Archive for the ‘Sponsorship’ Category


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.


New sponsorship policy approved

When the SPJ national board held an electronic meeting on Dec. 1, most of the meeting was in executive session for four topics:

  • the president’s report (including updates on personnel and vacancies for two appointed board seats)
  • Excellence in Journalism updates
  • a sponsorship task force report
  • an upcoming annual review of the executive director

A written part of the president’s report — on board structure, meetings, committees, priorities and more — was not in executive session and is part of the public meeting packet.

After discussing the sponsorship task force’s report in executive session, the board unanimously approved a new policy, after making two small changes from what the task force recommended.

The new SPJ policy:

  • Both media and non-media entities will be allowed to sponsor sessions/events, and to propose session ideas (but the proposals can be rejected). Proposals will be vetted by the EIJ Planning Committee. Once proposals are accepted, the Committee and its designated producer will assume full responsibility for participants, topics, times, places, etc.
  • Neither media nor non-media entities may offer speaking fees for sessions/events they sponsor. (Sponsor or grant money will not be used to pay 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.

RTDNA, our EIJ convention partner for several years, is scheduled to review the same proposal later this week.

The sponsorship task force met for about two months. It was created after a few chapters protested in August that the Charles Koch Institute was to be a sponsor at EIJ 18 in September.

In 2003, SPJ passed a policy that did not allow sponsors to plan their own programs. However, because of turnover at SPJ headquarters and on the board, no one was aware of that policy as EIJ 18 was planned.

The 2003 policy also was approved before SPJ had a convention partner, so it needed to be reviewed and updated.

The board and SPJ’s headquarters gave out incorrect information about the Charles Koch Institute’s involvement in the EIJ 18 session it sponsored.

Also during the public portion of the Dec. 1 meeting, the board unanimously approved a process for evaluating SPJ’s executive director when the one-year mark arrives in March.

Bad communication, an apology: examining Koch sponsorship

Heading into this year’s national Excellence in Journalism convention, a few SPJ chapters criticized the national board and headquarters because the Charles Koch Institute was sponsoring a Freedom of Information Act session.

I didn’t mind the sponsorship, which appeared to mesh with an SPJ policy approved in 2003.

However, SPJ failed to give critics (and all SPJ members) accurate information — particularly about whether the Charles Koch Institute planned the session it sponsored. For that, I apologize. (Note: This piece reflects my views — not the SPJ board or anyone else.)

SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio hinted at this in a column posted Oct. 24, writing that because of “a flurry of emails … some SPJ national board members became convinced that sponsors were not, in fact, involved in planning sessions.”

That characterization is technically true, but further explanation and context is in order.

In August, the Chicago Headline Club contacted SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and then-President Rebecca Baker with concern about the Charles Koch Institute as an EIJ sponsor. This prompted thorough discussion by the SPJ and SDX boards and McKenzie of this and other sponsorships.

Tarquinio, as president-elect, agreed to form a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations by Dec. 1. That effort is underway. All SPJ members have been invited to take a survey on sponsorship questions. An online conversation will be held Nov. 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Irwin Gratz, a past SPJ president and incoming president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation Board), tracked down the approved 2003 policy and shared it with the boards during our discussion. Many of us weighed in on how the Koch sponsorship aligned with that policy.

Some key points:

  • “No money will be accepted from domestic or foreign governments, or from political organizations.”
  • “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program. All convention programs will be on-the-record. People and organizations with positions directly opposed to those of any contributor may be invited to appear.”

This is the 2003 SPJ convention sponsorship policy

Since the policy was approved in 2003, SPJ has had plenty of turnover in its headquarters staff and on its board. As a result, it looks as if, when the Koch sponsorship was proposed and accepted, no one was aware of that policy.

(The task force has found that the SPJ board in 2008 approved an update to the policy. The two key points above did not change, but others did.)

A collective failure in communication compounded the problem. The SPJ and SDX boards reviewed the 2003 policy as if it governed the Koch agreement. Regional directors sent messages explaining and supporting the Koch agreement to all chapters, based on the same understanding.

Separately, though, our staff was proceeding differently with Koch and other sponsors, who were, indeed, allowed to plan sessions they sponsored.

It’s a legitimate question whether the 2003 policy applies now, since it was approved when SPJ held its own conventions, without partners (i.e., RTDNA) we have now. We can no longer say “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program.”

Certainly, the policy needs to be re-examined and updated, which the task force is doing.

But the failure to provide accurate information was wrong, and we have ourselves to blame.

When I asked during the board’s Sept. 30 meeting if Koch planned the session it sponsored, Tarquinio said, “They did not plan it, but obviously we spoke with them and the process was a little [I’m not sure of the word she used here] this year because, as many of you know, Alison did have to step in for our program manager, who left in the middle of EIJ.”

(The sponsorship discussion during the Sept. 30 meeting is posted here, starting at about 45:40.)

McKenzie then told us that sponsors at that level picked from a choice of sessions. (McKenzie said that level was $25,000, but it actually was $20,000, according to the sponsorship task force.)

“They and any other sponsor at that level can plan their panel,” she said. “It’s their panel. It’s a sponsored panel.”

She said she chose the moderator, plus one panelist. Koch chose the other two panelists. “I reviewed their description and tweaked it, and sort of changed it a little bit,” McKenzie said. “So I was pretty heavy-handed in putting their panel together.”

She continued: “My understanding is, in the past, it hasn’t worked like that — that the sponsor pretty much picks, chooses the panel, chooses the description. I just was very involved in this particular panel.”

When I asked about the 2003 policy that said SPJ controls all aspects of the program, McKenzie said, “I was not aware of our policy at the time.”

Board member Lauren Bartlett mentioned “talking points” our headquarters staff gave the board on Sept. 24 about the Koch sponsorship, including this:

  • The institute doesn’t control anything about the session. It did not pick the topic or select the speakers, who are independent from the Koch foundation.

“No, that was inaccurate,” McKenzie told us.

Collectively, we failed and I understand the frustration of the Chicago Headline Club and others.

There is room for reasonable debate about appropriate sponsorship limits. But facts matter, too.

The Chicago Headline Club told its members that “the Charles Koch Institute, for example, is part of a secretive and complex family of groups whose goal is to advance the Koch brothers’ political ideologies.”

I note that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Charles Koch Institute is legally prohibited from political advocacy (although I was called “naïve” to think this limitation is meaningful or obeyed).

Also, the Charles Koch Institute has a record of funding journalism efforts — such as with The Poynter Institute and the Newseum — that align with SPJ’s mission.

For example, from the Charles Koch Institute’s website:

Civil debate and the free exchange of speech and ideas — on our college campuses, in the arts, and in the press — allow us to challenge both ourselves and the status quo. In order to protect good ideas and speech, we must protect all ideas and speech, so long as they do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.

Also:

The Media and Journalism Fellowship program is for aspiring and entrepreneurial journalists and story tellers. Our program offers media and creative professionals the opportunity to refine their skills while learning about the crucial role of free speech and a free press in our society.

The Poynter Institute was in a similar situation when it accepted money from the Charles S. Koch Foundation (the same organization, despite the variation in the name) to strengthen student publications.

Kelly McBride wrote about why Poynter was comfortable with the arrangement:

We pick the schools. We set the curriculum. We hire the faculty. We occasionally update our contacts at the Koch Foundation about our progress. I can personally attest that over the last year our contacts at the Koch Foundation gave us complete independence to run the program the way we saw fit. …

As an ethics specialist, I’m confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line.

If SPJ has the same firewall, I am comfortable with the same approach.

I don’t agree with all of the points raised by SPJ chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. For example, Chicago insists that the SPJ Code of Ethics applies here. I disagree — the code is a set of guidelines for journalism, not deciding conference sponsorships.

Still, I apologize that we gave critics, and others, wrong information.

I couldn’t attend the FOIA session at EIJ because it conflicted with a national board meeting, but the Charles Koch Institute posted this about it:

At its 2018 Excellence in Journalism Conference last week, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion on use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Panelists included National Public Radio science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce and Jesse Franzblau, a policy analyst at Open the Government (OTG) — an organization that works to promote government openness through the use of access to information laws.

Starting with the premise that FOIA has allowed journalists to shine a light on government for more than 50 years, panelists explained how journalists can navigate FOIA for their benefit; how to find the right information and to isolate good stories; and how to ensure that they get the timely and complete answers from state officials.

The discussion coincided with OTG’s release its citizen’s guide to “America’s Forever Wars and the Secrecy that Sustains Them.” The project, which OTG policy analyst Emily Manna describes as helping the public understand FOIA’s role in “bringing transparency to issues vital to the public’s understanding of military and national security programs,” is supported by Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute.

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