Posts Tagged ‘SPJ’


A New Game Plan

Last week, the Society of Professional Journalists kicked off a new game plan designed to take us to a higher league. After weeks of debating our executive director search and plans for the interim period, our newly-hired consultants, Talbott Talent, met with the staff and the executive director search committee.

I was on hand to introduce the Talbott team to the staff on Tuesday and Wednesday. Leah York, Talbott Talent’s president, was at our headquarters on Transition Day One to discuss the consultant-led executive search process. Heather Rolinski, Talbott’s director of organizational effectiveness, was there both days to answer questions about how she will conduct the on-site organizational assessment that will provide a roadmap for our future executive director. We talked about the timeline and how we will gather input from the staff, the boards of directors of both the Society and Foundation, and our membership.

On Thursday, Leah held a video conference call to go over the procedures and the timeline for the executive search with the members of the Executive Director Search Committee. As previously reported in this column, that committee is being chaired by our foundation board’s vice president, Hagit Limor, and includes Dr. Battinto L. Batts, Jr., Michael Bolden, Irwin Gratz, Matt Hall, Patti Gallagher Newberry, and your’s truly.

Finally, on Friday, the Long-term Strategic Planning Task Force, which I appointed earlier this year, talked about how a membership survey could help inform the executive director search. This task force is being chaired by Victor Hernandez and includes April Bethea, Patti Gallagher Newberry, Mike Reilley, Jennifer Royer, Yvette Walker, and myself.

July will be a defining month. After meeting one-on-one with all of our employees in the coming weeks, Heather will draft a survey tailored to our needs at HQ. Simultaneously, Talbott will conduct another survey of both boards looking at how we see the new executive director’s immediate challenges as well as our long-term goals for the organization. While the consultants are busily polling our board and staff, our strategic planning task force will be drafting a survey for our membership to see where you’d like us to lead SPJ.

In short, we’ll be taking the next month to tap into the collective hopes of all of our stakeholders to define what sort of leader should guide us into a brighter future. All of this will inform the position profile that defines our next executive director.

Finally, we will hold a public comment period on Saturday, July 13 to hear from members about the qualities that you think are most important in our next executive director. This will take place at noon on the East Coast. We’ll have half an hour, at which point the executive committee will need to hold a private conversation to discuss the awards we’ll give out at our upcoming convention in San Antonio. To join the public comment period about our next executive director on July 13, click here.

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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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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 —

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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#ICYMI: My take on the transatlantic divide on press freedom

Paris — More than an ocean separates the United States from France. The contradictory world views of their leaders veered sharply into focus on the centennial of the first world war. Hours after making the now famous Armistice day pronouncement beneath the Arc de Triomphe that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” French President Emmanuel Macron introduced an event launching a global initiative for freedom of information and democracy.

Everyone living in a free and democratic society should be in agreement on the importance of this issue. The clear advantage of reliable public information, and of the liberty of speech and of the press, should be a nonpartisan issue. Yet in the high-profile announcement, the heavy burden of partisanship, pitting globalists against nationalists, signaled the challenges ahead.

Although none of the speakers mentioned the U.S. president by name, their bête noire was conspicuous by his absence. This highly-restricted event occurred within the Paris Peace Forum — a three-day tribute to multilateralism that President Donald J. Trump bowed out of — in a session hosted by Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based global non-governmental organization also known by its French name, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF).

“It is a common good for humanity that there be honesty in information and liberty of the press and of opinion,” the French president told the select audience that included heads of state, diplomats and Nobel laureates. I was there representing the Society of Professional Journalists.

Macron cited philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who fled Nazism and became famous for her writings condemning all forms of totalitarianism, quoting from her 1967 book Truth and Politics in which she wrote, “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.”

He went on to draw a comparison between trends today and more primitive forms of democracy last witnessed 50 to 100 years ago. His point was not lost on the audience, which included the heads of state of Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Senegal and Tunisia, all of whom followed up with remarks about the imperative need to protect freedom of expression.

French President Emmanuel Macron introducing the press freedom event hosted by Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) at the Paris Peace Forum on Nov. 11, 2018.

In the same vein, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed to the anxiety stirred up by globalization as paving the way for politicians to scapegoat the press. “Attacks on the media are not just about getting your preferred political candidate elected,” he said, “they’re about increasing the level of cynicism that citizens have towards all authorities, towards all of the institutions that are there to protect us.”

This was one of several veiled digs that Trudeau made at the expense of Trump, who has consistently pushed the envelope to test the limits of the electorate’s appetite for his media bashing. From the U.S. president’s initial mocking of the press trailing his campaign, he progressed to the assertion that the media are the enemy of the American people. In July, the White House barred a CNN reporter from covering a Rose Garden event. In November, it pulled the credentials of Jim Acosta, the network’s Chief White House Correspondent.

The RSF event took place only four days after the revocation of Acosta’s press pass. As one of relatively few Americans present, I was peppered with questions about what this meant. I explained that the U.S. has a solid legal framework, so the question would most likely be decided in the courts.

Heads of state from Costa Rica, Tunisia, Norway, Senegal and Canada addressed the audience. RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire moderated the panel.

Fortunately, the White House has since backed down from what might have proved a protracted legal battle. Yet countries that lack strong democratic institutions are increasingly seeking political advantage by muzzling the media. Examples abound, from Myanmar’s unjustified jailing of the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, to the appalling murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Unsurprisingly, the group of 25 prominent media and communication experts of 18 different nationalities that were assembled by RSF to study the problem came up with a global response. The Nov. 11 declaration by the commission, which was led by RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire and Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, proposed creating an international body of experts to continuously research global information issues and recommend the best practices and norms for public communication.

While we applaud the efforts of press freedom groups to expand free speech around the world, there is no effective substitute for political will. It is up to our citizens to express their outrage at the daily undermining of the credibility of responsible media outlets. When eroding the foundation of a free press is no longer a popular political tactic, we will be closer to realizing the ideal of a free and open information society.

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This column appeared in the Winter, 2018 issue of Quill Magazine. I shot the photos and video while representing the Society of Professional Journalists at the press freedom event hosted by Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) at the Paris Peace Forum on Nov. 11, 2018. French President Emmanuel Macron introduced the event.

SPJ and Journalism Organizations Respond To Election of Donald Trump

Last week, after the election, the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations released statements reinforcing their commitment to protecting the First Amendment and fighting for the public’s right to know.

Since the election SPJ has seen an increase in donations. Some, when donating, have specifically cited the election outcome.

I want you to know that SPJ is ready to defend the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and push for government transparency.

We hope that you will continue to join us in this fight. If you have ideas or thoughts or want to help in any way, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. Also, if you need help donating or renewing your membership, we would gladly help with that as well.

Here is a list of statements made by journalism organizations:

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

Requesting Public Information Should Not Result in Felony Charges

Fannin-Focus publisher Mark Thomason spoke at the SPJ National Convention in New Orleans on Sept. 20. Outgoing national SPJ president Paul Fletcher (left). Photo by Curt Yeomans, SPJ Georgia board member

Fannin-Focus publisher Mark Thomason spoke at the SPJ National Convention in New Orleans on Sept. 20. Outgoing national SPJ president Paul Fletcher (left). Photo by Curt Yeomans, SPJ Georgia board member

Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus newspaper in Blue Ridge, Georgia was arrested June 24 and charged with three felonies, including one for making a false statement on his open records request.

No journalist or member of the public should ever have to put up with what Thomason has when exercising his or her right to public information.

On the day of his arrest Thomason said he had no idea why he was arrested.

“For two days I sat in a jail cell without a pillow or blanket,” he said.

After his release on a $10,000 bond, Thomason said he faced unusual bond restrictions and was required to provide numerous on-the-spot urine samples for law enforcement in his hometown.

When the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists first heard of Thomason’s arrest, they began sharing their outrage with the public.  The chapter also filed a formal complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission against the judge, Brenda Weaver, Chief Superior Court Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, who had Thomason and his attorney arrested.

At it’s annual convention last month in New Orleans, SPJ’s members commended Thomason’s “relentless pursuit of the public’s right to know” in a freedom of information battle involving the actions of chief superior court judge.

Click here or watch below (jump to the 11 minute, 47 second mark of the video) to hear Thomason’s comments to SPJ members and journalists at the convention.

The SPJ membership also called for Judge Weaver to resign and thanked the SPJ Georgia chapter members for their hard work and due diligence bringing this issue into the public conversation.

What Thomason did, standing up for his right to public information, is something, I hope, no other individual, journalist or news organization has to experience. But, if you do find yourself in a similar situation, I want to know.

SPJ was founded to fight for these very issues. Whether that is your right to government access or recording video on a public sidewalk. We are here for you. Or maybe you find yourself being forced to tell a story or write something in a way that you feel is journalistically unethical. Please tell us, so we can help.

So, please contact me and let us know what we can do to help. We are here to help protect journalism and the public’s right to know.

Lynn Walsh is the current National President for SPJ. In her “day job” she manages and leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

Executive Committee Mtg. Summary, Jan. 31

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Photo by Jack Pagano

On Sat., Jan. 31, SPJ’s Executive Committee met in Orlando, Florida, the site of the 2015 Excellence in Journalism Conference, co-hosted by SPJ, RTDNA and NAHJ.

The executive committee includes president Dana Neuts, immediate past president Dave Cuillier, president-elect Paul Fletcher, secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh, vice-president ofcampus affairs Sue Kopen Katcef and at-large members Bill McCloskey and Joe Radske. If you missed the live stream, here are highlights from the day-long meeting:

SDX grant requests: Three grant requests were submitted for the executive committee’s review. We voted to approve the requests, which will now go to the SDX grants committee and then to the full SDX board for a vote in April.

International statements: We will handle international journalism incidents on a case-by-case basis.

Online Legal Defense Fund (LDF) auction: The executive committee directed executive director Joe Skeel to explore the possibility of adding an online auction component to our annual silent and live LDF fundraisers. Skeel will report to the full board in April.

Job bank recommendations: The executive committee directed Joe Skeel to contact our job banks vendor to discuss supplementing our current offerings.

Awards and honors: The executive committee discussed recommendations submitted by Lynn Walsh, Sue Kopen Katcef and Andy Schotz for changes to our current awards nomination and selection processes. Some recommendations were accepted; some were not. All recommendations will be submitted to the full board in April for a vote. Any approved changes will be effective for the 2016 awards season. Of note was the discussion of the Wells Key award. The executive committee will recommend to the full board that the entire executive committee select the winner, rather than just the officers.

Membership representation: Paul Fletcher reported that 41 percent of SPJ’s members are not affiliated with a chapter, meaning they do not have delegate representation at convention. I appointed a task force to be chaired by Fletcher to do additional research and to prepare a report for the April board meeting.

Delegate update: Bill McCloskey will work with others to discuss delegate votes at convention and make recommendations to the board at its April meeting for any improvements or changes that should be made.

Tech upgrade: HQ staff is working on data clean-up to prepare for the tech upgrade which will begin after the awards entry season concludes.

Strategic communications update: I gave a report on our progress since hiring Jennifer Royer as our communications strategist last August. We have been able to improve our communications, develop processes and procedures, and become more proactive planning events like Sunshine Week and Ethics Week.

Fellow of the Society: We adjourned to executive session to discuss nominees for the Fellow of the Society award. We will take two more weeks to consider nominees before making a decision.

Joint SPJ & RTDNA meeting: RTDNA chair Amy Tardif and I held a joint meeting of the organizations’ executive meetings to discuss diversity, EIJ programming, partnership opportunities, etc.

For board meeting materials and a link to the meeting video, visit http://spj.org/board-meeting.asp. Please contact me if you have any questions. Thank you.

~ Dana Neuts, SPJ President

 

 

Progress on shield bill

Good news on the Shield Law front over the past week.

On Wednesday (7/17), a bipartisan group of senators led by New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham said they’re going to push for a Shield Law that enshrines revisions to Justice Department policies announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on July 12.

Holder’s revisions to DOJ guidelines would make it harder for prosecutors to obtain journalists’ phone records without advance notice.

The bill Schumer, Lindsay and their colleagues announced Wednesday would go a bit further, ensuring that an impartial judge reviews government attempts to compel journalists and news agencies or third parties, such as phone companies and internet providers, before the Justice Department tries to obtain them.

“In many ways, our bill is tougher than the new [DOJ] guidelines,” Schumer said at a press conference, “but the DOJ has smartly proposed new ideas that would offer additional protections to journalists while carefully balancing that need against national security.”

Holder’s policy changes came after various journalism groups, including SPJ, voiced concerns about the Justice Department’s seizure of the AP’s phone records and a Fox News reporter’s emails. In a letter to Holder in June, SPJ expressed serious concerns that the DOJ wasn’t following its own guidelines for dealing with demands for information from journalists in the government’s investigations of leaks.

After meeting with and hearing from a slew of journalism groups, Holder surprised me and actually strengthened the guidelines.

Of particular note was the Attorney General’s statement of principles: “As an initial matter, it bears emphasis that it has been and remains the Department’s policy that members of the news media will not be subject to prosecution based solely on newsgathering activities.”

The policy changes Holder outlined seek to strike “the appropriate balance between two vital interests,” he said in his report to the President: “protecting the American people by pursuing those who violate their oaths through unlawful disclosures of information and safeguarding the essential role of a free press in fostering government accountability and an open society.”

Schumer, Lindsay and shield bill co-sponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Roy Blount, R-Mo., and Jonny Isakson, R-Ga., echoed that sentiment in Wednesday’s press conference announcing their intent to submit a “tougher bill” than either the previous bill that languished in the Senate three years ago or Holder’s revised guidelines.

“We’ve struck the right balance here between national security and protecting those who cover government,” Graham said after noting that “guidelines are not gonna cut it in the 21st century.

“We need a statute, a law that transcends administrations.”

Other societies wish they had the kind of reporting on government that Americans have, Graham said.

“We have it, we need to protect it, and quite frankly, cherish it,” he said.

Amen.

Should SPJ broaden international memberships?

For more than a decade I served as lead mentor in Denver for a journalism exchange program run by the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.

It’s a great program that brings journalists from other countries to work side by side with their counterparts in U.S. newsrooms.

During that time I worked with journalists from Nigeria, Ecuador, Egypt, Bulgaria, Serbia, China, Cambodia, Russia and the Gaza Strip.

By and large, they were an amazing group of people, many of whom had to exercise a fair amount of courage just to do the type of daily reporting that we here in the U.S. often take for granted.

It was a great experience and one that I’m sure will color my view point as the SPJ board takes up an important policy discussion this weekend on the Society’s approach toward prospective members who live outside the U.S.

Should we actively recruit them? Should we encourage chapters to form in other countries? Should we hold them to the same requirements we ask of domestic members and chapters?

Shortly after becoming SPJ president in September, I asked our International Journalism Committee, through its chairman Ricardo Sandoval Palos, to study this issue and make some recommendations to the board.

The Committee produced a thoughtful document that became the basis for a good discussion that the Executive Committee had on this topic during our winter meeting in Charlotte.

Now that discussion moves to the full board. When we meet in Indianapolis this weekend, I’m planning to ask the board a series of questions on this topic. My hope is that we reach enough of a consensus to help craft a formal policy later this year.

It’s a complex issue. In some countries, concepts we take for granted in the U.S. such as objectivity or acting independently are not universally embraced. In some countries, journalists operate under government imposed restrictions that make those concepts unworkable.

And yet, we live in an increasingly global society where video shot in Syria one moment becomes news in the U.S. a short time later. There’s also a real hunger out there for the training, ethics and ideals that SPJ had stood for in this country.

So we’ll have our talk. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that SPJ already has about 130 members living in other countries.

More than half are part of a thriving student chapter that former Regional Director Richard Roth helped start in Qatar a few years ago under the aegis of Northwestern University.

But the other members come from nearly 30 other countries, including Uzbekistan, India, Mexico, Canada, Morocco, Spain, England, Sweden and Luxemborg.

I believe we need a coherent strategy when it comes to membership in the rest of the world. My hope is that we can take the first steps toward that goal when  we meet in Indianapolis.

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