Archive for October, 2018


Scrutinizing “news”: Students challenge U. of Md. information site

A pitched debate about information is happening on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

The campus has a number of news sources, including an independent student newspaper, The Diamondback, which won SPJ’s overall Mark of Excellence best in show award this year.

The administration has created its own information source, called Maryland Today. It goes beyond press release portal — it’s presented as more of a news site or digital publication. It is produced by the school’s Office of Strategic Communications.

For several weeks, I’ve seen social media posts from current and past students, especially those who worked on The Diamondback, criticizing Maryland Today as spin and propaganda.

The pushback rose a notch last week with this piece in The Washington Post. Valerie Strauss of the Post handed over column space, mostly for a story and opinion piece by students in Dana Priest’s class. Priest is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner now teaching at College Park.

Priest scrapped a planned assignment and instead had her students scrutinize Maryland Today in her class called “From Censorship to Disinformation: The Global Battle for Political Power.”

The battle over PR vs. news on campuses is nothing new. This situation is different, though, because of the perception of Maryland Today as a journalistic attempt to compete against, or even try to blot out, existing news sources.

Students, in their story and opinion piece in the Post, examined Maryland Today for how it’s presented, whether it looks at all sides of a story, its ethics and its transparency — who is writing these stories? Maryland Today also was called out for not giving recipients the ability to opt out of a mass email.

This public dissection of Maryland Today on campus is fascinating. What was missing in the Post column, though, was a response from the Office of Strategic Communications.

(After the Post column was published, Priest tweeted that the Office of Strategic Communications has agreed to talk to her students, possibly on Monday.)

Curious, I checked on Wednesday with Joel Seligman, the associate vice president for strategic communications, to ask if he wanted to respond to the Post piece, in which students urged him to “study the dangers of state-sponsored disinformation.”

Students wrote: “In a small, local way, by pretending to be journalism and using the university’s millions to compete with the scrappy Diamondback, Maryland Today further weakens the free press.”

On Friday, Seligman wrote me back with responses on several points. I am posting them here in their entirety — maybe this will help further the debate.

*****

From Joel Seligman:

Maryland Today (today.umd.edu) is part of a full portfolio of communications for stakeholders of the university. Our comms all have the same goal — to make more people aware of the ways Maryland fulfills its mission as a preeminent public research university.

For example, a few of the communications* our team also produces —

— TERP Magazine, Award-winning publication mailed three times a year to faculty, staff, alumni and parents

— Legislative Briefs, emailed monthly to elected officials

— The Shell, emailed monthly to alumni

— umd.edu, the main website for the university

— UMD Right Now, a site for the working news media (https://umdrightnow.umd.edu/ )

 

Specifically to address Maryland Today:

— The primary audience is faculty, staff and students who are on the campus every day

— We have not had any factual errors reported to us — but errors are inevitable at some point and our writers/editors will correct them in a timely and appropriate manner when they happen

— The weekday email of Maryland Today has the highest open rate of any mass emails that we send

— The feedback from recipients is overwhelmingly positive

 

Specifically re: the criticisms:

— We do not agree with the writers of the opinion piece in the Post on the definition of news. “News” is in common usage for sites such as Maryland Today, including on the UMD Merrill College of Journalism site: https://merrill.umd.edu/news/college-news/ . Many universities actually name their products with the word news: see http://news.berkeley.edu/. (Note that we do not use the word “news” on the site, but I believe we could legitimately do so.)

— My view is that the critics in the Post piece are trying to convey that Maryland Today is not “journalism,” a word we have never used. It is not journalism.

— On the matter of identifying Maryland Today as a university communication, the “University of Maryland” universal navigation bar is at the top of the site, as it is with all of our sites. The text “Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays” has always been at the bottom of every page of the site. (We have made the text bigger, recently). The university’s logo and our office address appear on every page of the site as is the standard for all of the web pages we maintain. 

— On the matter of using red in our design which the writers in the Post say is the same color as the Diamondback — red is the color of the university and the dominant color on all of the university’s web pages.

— On the matter of using the same font as the masthead of the Diamondback — it is not the same font. Theirs is uppercase, ours is mixed case. We do use the same alphabet.

— On the matter of unsubscribing — I agree that we want people to be able to unsubscribe and we are working on that feature, timing TBD (it is not a violation of CAN-SPAM Act for the university to email its employees and students without an unsubscribe available…however, unsubscribe is a “best practice” and I wish we had it)

— On the matter of providing some bios of our staff, we are considering how best to do that. I like the idea but want to be fair across the board with the whole team, not just those who are assigned to working on Maryland Today.

 

As a final point, Maryland Today is in its infancy — less than 2 months old. It will evolve and get better thanks to input from all quarters, something we welcome for all of our work.

 

I’m looking forward to meeting with Dana Priest’s journalism class this Monday and will share the info above with them.

 

Thanks for including my thoughts.

 

Joel

 

* This list represents a small percentage of the overall output of our department which includes student recruitment marketing, alumni and donor marketing, digital, targeted email, media relations, social media management, advertising, video production, graphic design, editorial content, photography, producing Homecoming and Maryland Day and counseling the university’s leadership on matters pertaining to communication strategy.

From EIJ — election results, SPJ/SDX board meetings, resolutions

The following are the results from this year’s SPJ national and regional elections. Results were announced at EIJ ’18 in Baltimore.

President-elect:

  • Patti Gallagher Newberry (unopposed): 791

Secretary-treasurer:

  • Matt Hall: 502
  • Nerissa Young: 347

At-large director (two years; two seats):

  • Mike Reilley: 456
  • Tess Fox: 441
  • Mercedes Vigón: 437
  • Robin Sherman: 180

At-large director (one year; two seats):

  • Yvette Walker: 728
  • Michael Savino: 645

Region 10 director:

  • Don Meyers (unopposed): 47

Region 1 coordinator:

  • Jane Primerano (unopposed): 148

Region 4 coordinator:

  • Paul Kostyu (unopposed): 58

Region 5 coordinator:

  • Amy Merrick (unopposed): 76

Region 7 coordinator:

  • Leah Wankum: 14
  • Katelyn Mary Skaggs: 8

Region 8 coordinator:

  • Kathryn Jones (unopposed): 64

Region 9 coordinator:

  • Ed Otte: 40
  • Rhett Wilkinson: 16

There were 888 votes out of a total of 6,200 possible voters, or 14.3 percent.

*****

Highlights of the SPJ national board meeting on Sept. 27:

  • Stephanie Bluestein, president of the Los Angeles Pro chapter, and Ben Meyerson, a member of the Chicago Headline Club board, expressed their objections to an EIJ sponsorship by the Charles Koch Institute.
  • The board went into executive session at 9:17 a.m. to discuss a personnel issue, potential litigation and a contract issue (EIJ sponsorship). The executive session ended at 11:02 a.m.
  • Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said Lynn Walsh, a former SPJ president, will become a consultant for SPJ in charge of Facebook training.
  • Director of Development Larry Messing said SPJ HQ has submitted a new proposal to the Scripps Howard Foundation for a new focus for the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute. For many years, it was a program to develop SPJ leaders. McKenzie said Scripps Howard “wanted a more dynamic focus.” The new focus will be leadership for college journalists.
  • The board approved new financial requirements for chapters. Region 8 Director Eddye Gallagher voted no. President Rebecca Baker abstained. The board unanimously approved an amendment that allows chapters to choose a method of transparency in their records.
  • President-elect J. Alex Tarquinio said a task force to examine SPJ’s sponsorship policy will start on Sept. 30 and will work on having recommendations by Dec. 1.

*****

Highlights of the SDX national board meeting on Sept. 28:

  • Journalist on Call Rod Hicks said he will work on a news literacy project, to train thousands of people, through SPJ chapters. He also said he is working on a long-term project to work with one community to measure its trust in news over time. He is interested in Casper, Wyoming, which is one of the five states with the lowest trust in media, according to a Gallup survey. He is looking for about 125 people who could attend a session every one or two months.
  • The SDX board also talked about the change in focus of the Scripps Leadership Institute. McKenzie said SPJ is looking at 15 schools, and various news platforms, for the new format.
  • The SDX board voted to change its name to the Socety of Professional Journalists Foundation Board. Jane Kirtley voted no. A big consideration was whether SPJ changes its name from Society of Professional Journalists to Society for Professional Journalism. Some said it was better to stick with “SPJ,” which will be correct either way.
  • Board member Fred Brown said he has finished updating the SPJ ethics book, including a new case study on an anonymous op/ed piece in The New York Times from a supposed White House insider. Board members discussed whether to keep the new version as digital or to have a printed book, too.
  • Board member Paul Fletcher will continue working on an SPJ history book.
  • Messing said there will be a new fundraising effort that allows people to send a text message and get a link on how to donate.
  • Board member Dave Carlson objected to donations from planned giving being added to the general fund, calling it “reprehensible.” The board discussed making a change that calls for money to be placed in a designated fund, instead.
  • Board Treasurer Howard Dubin said SPJ’s headquarters needs about $36,000 in repairs, including stairs and the roof. SPJ and SDX will share the costs. The board unanimously approved spending up to $18,000.
  • The board unanimously approved David Cuillier and Frank LoMonte as new members. Also, Todd Gillman, Irwin Gratz, Evelyn Hsu, Alex Jones, Bill Ketter, Hagit Limor, Robert Leger and Sonya Ross will serve new three-year terms. Lynn Walsh withdrew from serving on the board because she will be paid as a Facebook consultant and wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict. Al Leeds is leaving the board. The board also approved Gratz as president, Limor as vice president, Sonny Albarado as secretary and Dubin as treasurer.
  • The board went into executive session at 11:14 a.m. to discuss a legal matter and personnel. The executive session ended at 12:30 p.m. When it returned to open session, the board approved hiring a company called Labyrinth to help the SDX Foundation register as a charity in many states. The foundation recently realized it has been raising money in states despite not being registered to do so as a charity. Alex Tarquinio and Todd Gillman voted no. Dave Carlson abstained.

*****

Highlights of the SPJ national board meeting on Sept. 30:

  • The board unanimously ratified appointments to the SDX Foundation Board.
  • President J. Alex Tarquinio shared a meeting schedule for the year. Board meetings for the year will be held Dec. 1 (electronic), Feb. 2 (electronic), April 13, June 1 (electronic), Sept. 5. The Executive Committee will hold electronic meetings on Jan. 19 and June 15.
  • Tarquinio said the board will talk later about appointing two additional members, under a new structure approved last year. There will be nominations by early November.
  • Tarquinio said Eddye Gallagher will be the Nominations Committee chair for the coming year.
  • Tarquinio said she is creating three new task forces to look at a strategic plan, a sponsorship policy and a focus on partnerships.
  • The board discussed the details of what happened with the Charles Koch Institute sponsoring an FOI session at EIJ.
  • Bill McCloskey and Andy Schotz were appointed to the Finance Committee.
  • Lauren Bartlett and Michael Koretzky were appointed to the Executive Committee, along with the board’s officers.
  • The board voted to pick a regional director to fill the seat that Matt Hall vacated to become secretary-treasurer. Tarquinio abstained.
  • Alejandra Cancino, the president of the Chicago Headline Club, criticized SPJ leaders for not following SPJ’s sponsorship policy in allowing the Charles Koch Institute to plan its own sponsored session at EIJ.
  • The board went into executive session at 10:43 a.m. for an orientation session with the board’s attorneys and for a personnel discussion. The executive session ended a 12:10 p.m.

The meeting was adjourned at 12:11 p.m.

*****

At EIJ, delegates discussed the following resolutions:

  • A proposal to change SPJ’s name from Society of Professional Journalist to Society of Professional Journalism was rejected. I believe the vote was 60-19. Some who spoke against the proposal said it has been rejected multiple times before and would not accomplish anything. Former SPJ President Kevin Smith accused the sponsors of the reolution (Michael Koretzky and Mac McKerral in playing a “con game” by not acknowledging clear opposition in a past survey and from a task force. A few supporters said it reflects a change in SPJ’s culture and fits with the challenges we face.
  • A resolution to create a task force on SPJ’s sponsorship policy was approved by a voice vote. Cancino, who submitted the resolution, said she speaks for scores of SPJ members who opposed allowing the Charles Koch Institute sponsor a session this year at EIJ. The Resolutions Committee recommended rejecting the resolution since incoming SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio already has announced that there would be a task force.
  • Delegates approved a resolution condemning the Oklahoma State University football coach for threatening to cut off access to student journalists who asked his team about the departure of one player. Someone in the public relations office then said there would be repercussions if students reported about the threat.
  • Delegates approved a resolution supporting student media, which faces hostility and/or cuts at many schools.
  • A resolution calling on TV stations to stop sending journalists out into dangerous storms and dramatizing or exaggerating actual conditions was overwhelmingly rejected by a voice vote. Some people said it was offensive to assume that dramatization occurs and added that journalists are kept safe when go out into storms.
  • A resolution was approved in support of Reality Winner, asking President Donald Trump to commute her sentence. Winner was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking a top-secret government report on Russian election hacking.
  • A resolution denouncing the imprisonment and calling for the release of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were convicted in Myanmar of violating an Official Secrets Act, even though they were performing normal duties related to their jobs.
  • A resolution calling for an SPJ contest solely for retired journalists was rejected.
  • A resolution was passed expressing support for Fred Rogers and Public Broadcasting.
  • A resolution was passed to honor the late Richard D. Hendrickson, who died at age 77 after a lengthy career in journalism and teaching.
  • Resolutions were approved thanking outgoing SPJ President Rebecca Baker for her service and the SPJ staff for its work on EIJ 18.

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