of up to $1,000 toward the legal defense of people who are arrested in the course of covering a story. Here is a link to our LDF website:

 

 

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