Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category


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.

Spending policy, budget, governance: What SPJ’s board did

Updated at 6:30 p.m. May 1 with information about candidates

The biggest item on the SPJ national board agenda when it met in Indianapolis on April 22 and 23 was whether and how to overhaul the society’s structure of governance.

That topic has been studied for several months and will go before delegates for one or more votes at the national convention in Anaheim in September.

For background information from the Indianapolis board meetings (SPJ and SDX), go to a page at SPJ.org with board agendas and materials. Below are highlights, with notations to corresponding pages in the board packet.

***

April 22 SPJ board meeting:

• Budget: The board unanimously approved a $1.25 million budget for fiscal year 2018. Executive Director Joe Skeel said it’s more conservative than usual. Revenue in a few key areas is down, such as advertising and contest entries (p. 24). SPJ has been losing members, but a new recruitment and retention plan has Skeel optimistic that we can regain some lost ground. Staffing at SPJ HQ will decrease as duties are reorganized (p. 25). An investment in improving SPJ’s computer system is a priority.

• New chapter: A campus chapter was unanimously approved for Austin Peay State University in Tennessee.

• Conflicts of interest: The board unanimously agreed to strengthen part of its conflict of interest policy (p. 39). Old passage: “After disclosure, I understand that I may participate in discussion to respond to questions, but then shall leave the meeting before the final discussion and vote and shall not vote on the question.” New passage: “It is my responsibility to state my connection and potential conflict on any topic as it comes up during a discussion. After disclosure, I will remove myself from the discussion and leave the meeting, unless I am called on to answer questions. I will not vote on the topic.” This was sparked by an executive session discussion in which someone with a connection to both SPJ and an outside organization participated in a discussion about the other organization. I thought this was an insufficient separation and proposed a stronger one.

• Credit cards: At Skeel’s recommendation, the board unanimously approved a policy for SPJ employees using SPJ credit cards (p. 40). It clarifies the proper use of credit cards and the ramifications of improper use.

• Spending policy: The board discussed a possible policy on SPJ spending, as recommended by Region 11 Director Matt Hall: “The Executive Committee shall approve any expenditure over $5,000 that is not authorized in the annual budget.” This was largely a response to a decision by SPJ President Lynn Walsh, in consultation with SPJ’s staff, to spend $5,000 on an Ethics Week project that included hiring a consultant. Walsh said the proposal came up quickly and needed quick action. SPJ has no policy on the president getting approval for spending. But some board members expressed concern, especially when SPJ hires consultants, and thought this was a matter for board approval, like the last two times SPJ hired a consultant. The board talked about how much authority a president should have without needing to consult with the board. The proposal was sent back to SPJ’s Finance Committee to work on the wording.

• Candidates: The board heard from Immediate Past President Paul Fletcher, the nominations committee chairman, about candidates running in the next election.

Update: Today, Fletcher sent me a full list of the candidates so far. He shared them at the meeting, but I didn’t catch all of the names then.

Alex Tarquinio is running for president-elect. Patti Gallagher Newberry and Daniel Axelrod are competing for secretary-treasurer.

Five people were running for one at-large director seat, but one dropped out. The remaining four are: Alex Veeneman, Elle Toussi, Randy Bateman and Melissa Allison. Current at-large director Bill McCloskey is not running again.

Candidates for two campus representative seats are Rahim Chagani and Keem Muhammad (who is on the board now).

The only other contested race so far is for Region 10 director between Ethan Chung, who holds the position now, and Don Meyers, a former regional director.

Incumbent Sue Kopen Katcef is running again for vice president for campus chapter affairs. I am running again for Region 2 director. Region 3 director Michael Koretzky and Region 11 director Matt Hall are running for another term.

There are no candidates so far for one campus adviser at large seat (now held by Rebecca Tallent) and for directors in Region 6 (currently Joe Radske) and Region 12 (currently Amanda Womac).

• Membership: Associate Executive Director Tara Puckey has been overseeing a package of initiatives to boost SPJ’s membership (p. 44). They include “kudos boxes,” better invoices, working with non-journalism groups and much more. Take a look.

• Communications: SPJ also is working on a communications plan. It starts on p. 51.

T-shirts: SPJ is going to have terrific First Amendment T-shirts. More details to come.

• Executive session: In executive session, the board agreed on choices for SPJ Fellows and talked about a staffing analysis that Skeel prepared.

• Governance: After returning to open session, the board had a lengthy discussion and debate about a proposal to restructure its system of governance (p. 57). A task force has proposed cutting the board from 23 to 9 members (three officers, four at large, two appointed). A nominations committee would do “vetting.” One sticking point: What does vetting mean? A slate of endorsed candidates? Qualified? Is it better to steer voters toward “preferred/qualified” candidates or to not try to influence by applying a label? Regional directors would become “regional coordinators” and would no longer be on the board. Addendum C (p. 71) shows the phase-in timetable and process. Also take a look at feedback by the Bylaws Committee (p. 72).

*****

April 23 SPJ board meeting:

• Governance: The board continued the discussion on the governance restructuring proposal, focusing on a few key sticking points. A majority of the board opposed including term limits for members of the new board. With that change, the board approved the task force’s new governance proposal, sending it to this year’s convention delegates for vote(s) in September. The only board member to vote no was at-large director Rachel Wedding McClelland. The board also decided against the task force’s proposal to cut stipends for the regional directors/coordinators. (I was in favor of cutting the stipend, but it was not put out for a formal vote.)

• Diversity: The board and SPJ spent several minutes talking about questions raised in the SPJ Diversity Committee’s midyear report (p. 82). The committee expressed frustration that its ideas for changing the Dori Maynard Diversity Fellowship were not carried out. Keem Muhammad, a student member of the SPJ national board, said the fellowship is wasted if SPJ does not attempt to create longer-lasting connections with fellows. SDX Foundation President Robert Leger replied that some fellows have gone on to leadership positions. He said he disagreed with the Diversity Committee’s request that females be considered minorities for the purpose of the fellowship, which would change what the program is.

Seized funds and communication strategy

The SPJ national board took up two topics — money and communication — during an electronic meeting on Jan. 5:

1 – In September, the board voted to revoke the charters of three SPJ chapters: Mid-Florida Pro, North Central Florida Pro and Inland Northwest Pro.

Shutting down a chapter is extreme, but only comes after years of inactivity, as was the case here. A chapter gets 60 days to come up with a plan for how its money will be disbursed, or the money will be taken and used elsewhere within SPJ or SDX. The bylaws say:

Section Seventeen. Upon the decision to terminate any professional or campus chapter, whether by dissolution, disbandment, revocation pursuant to Section Thirteen of this Article, or otherwise, any remaining chapter funds shall be distributed to another adjoining active Society Chapter then in good standing, the Society, or the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, as directed by the chapter’s governing body, or, in the absence of action of the local board within 60 days of termination, the national board of directors.

The national board later heard from the Inland Northwest Pro chapter, which wanted another chance. Region 10 Director Ethan Chung supported the request, and the board granted that second chance.

The Mid-Florida Pro chapter, which has not held programs in about four years, did not try to continue. After the 60-day deadline, a chapter representative asked that its remaining money (about $12,000) go to the First Amendment Foundation. But SPJ bylaws say the money must stay within SPJ or SDX.

During our Jan. 5 meeting, SPJ President Lynn Walsh made a motion that the board reconsider its earlier vote on seizing the chapter’s treasury and ceded to the chapter’s wishes. Immediate Past President Paul Fletcher seconded the motion.

Upon proper motion by Walsh and second by Fletcher, the board voted against the motion to “reconsider the September vote and respect the wishes of the Mid-Florida Pro Chapter, instead giving the money to the SDX Foundation or somewhere else within SPJ.”

The vote was 10-8 against the motion.

No: Keem Muhammad, Jane Primerano, Bill McCloskey, Amanda Womac, Michael Koretzky, Ed Otte, Andy Schotz, Leticia Lee Steffen, Ethan Chung, Patti Gallagher Newberry

Yes: Rebecca Tallent, Paul Fletcher, Sue Kopen Katcef, Joe Radske, Michele Day, Lynn Walsh, Matthew Hall, Kari Williams

I voted no because the process the national board used was fair. Chapters get plenty of leeway to resume their activity. They get a few years of probation before their charters are revoked. There is no point having an inactive chapter indefinitely.

The 60-day period for deciding on a place for the money also was fair. The chapter was given numerous opportunities to meet that deadline; it did not.

The bylaws are clear about money staying in SPJ or SDX, and the chapter’s request did not follow that.

I thought the money should have stayed in Florida to help SPJers there. The Florida Pro chapter is excellent and could serve the people who previously were in the Mid-Florida chapter. But there was little interest in my idea. Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky assured me that the Florida Pro chapter doesn’t need the extra money to do programs that serve that region.

*****

2 – Walsh has said she wants to work on a better communication strategy for SPJ. She has created a committee to look at best practices. The committee includes:

  • FOI Committee Chairman Gideon Grudo
  • Ethics Committee Chairman Andrew Seaman
  • Membership Committee Chairwoman Robyn Davis Sekula
  • Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky
  • Communications Strategist Jennifer Royer
  • Michele Boyet, an officer in the Florida Pro chapter.

They will join the SPJ Executive Committee at its meeting in San Diego this month.

The question before the national board on Jan. 5 was a $6,860 budget.

That covers travel, hotel and meals for the six people above. (Executive Committee members have stipends to cover expenses.) The budget also covers $2,250 for (W)right On Communications of Solana Beach, Calif., and North Vancouver, British Columbia, to lead a strategy session.

Walsh said during our electronic meeting that SPJ needs a more specific plan for how and when to speak out, particularly on issues in the news. She said an attempt to create a plan internally has not worked well.

Walsh noted that the national board, a year ago, approved a budget of $8,850 for a strategy session on membership. That also included covering the costs of SPJers who flew in for the meeting and to pay a consultant.

A motion by Walsh to approve the budget for the communication strategy session, seconded by McCloskey, passed 16-2.

Yes: Muhammad, Primerano, Womac, Koretzky, Otte, Steffen, Chung, Gallagher Newberry, Tallent, Fletcher, Kopen Katcef, Radske, Day, Walsh, Hall, Williams

No: McCloskey, Schotz

I voted against this proposal because I am skeptical of hiring consultants to run meetings. I’ve covered many “facilitator” sessions as a reporter and I’m not convinced they are worth the expense. I also don’t buy the argument that an outsider has to be brought in to help a journalism organization learn how to communicate.

For the record, I voted against the budget for the membership consultant, too.

 

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