SPJ meetings become open; sponsorship policy passed

One significant thing about the Feb. 2 electronic meeting of the SPJ national board is that the public finally was invited to participate. (The most important item of business, though, was a new sponsorship policy, which is addressed later in this post.)

The board has been holding electronic meetings for years, and no one has given it much thought that they were inaccessible to observers. We’re a journalism organization, committed to transparency, yet we’ve been excluding anyone who might want to hear what we’re doing.

That finally changed this month, with a dial-in number that let SPJers (and anyone else) join the call and speak up during a public comment period. Only a handful of people took advantage of it this time, but it was a good start. Kudos to SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio and the SPJ staff for following through and making this happen.

Highlights from the meeting:

• SPJ board member Tess Fox will restart SPJ’s Generation J, an electronic community for early-career professionals.

• The board unanimously approved adding an SPJ campus chapter at the University of Michigan.

• A committee is reviewing about 160 proposals for workshops and breakout sessions for EIJ 19 in San Antonio. Further details are posted on p. 37 of the board meeting packet.

• Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie talked about plans for celebrating SPJ’s 110th anniversary, including a logo and merchandise.

• Board members were less enthused about commemorating the 50th anniversary of SPJ admitting women. Region 10 Director Donald Meyers said it’s a “joyous” milestone that shows SPJ’s progress. But at-large director Lauren Bartlett said the focus should be on celebrating women, not pointing out SPJ’s exclusion of women for most of its history. Bethel McKenzie noted that Sigma Delta Chi was an all-male fraternity to start.

The board unanimously voted to have board members work with the SPJ staff to recommend ways to celebrate women in 2019. Secretary-Treasurer Matt Hall tried to make an amendment to have board members Sue Kopen Katcef, Yvette Walker and Bartlett as the study group, but Tarquinio said the group must be formed first, then the members appointed.

• Bethel McKenzie said the staff’s main focus for fiscal year 2020 is to close a budget deficit. She expects the deficit to be higher than the $41,000 shortfall approved in the fiscal year 2019 budget last year. More detail is included in a budget memo on page 42 of the board packet. Some factors: the loss of about $54,000 in association management revenue; the possibility of renting out the basement at SPJ’s headquarters building in Indianapolis; not filling the vacant deputy executive director position. (The memo mentions the possibility of raising dues for the first time in 13 years; the board declined to consider that.)

• SPJ is waiting on our current EIJ partner, RTDNA, to decide whether to continue the partnership for EIJ 21 in Minneapolis. Bethel McKenzie said she asked RTDNA for an answer by March. SPJ is considering alternative 2021 locations if RTNDA is not a partner.

• Bethel McKenzie said the tentative plan is to hold three Scripps Leadership Institute sessions this year — in Kansas City, Atlanta and Cincinnati. (Editor’s note: The focus of the sessions has changed from SPJ leadership training for pros and students to general leadership training, without an SPJ focus, for college students.)

• At my request, a discussion about SPJ’s proposed new sponsorship policy started in open session, rather than executive session. After a summary by President-Elect Patti Gallagher Newberry, it continued into executive session to discuss aspects that involve our EIJ partner, RTDNA. Other executive session topics were the fiscal year 2020 SPJ budget, potential new partnerships, and an upcoming evaluation of the executive director. The session lasted 1 hour and 8 minutes.

• Back in open session, the board unanimously approved a change in the new process for evaluating the executive director. It will no longer involve a survey of former staff members.

• The board approved a working group’s outline for how to conduct future reviews of the executive director. There will be eight topics for evaluation, including budgeting, fundraising and partnerships, with general and specific questions in each area.

• Also in open session, the board approved an amendment to a sponsorship policy it approved on Dec. 1. (See below for the final approved version.)

This marks the second time in two months the board changed its mind on the policy. A task force presented a proposal leading up to the Dec. 1 board meeting. During the meeting, the board amended two items, then passed the amended version.

On Feb. 2, the board changed course and reverted back to the initial version.

The final changes are in two areas:

• An attempt to put a tighter control on ideas pitched by sponsors has been removed. On Dec. 1, the board decided that when sponsors “propose session ideas and speakers,” those proposals “can be rejected.” The final version strikes “can be rejected.”

• Another Dec. 1 amendment was: “Sponsor or grant money will not be used to pay speakers.” The final version says: “SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to provide fees to speakers.”

The board voted to override the Dec. 1 amendments and return to the initial proposal, which RTNDA supports. (As long as there as an EIJ partnership, the partners have to agree on a sponsorship policy.)

I was the only SPJ board member to vote against the new version. I supported the Dec. 1 amendments.

During the Feb. 2 meeting, I was assured that the final version makes the EIJ Planning Committee a stopgap against a poor proposal by a sponsor. However, the final language — “Proposals will be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee” — doesn’t expressly say the committee can reject a proposal. “Vetted” is ambiguous and could be interpreted as “reviewed.”

I also was assured that a provision that “the Committee and its designated producer will assume full responsibility for participants, topics, times, places, etc.” is a safeguard. But “full responsibility” is ambiguous, too, and could be interpreted as making sure panelists show up and equipment works.

I voted no on this final proposal because I think we need a firewall between sponsor’s money and the substance of conference sessions. A sponsor may support Freedom of Information, for example, but should not dictate who serves on a panel, the questions asked, the material covered, who moderates and similar details.

This example is not hypothetical. This whole review began because SPJ chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego objected to the Charles Koch Institute paying $20,000 to sponsor an FOI session.

SPJ responded poorly to critics, promising them that the Charles Koch Institute did not plan the session, which turned out to be incorrect.

When a task force later looked into what happened and recommended a new policy, that review included a survey. SPJ members who responded strongly agreed that a firewall has to be in place between sponsor money and conference session. I agree with that sentiment and wish the board listened to it.

I didn’t mind the Charles Koch Institute sponsorship for a number of reasons, but only if a firewall existed.

Here is the final version of the new sponsorship policy:

  • Both media and non-media entities will be allowed to sponsor sessions/events, and to propose session ideas and speakers. Proposals will be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee. Once proposals are accepted, the Committee and its designated producer will assume full responsibility of for participants, topics, times, places, etc.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may offer speaking fees for sessions/events they sponsor. SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to provide fees to speakers.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may cover expenses for speakers participating in sessions/events they sponsor. SPJ, RTDNA or the EIJ Planning Committee may choose in certain circumstances to use sponsor or grant monies to cover speaker expenses.
  • EIJ partners will retain the right of refusal over all sponsors, exhibitors or advertisers, with contracts reviewed by the executive directors of partner groups before accepting.
  • EIJ partners will disclose its policies on sponsorship of sessions/events to potential sponsors in the prospectus for EIJ19 in San Antonio and any other appropriate publications or web pages.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


comments powered by Disqus

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ