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Investigation into Region 10 money still underway; new SPJ financial regulations approved

Some people have asked about the May 21 email from the SPJ board of directors (see below) about the possible misuse of money in a regional fund in Region 10.

The investigation is still underway, but these are some basic details:

• The board and SPJ HQ have been working with chapters in Region 10 (which covers Washington state, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska) to figure out what happened.
• A member of the Western Washington SPJ chapter filed a report with the Seattle Police Department on May 10.
• The police report (a public record) says that while Ethan Chung was Region 10 director, thousands of dollars of SPJ money was taken out of the bank during a two-year period for use that was unauthorized.
• Chung was Region 10 director from about October 2015 to January 2018, when he resigned.
• In February, the board appointed Donald W. Meyers as Region 10 director to replace Chung.
• The local chapters and SPJ HQ have gotten access to the bank records and are reviewing them.
We will share more information about the case as it develops.
***
As the May 21 email notes, SPJ has strengthened its oversight on how money in regional funds is kept and monitored. I was part of a task force (along with at-large national board member Lauren Bartlett and regional directors Michael Koretzky, Kelly Kissel and Ed Otte) that came up with the new measures. We presented them to the full board, which approved them in April.
The task force is working on additional measures to strengthen financial practices for pro and campus chapters.
At the chapter level, SPJ has had a few cases of money being taken from bank accounts without authorization.

The Greater Los Angeles Pro chapter went through this with unauthorized withdrawals from 2009 to 2011.

The Oklahoma Pro chapter learned in 2012 that money was missing. Scott Cooper, who was the chapter’s secretary-treasurer and Region 8 director, later admitted to embezzling more than $43,000 from the chapter. He was ordered to serve four weekends in jail and repay the money.

***
This was the May 21 email on the current Region 10 investigation:
In the interest of transparency, we are writing to alert you that we have filed a police report with the Seattle Police Department over alleged misappropriation of funds from Region 10 bank accounts.
An internal investigation is ongoing. Based upon information to date, it is our understanding that the alleged misappropriation is isolated to one individual.
The national board, headquarters staff and local chapter leaders are cooperating with authorities to get as clear and complete a picture as possible of the extent of the unauthorized activity. Donald W. Meyers, the new Region 10 director, is helping to lead our efforts. We will update you as we get additional information.
To help avoid a similar situation in the future, the national board adopted new rules for regional accounts at its April 14 board meeting. The new rules further enhance the organization’s accountability measures.
If you have any questions, please contact Alison Bethel McKenzie, SPJ executive director, at abmckenzie@spj.org.
Sincerely,
National Board of Directors
Society of Professional Journalists

SPJ/SDX boards: budgets, bylaws and more

Some highlights of the most recent (April 14/15) SPJ and SDX national board meetings in Indianapolis:

Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board (April 14):

• SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie told the board that more than 100 applications had come in for the newly created Journalist on Call position. The goal is to fill the position by mid-May. The person does not have to live in Indianapolis, but must be willing to travel and should be: comfortable talking to many types of people; patient; adventurous; mobile; a fundraiser.

The scope of the position has changed several times. McKenzie said the current focus is picking specific communities and exploring public trust in journalism. The idea of “helicoptering” in during breaking news that involves the press has moved down the list of priorities. She called the job duties “a work in progress.”

• The board approved a $1.67M budget for FY19 (see p. 12 of the board packet). About 4.5 percent, or $54K, will be set aside for SDX grants. Of that, $43K goes to SPJ for EIJ 18. The remaining $11K will be divided among several grant applicants. (see p. 42)

• The board agreed to proceed with a bylaws change to shift oversight of a Quill magazine endowment fund to the board. It’s a complicated process that requires votes by SPJ convention delegates in both 2018 and 2019. (see p. 45)

• Board member Bill Ketter asked if it’s times to change the name of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board to the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation Board, to make it clearer to the public what the board is. Board member Todd Gillman noted a push in recent years to change SPJ from the Society of Professional Journalists to the Society for Professional Journalism, which could be a factor. The simple solution: Use only the acronym — SPJ Foundation Board.

• Board member Fred Brown said he has updated the SPJ ethics book. It will be online only. Other board members suggested making it a membership incentive and adding a video component.

• Board member Paul Fletcher said an effort to create an SPJ history book has floundered. Someone who was going to work on it stopped several years ago.

• Board President Robert Leger said he is not going to run for re-election this year.

• The board went into executive session to get legal advice. After returning to open session, the board voted to act on the matter discussed in executive session, according to the majority’s wishes. Board member Robyn Davis Sekula was the only board member opposed.

SPJ board (April 14):

• SPJ President Rebecca Baker said the “Press for Education” campaign resulted in 100 people speaking about journalism in schools in seven weeks.

• The board formally approved Don Meyers as the Region 10 director (even though the board, during a conference call in February, already chose Meyers to fill the Region 10 position after Ethan Chung resigned). Region 10 includes Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

• The board approved a $1.21M budget for FY19 (see p. 14 of the board packet). It’s a deficit budget and includes some cuts.

• The board approved three new SPJ chapters — William Paterson University in New Jersey, Augusta University in Georgia, and Georgia Southern University.

• The board approved a new, stronger policy for oversight of regional funds, with tighter procedures and more accountability. Each regional director must work with a regional treasurer, and both get training. Chapter presidents in that region must see copies of the regional fund bank statements. A regional director who does not follow the procedures could be removed from office.

• The board went into executive session to discuss a) the next group of Fellows of the Society and b) a question about a specific company’s involvement in EIJ18 and c) to get legal advice. After returning to regular session, the board voted on a motion by Region 1 Director Jane Primerano to take no action on a matter discussed in executive session. The motion passed, with four board members (Patti Gallagher Newberry, Lauren Bartlett, Leticia Lee Steffen, Andy Schotz) opposed.

SPJ board (April 15):

• The board approved a motion to proceed with a change in the bylaws pertaining to the Quill magazine endowment fund (see the SDX summary above).

• The board talked about EIJ18, including programs and the Mark of Excellence Awards event.

• The board unanimously approved a “position profile” that lists the ideal qualifications for members of the national board (see p. 46), a policy for board appointments (p. 48) and reimbursement stipends (p. 49). The board also approved having existing people stay on the board until their positions expire through the bylaws changes.

• The board went into executive session to discuss EIJ21, which is scheduled to be in Minneapolis.

• At the request of student board member Hayley Harding, the board unanimously voted to support the national Save Student Newsrooms movement.

A new regional director; more news TK

The SPJ national board met electronically on Monday to choose a new regional director to serve on the board.

The vacancy was for Region 10, which covers Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Ethan Chung was Region 10 director until he resigned.

The board decided Monday on Donald W. Meyers to fill the seat. Meyers is a reporter/multimedia reporter with the Yakima Herald-Republic and a member of the William O. Douglas SPJ chapter in Washington state.

Meyers served on the national board when he was the Region 9 director from 2010 to 2014. He ran for Region 10 director at EIJ 17, but lost to to Chung.

Also Monday, the board talked about a personnel topic. There should be public news soon about that discussion.

Candidates with the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’

In SPJ elections (or any elections), do you want someone telling you how to vote?

That will be the topic when the SPJ national board holds an electronic meeting on Monday afternoon: whether to have preferred candidates in future elections.

At the Excellence in Journalism conference in the fall in Anaheim, delegates approved a plan to overhaul the SPJ national board, shrinking it from 23 to 9 people in a two-year period.

Another part of the plan is a new Nominating Committee, creating a more formal process for recruiting future candidates for the board.

The intention is good. Instead of having one person (usually the past president) doing the recruiting, a group of seven, representing various SPJ constituencies, will do the work.

What has not been decided yet is how the committee will operate.

This is important for one main reason. A task force suggested having the committee “vet” candidates and recommend them. This will entail making subjective decisions about which candidates are the best and giving them a “seal of approval.”

One idea has been to have that “seal” show up on the ballot. In the next election, you might see, for example, four candidates for president-elect and only one has an asterisk/check mark/thumbs up from the Nominating Committee, nudging you to vote for that person.

I strongly object to anything other than a neutral, politics-free ballot. Campaigning and endorsements are fine in an election, but they have no place appearing on the ballot. It’s no different than when you go to your local polling place and candidates’ signs can’t be any closer than 100 feet away from the door.

Proponents of the “seal of approval” have a good motivation. They think a Nominating Committee will highlight the best candidates, making it more likely we’ll have qualified board members.

But that underestimates the ability of voters to be thoughtful and discerning when making their choices. The “seal of approval” process essentially shifts the decision from all SPJ members to a group of seven. The election becomes a ratification process for the Nominating Committee’s preferences.

That’s going in the opposite direction for SPJ, which expanded voting rights in elections several years ago from a small group of delegates at the national convention to all SPJ members.

But how, some SPJ board members ask, can we be sure voters make smart choices? The answer is easy: Give them the information they need.

Currently, SPJ members are told who the candidates are, but little else. Candidates give some basic biographical information in Quill (if they choose to) and they make a short speech at the national convention (if they go). This is not nearly enough.

SPJ should treat elections like the governments we cover treat them. We need to get information from candidates through a questionnaire. (Some voters told me this questionnaire I sent to this year’s candidates helped them choose.) We need Twitter chats, podcasts, and maybe a (livestreamed) forum at the convention.

I am convinced that voters will make good choices if they have good information. Voters don’t need to have their hands held as they fill out the ballot.

* * *

This is a draft I proposed for the makeup and work of the SPJ Nominations Committee, followed by a Q&A addressing concerns that other board members have raised. Most of this was written by others; my draft addresses the concerns raised above.

SPJ’s Nominations Committee

Purpose and Composition: The committee will identify and recruit candidates for election to the Board of Directors.

The Nominations Committee shall have seven members:

  • The immediate past president of the Board of Directors
  • A current elected board member
  • A regional coordinator
  • An undergraduate student member
  • Three at-large members to be appointed from SPJ’s committees, communities, chapters or other SPJ constituencies.

Committee members will serve two-year terms, to be staggered, except for the student member and the immediate past president, who will serve one-year terms.

  • In Year 1, one other member of the committee besides the immediate past president and the student member will serve a one-year term.

The Nominations Committee chair will be appointed by the Board of Directors.

  • In accordance with the bylaws, the chair may not be an officer or board member.
  • The chair will:
    • Work with the Board of Directors to select appointees for the remaining Nominations Committee seats within 60 days of assuming his or her position. Self-nominations, member recommendations and board recommendations are allowed. Committee members should represent as many diverse viewpoints as possible to: 1) enhance the chances of identifying qualified candidates from all possible constituent groups and 2) enhance the chances of having a Board of Directors diverse in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, medium, geography and professional experience.
    • Conduct virtual teleconference meetings or conference calls (open only to Nominations Committee members) to discuss potential board candidates.

To serve on the Nominations Committee, individuals must be SPJ members in good standing.

  • Members of the Nominations Committee cannot be candidates for an elected position and cannot lobby for the election of any candidate on the ballot. They must wait at least one year after leaving the Nominations Committee before running for or being considered for appointment to the Board of Directors.
  • Committee vacancies that occur after the committee has been selected will be filled by the Nominations Committee chair in consultation with SPJ’s president. Those members will serve the remainder of the term.

Nominations Committee Policies and Procedures

The Nominations Committee will:

  • Identify board candidates through a call for nominations in the winter and by actively recruiting through many diverse channels. Candidates may nominate themselves, be nominated by a fellow SPJ member or be nominated by a Nominations Committee member. Nominations Committee members should be active all year in promoting board membership and recruiting qualified candidates.
  • Verify that all board candidates are eligible to serve, according to SPJ’s bylaws, but will not recommend which candidates should be elected.

Candidates may add themselves to the ballot up to five days before an election begins.

The ballot will list only the name and background of all candidates.

The president, by April 1, shall appoint one or more people to work on efforts to educate SPJ members about candidates leading up to the next election, such as questionnaires about SPJ issues, podcasts, the use of social media, and other means.

________________________
Here are some questions and answers about this approach, using some concerns raised by other SPJ board members.

Q: Why not have the Nominations Committee designate the best candidates (with a label of “preferred,” “recommended” or a similar term)?

  A: All SPJ members will pick who the best candidates.

Q: How do we prevent an unworthy candidate from being elected?

  A: Voters will decide who they want, just like we would in any other election.

Q: But how can we be sure voters know which candidates deserve to be elected?

  A: We will do what we should have done already: pay more attention to making sure members have thorough information about candidates. Currently, we have a short bio in Quill and that’s about it. Candidates share more information about themselves if they want, but this tends to be generalities and platitudes. For all future elections, we will have some or all of the following: questionnaires on SPJ issues and experience; Twitter chats; podcasts; possibly a candidate forum at EIJ.

Q: A candidate is obviously unethical in his/her work. Why not tell voters about that?

  A: That type of information is fair game in any and all of the information forums we choose. We can and should ask candidates questions about their work, including asking them to defend it. Keep in mind that “unethical” is subjective; not everyone would agree what this means. 

Q: Of course we would agree on unethical ethics. We’re talking about a blatant lack of ethics, like working for Breitbart News.

  A: Does working for the National Enquirer indicate a blatant lack of ethics? A current board member used to work there. Should he be removed from the board?

Q: Fair point, but I’m talking about something much worse, something egregious.

  A: Why would SPJ members elect an egregiously bad candidate? They don’t need to be protected from themselves.

Q: Why have a Nominations Committee if it can’t name its preferred candidates on the ballot?

  A: The Nominations Committee serves another important function: rounding up and recruiting strong candidates. That’s a big improvement over the previous process, in which one person (the past president) did almost all of the work.

A (mostly) good plan for changing SPJ

The SPJ national board held an electronic meeting on June 14 to discuss a proposal to change SPJ’s governance structure.

The board unanimously approved suggested changes to SPJ’s bylaws to carry out this change. Below is a summary of the major ones, with my thoughts on them. I agree with almost everything proposed, but strongly disagree with one idea.

Highlights of the plan include:

  • Cutting the board from 23 members to 9 members
  • Removing regional directors from the board
  • Establishing a nominations committee to recruit candidates and make sure they are eligible to serve
  • Have both elected and appointed at-large members, who do not have to be SPJ members

If you want to explore the plan further, go to https://www.spj.org/governance.asp.

Under the new plan, the makeup of the new national board would be: president, president-elect, secretary/treasurer, four elected at-large members, two appointed at-large members. (A majority of the current board, but not everyone, supports having appointed members. The board was almost evenly split during our June 14 conference call on whether to allow non-members to be appointed to the board. Seven said yes; six said no. I was one of the “no” voters.)

The current 23-member board is made up of: president, president-elect, secretary/treasurer, immediate past president, vice president of campus chapter affairs, two at-large directors, two campus advisers at-large, two campus chapter representatives, and 12 regional directors. All are elected. (The president-elect later becomes president, then immediate past president, without being elected again.)

Regional directors would still exist in the new structure, renamed “regional coordinators.” They still would be elected within their respective regions.

In May 2016, I spoke out in favor of the idea of shrinking the national board. I suggested 17 members. I recommended removing regional directors from the board and eliminating representation by region and by type of constituency (campus chapters, students, pros).

I pitched the idea of adding board slots for liaisons from other journalism organizations representing specific groups, but I don’t think there’s much support for that.

My thoughts:

  • I’m very much in favor of contraction. Nine is a reasonable number. If we were starting a board from scratch, we wouldn’t have 23 seats.
  • I fully support the change in duties of regional directors/coordinators. Currently, they serve two roles (1. counsel for chapters, 2. board members) at the same time. It’s tough do both well.
  • There is no need for regional representation on the SPJ board. No issue ever has required, for example, an East Coast or West Coast perspective. Different people holding the same regional director position might have totally different ideas.
  • Some might wonder about cutting the campus chapter representative positions. To be clear: The board still wants campus representation. Under the proposed plan, if no students or faculty members are elected, at least one will be appointed to the board.
  • An earlier draft of the proposed bylaws included term limits, but the board voted 15-7 against it. I voted no with the rest of the majority.

“Recommended/approved” candidates

The controversial idea that I strongly oppose is in the nominations process. It is not part of the bylaws, but is in a supporting memo recommending a process.

The nominations committee would have seven SPJ members: immediate past president, an elected board member, a regional coordinator, a student, and three others who are part of SPJ committees, communities or chapters.

The committee would check that candidates are eligible for the positions they seek to hold, such as whether they are members in good standing and can attend meetings. An SPJ president must have a) served on the SPJ or SDX board, b) chaired a national committee, or c) been a pro chapter president who is or was on a national committee.

Here’s where the recommendation goes awry: The nominations committee also would “recommend board candidates who best match the Board of Directors Position Profile document.”

The Position Profile document lays out ideals for board members — “inspired,” “future-oriented,” “possessing the ability to see big picture,” “talent, skill, vitality,” “sound judgment and integrity,” “a zest for serving.”

The nominating committee would interview candidates and, based on these subjective traits, recommend candidates — giving what I call a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Those recommended candidates would be denoted by a symbol on the ballot.

I am against this approach, which I think injects an unfair weighting to an open election.

The argument in favor of having recommendations is that the nominations committee is entrusted with putting forward the best people to be board members.

I see nothing wrong with trusting the electorate to determine that. Candidates’ credentials should speak for themselves. I balk at an extra thumb on the scale to tilt an election toward any particular people. In my mind, it turns an election into a ratification and discourages voters from thinking for themselves.

I will speak against this part of the proposal at EIJ17.

Who represents you

This is a much less important point, but I also oppose the thinking expressed in an organization chart recommended for the new board. It shows each of the four new at-large elected directors overseeing one constituency — students/educators for one, communities for another, members at large for a third, regional coordinators for a fourth.

A notation says: “Any individual or constituent group may contact staff instead of their assigned liaison.”

To me, that directs SPJ members to only contact an assigned liaison on the board or a staff member.

I think everyone elected to the board represents every SPJ member. We should make it clear that any SPJer may contact anyone on the board, for any reason.

Candidate forum

This is only tangentially related to the governance proposal, but I want SPJ to do more to let members learn about candidates.

Candidates introduce themselves in Quill and their bios are posted at SPJ’s election page. They may speak for a few minutes at a business meeting at EIJ.

This doesn’t do enough to tease out issues, platforms, and positions, like we expect in the elections we cover in our day jobs.

Why not also have a candidate forum? It could be during the convention or as an electronic session beforehand, streamed live and archived. A moderator would ask questions of candidates, maybe even in a debate style. There could be Twitter chats. As we choose our leaders, the more info, the better.

*****

To see the proposed bylaws and supporting memos (organization chart, board position description, board appointments, nominations process, reimbursement guidelines), go to https://www.spj.org/governance.asp.

If you will be a delegate at this year’s national convention, you’re better off looking through the various documents beforehand. There’s a lot to this plan, and it will come before the delegates for one or more votes.

N.C. FOI law doesn’t care about motivation, ‘outsiders’

Many times, I’ve heard resistance from public officials to public records requests. Sometimes, they’re right, such as when a request is unreasonably voluminous. Some “Send me all…” requests need to be reined in.

But a sheriff in North Carolina recently complained in a way I’ve never heard: He objects to an “outsider” seeking public records, poking his nose in the county’s business — even though state law makes no such distinction.

Ashe County Sheriff Terry Buchanan railed during a public meeting about a reporter requesting public records while working elsewhere in the state — Charlotte, which appears to be about 110 miles south.

For everyone at the meeting, Buchanan repeatedly held up a copy of WBTV reporter Nick Ochsner‘s records request. It’s a peculiar diatribe — watch here.

In the clip, Buchanan explains: “Now, this is unprecedented, as I checked, in the county. We have never had a Charlotte reporter come up here to inquire about anything.” The sheriff denounces the request as “a political fishing expedition.”

Curiously, Buchanan says he doesn’t mind releasing records from his government cellphone. Instead, he harps on letting “an outside reporter come in from Charlotte” to get public records while Ashe County is busy with important projects and coping with a political divide. “We don’t have time for this,” he declares, continuing to grip and hold up the records request.

Buchanan says the public records request “thwarts my efforts and thwarts my job” of keeping the community safe.

The rant gets weirder when the sheriff turns to tell “our local guys, our local media” what he wants them do to — ask for even more information than WBTV requested, involving other officials. He urges them to be more concerned with the fact that a county commissioner also is a deputy sheriff with arrest powers and with the settlement of a court case.

Buchanan urges local reporters, local residents and county officials to question the Charlotte reporter about “who brought this to his attention.”

“Why would we have an outsider come into our county, put us on state and national news,” Buchanan says. “Why? Why would we do such a thing? It’s beyond me. If we love this county, and we want to keep the county out of the national news, we should stay right here in the county.”

Clearly, there’s a back story that I don’t know, but none of that matters when someone asks for public records.

“These types of things should not be allowed,” Buchanan says about the records request. “They should not interfere with county business.”

Another county official correctly reminds the sheriff that the law allows anyone to request public information, which many people do, even from other states.

The sheriff’s screed is a wild overreach of authority and shows a disregard for the purpose and intent of public records laws.

North Carolina’s public records law (which looks much better than the loophole-ridden law here in Maryland) permits nothing anywhere near what Buchanan is calling for — closing borders on public information to “outsiders,” questioning motivation.

Here is a guide posted by the University of North Carolina’s School of Government:

“G.S. 132-6 accords the rights of inspection and copying to “any person,” and there is no reason to think that the quoted words are limiting in any way. The rights extend both to natural persons and to corporations and other artificial persons (such as associations, partnerships, and cooperatives). And they extend both to citizens of the government holding the record and to noncitizens. Furthermore, as a general rule a person’s intended use of the records is irrelevant to the right of access, and the records custodian may not deny access simply because of the intended use.”
 ***
The sheriff may complain and be as unhappy as he wants, but it’s irrelevant and beyond the scope of his duties. It doesn’t matter if he likes the law — it’s still the law.
But the sheriff is free to ignore my opinion, too. I’m another “outsider.”

Kicking out the press

The Maryland Pro chapter of SPJ released the following statement on Wednesday in response to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake banning WYPR reporter P. Kenneth Burns from her press briefings. SPJ objects to the mayor’s decision and calls for Rawlings-Blake to immediately reinstate Burns’ full privileges and rights in reporting on the mayor and city government.

 

October 12, 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Wednesday she has banned P. Kenneth Burns, a WYPR radio reporter and vice president of the Maryland Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, from her weekly press briefings based on allegations of “verbally and physically threatening behavior.” The Maryland Professional Chapter believes the mayor’s decision to be an unacceptable violation of freedom of the press rights.

We take threats of violence seriously, and we support any individual’s right to protect him or herself from those threats. However, in speaking with Anthony McCarthy, director of public affairs for the mayor, this afternoon, we have learned that there are no specific examples of physical or verbal threats Mayor Rawlings-Blake can reference. McCarthy said the mayor feels “uncomfortable” and “threatened” in the small briefing room space where these conferences occur.

After speaking with WYPR editor Joel McCord and viewing footage online of a hostile exchange between Rawlings-Blake and Burns during a press event last week, it is clear Burns is an aggressive reporter, and the relationship between the two has been contentious during his three years covering city government. Regardless, a public official does not have the right to ban a reporter because he or she does not like his tone or persistence during questioning.

Furthermore, a public official – particularly the mayor of a metropolitan city – has an obligation to produce evidence of any alleged threats rather than making vague allusions to violence and restricting a reporter’s First Amendment rights. Were there a real threat of violence, we feel confident a security team would have addressed those issues with Burns and WYPR. As of yet, no specific allegations have been made.

We feel this is an unacceptable abuse of power. Elected officials cannot and should not be permitted to pick and choose which reporters cover them. This incident points to a troubling trend wherein officials believe they can control the message by restricting the messenger. The consequences of this violation of press freedom are disastrous for a community, which relies on quality investigative journalism to keep public officials accountable.

The Maryland Professional Chapter calls on Mayor Rawlings-Blake to reinstate Burns’ press access immediately and allow him to continue his coverage of city government.

Sincerely,

The Maryland Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

Thoughts on revamping the SPJ board

The SPJ board of directors is considering a plan to change the board’s makeup.

The plan has four parts.
One is to reduce the number of SPJ regions from 12 to 9. As proposed, this would be the new map: https://spjrefresh.com/motions
North Carolina would be removed from Region 2.
West Virginia and Kentucky would be added to Region 2.

The proposal was pitched by Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky. He explained it at https://spjrefresh.com/regions.

*****

The national board held an electronic meeting about the proposal on May 9.
Some considerations:
• geography: How does this affect the ability of a regional director (RD) to represent chapters and work with them? How does this affect regional conferences and travel plans, particularly for students?
• board structure: Should board members represent regions or be elected at large? Currently, there are 12 directors by region. Two pros, two campus chapter advisers and two student members are elected at large. The full board is listed at http://www.spj.org/spjboard.asp.
• benefits: Will this change be useful?

The board decided not to take any action during that meeting and instead solicit more public feedback.

SPJ President Paul Fletcher posted a summary of the proposal a few weeks ago and got several responses. His post is at: http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/president/2016/05/11/spj-considers-reduction-in-size-of-board.

This proposal would not require a bylaws change and can be approved by the board.
Koretzky sees a window of opportunity, since there are no declared candidates yet for the three RD positions that would be contracted.

The board will meet again electronically on Monday, May 23, at 1 p.m.
I will post a summary of the meeting.

*****

I see merit in the concept of contraction. Twenty-three people is a large number for a board in which all members are active.
I’m less enthused about the proposed boundaries. Kentucky and Washington, D.C., for example, are pretty far apart to be grouped together. But, regions in the west already are quite large.

No grouping that we choose will be perfect. Also, RDs don’t need to worry much anymore about traveling throughout the region (except for the regional conference). Electronic communication and participation should be sufficient.

*****

On the “useful” question, Koretzky cited four benefits:
1) A smaller board would be more “nimble.”
2) We have trouble finding candidates for regional director.
3) Fewer regions could lead to more contested races.
4) Cost savings.

My thoughts:

1) Skeptics on the board have focused on this point the most. How is it more “nimble” to have 19 people gather for a meeting (in person or electronically) than 23?
Fewer people can have more efficient discussions and debates (but that’s no guarantee). In a smaller group, it’s more likely that everyone’s voice is heard. A big factor is who is running the meeting and allowing or cutting off debate.
For electronic meetings — which are becoming more frequent for the board — the number of people participating matters even more. We are using a video conferencing system called Zoom that includes a chat function, which helps. Still, there are some people (like me) who participate by phone because these electronic meetings always are in the middle of the work day. Twenty-three board members, plus headquarters staff, on a conference call is clunky. It’s hard to get around that, though, unless we drop down to single digits.

There other considerations, too, for how large a board should be. More on that below.

2) This is mostly true. RD races are usually uncontested. Often, an RD who is completing a term recruits a replacement to take over.
There are exceptions, though, especially when RD seats become vacant. During my time on the board, the last five times an RD seat was vacated in the middle of a term, there were multiple people interested and the board had to choose.
I don’t know why there is more interest in those cases. Maybe we get the word out better for vacancies than scheduled elections. Maybe people are more willing to fill out a term than make a two-year commitment.

3) This might be true. If we have six states from which to draw candidates in a region instead of five, common sense says a larger candidate pool is more likely — but we can’t be sure.
On the other hand, if the new RD territory seems unmanageable under the proposed changes, we could get fewer candidates.

4) The cost savings is legitimate. RDs are entitled to a $1,500 stipend to cover travel costs. Nine stipends instead of 12 would be less money.
Some of that savings would boost stipends for RDs. That’s appealing for RDs who rely on the stipend and could lead to more RD candidates, as described above. The rest of the savings would help chapters with programming. That’s useful, too.

*****

Last week, I was curious about what guidance was out there on the topic of nonprofit board size.
I looked at three websites with pieces on this topic.
All agreed that 23 is a large number for a nonprofit board, unless spots are designated for people with fundraising connections. (That’s not a factor for the SPJ national board.)
These pieces suggested the mid-teens as a maximum, depending on the size of the organization and the work of the board.

Here are links and excerpts from what I read:

1. Nonprofit Law Blog

http://www.nonprofitlawblog.com/number-of-directors-whats-the-best-practice

“Maximum number of directors.  Setting a maximum number of directors is a trickier issue and one not appropriate for legislation.  If all of your directors are each meeting their fiduciary duties and providing value to the organization, there may be no need to reduce their number based on some arbitrary best practice maximum.  On the other hand, from a practical perspective, if an organization has so many directors that individual directors reasonably believe that they do not have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in discussions, deliberations, and decision-making, the organization has too many directors.

“The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector notes that ‘[a]lthough a larger board may ensure a wide range of perspectives and expertise, a very large board may become unwieldy and end up delegating too much responsibility to an executive committee or permitting a small group of board members to exercise substantial control.’ Inactive directors, more interested in affiliation than governance, may get a free ride from the active participation of a core group, but this is not an ideal situation. Note that very large boards played a major part in the recent high profile governance problems of organizations like the American Red Cross, United Way, and Nature Conservancy.”

A report from the Council on Foundations, At Issue: What is the Best Size for Your Board? (January 2006), details some of the advantages and disadvantages of large boards.
Advantages:
•    Large numbers allow for more opportunities for diversity and inclusiveness.
•    More seats allow for for inclusion of legal and financial advisors, community leaders and funding area experts.
•    Work can be shared among the group; more people are available to serve on committees.
•    Fundraising may be easier because there are more people on the board with more connections.
•    More board members helps maintain institutional memory in times of leadership change.
Disadvantages:
•    Members may feel less individual responsibility and less ownership of the work.
•    Large groups may hinder communication and interactive discussion.
•    Cliques or core groups may form, deteriorating board cohesion.
•    Some voices may not be heard.
•    Bigger boards may not be able to engage all members, which can lead to apathy and loss of interest.
•    Meetings are more difficult to schedule; more staff time is needed to coordinate board functions.

2. This is from The Nonprofit Consultant Blog:

http://nonprofitconsultant.blogspot.com/2010/06/how-many-board-members.html

“The generally accepted number for most small- to mid-sized nonprofits is 9-14 members. Any fewer and you will burn out your members quickly with multiple duties, have difficulty making a quorum when even a couple of people are ill or out-of-town, and you will fail to build in new leadership development into your regular board activities. Many more than that and meetings can get bogged down in side conversations, factionalization, and members will begin to feel that they’re no longer contributing or making a difference.”

3. This was the third piece I read:

http://www.bridgespan.org/Publications-and-Tools/Nonprofit-Boards/Nonprofit-Boards-101/Size-of-Board.aspx#.VzVEPxUrKi5

The Bridgespan Group
Average board sizes
Remember that every board is different. Average figures only reflect what exists, not a recommended norm. Newly-formed boards often start cautiously with a small number of members, and expand as the organization gets more established and the programs and services diversify. It is common to encounter large boards in older, more institutionalized organizations where a principal role of the board members tends to be fundraising. Small community-based nonprofits are often governed by a few devoted volunteers. A recent BoardSource survey found that, among those nonprofits who responded, the average size of the board is 16, the median 15.
Regulation of size in the bylaws
Normally the size of the board is determined in the bylaws of the organization. It is wise to set a guideline within a certain range, not an exact number, so that an unforeseen situation does not force the board to contradict its bylaws. Term limits and constant recruitment secure a continuous balance. Some boards find it important to have an uneven number of members to avoid a tie vote. This, however, can be managed by the chair who can either abstain from voting or cast a determining vote to break a tie.
Resizing
Structural factors, including size, can have consequences on the board’s efficiency. Down-sizing or increasing the size may eliminate some road blocks, but the board’s core problem may lie elsewhere. Before restructuring the board, it may be wise to search elsewhere for reasons of malfunction. Is there a lack of commitment or lack of leadership? Involving outsiders in committees, task forces or advisory groups is another way to benefit from skills and perspectives without actually changing the board’s size. Executive committees may also facilitate the functioning of a larger board.

*****

I’d also like SPJ to think more broadly, beyond optimal numbers and geographical boundaries.
I see an opportunity in this analysis for what could be two meaningful changes.

First, SPJ should consider a representational model that the Radio Television Digital News Association uses. RTDNA’s board includes ex officio members from other journalism organizations:
• National Association of Black Journalists
• National Association of Hispanic Journalists
• Native American Journalists Association
• National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association
• Asian American Journalists Association
• UNITY: Journalists for Diversity
• Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication

Which, of course, means more board slots. I count 33 members for RTDNA.

I thought NABJ, NAHJ, NAJA, NLGJA and AAJA would be good candidates for representation on the SPJ board.
I contacted those organizations to ask for their thoughts, and only heard from two (NAHJ and AAJA). Neither was excited about the idea.

To have this type of cross-organization representation would require a more radical change to the current SPJ board structure.

How about:
• 4 officers (president, president-elect, secretary-treasurer, vice president for campus chapter affairs)
• 2 students
• 1 campus adviser at large
• 5 ex officio members from the journalism organizations above
• 5 pro members elected at large

That’s a total of 17.

That leads to the second meaningful change: Removing regional directors from the board.
Currently, RDs have a dual role — overseeing a region and serving on the board.
As an RD, I can attest that both roles require time and attention. I’d rather see one person in one role and a second person in the other role.
I can’t recall any topic in which “the Northeast” might feel one way and “the Midwest” another, so there is no need for regional representation in this way on national issues.
Board members should be elected for their abilities to manage an organization, think creatively, look to the future, etc. The RD role is beside the point for all of that.

This would create the most upheaval and the most questions.
Would the current RDs try to remain on the board or stick to overseeing their local chapters?
Would there be a need for more stipend money for more people (at-large directors, plus RDs)?
Would someone be interested in just the RD part of the job and give up the board representation part?

All of the above needs more discussion. That’s OK, though. A fuller analysis of board structure and function is fine, since we’re going down that path.

Feedback on any of the above is welcome, by email or through a post on this page.

-Andy Schotz, Region 2 director, LawnGyland@aol.com

Hey ’19

The SPJ national board voted electronically on Dec. 22 to hold SPJ’s 2019 national convention in San Antonio.

There are a variety of reasons why this is a good thing, including a favorable bid on hotel rooms and convention space and a sensible rotation among regions of the country. The SPJ headquarters staff is very good at scouting convention sites and at running the conventions.

The Excellence in Journalism convention schedule for the next four years will be New Orleans in 2016, Anaheim in 2017, Baltimore in 2018 and now San Antonio in 2019.

The 2019 conference dates will be Sept. 5 to 7.

This brings up the annual dilemma about the best time of year to hold the national conference. Early September isn’t a great time for college students to break away from school, but there are many other factors (including cost) that sometimes necessitate picking that week.

As a side note, SPJ still needs to do better about sharing the news about votes taken by the board as they happen and letting members know in advance that the board is considering taking an action such as this. I generally try to post news about electronic meetings such as this one in advance, but didn’t this time.

I believe the board and HQ staff should publicize every meeting, even if there’s no practical way for the public to sit in on the meeting.

The following section is part of the Openness and Accountability Best Practices that SPJ encourages chapters to follow. The national board should try to follow them, too, and generally does — but not always.

  • Meetings

    SPJ meetings at the local and national level should follow the spirit of state sunshine laws (for a good description of open meeting law elements, see www.rcfp.org/ogg). Leaders should:

    — Post meeting time, date, and place information in advance for members, prospective members, and the public, on a website, Facebook page, email or other accessible venue.

    — Include action/discussion items in meeting agendas to increase meeting attendance and attract potential new members. Members should contact the president at least two days in advance of the meeting if they would like to request a topic for the agenda.

    — Allow anyone from the membership or public to observe meetings. Provide an open comment period to let people chime in.

    — Post a summary of the meeting at a chapter website promptly, preferably within five business days of the meeting, so members can keep abreast of chapter activities. Include any decisions or votes.

    — Make meetings accessible, both physically and electronically. Meetings should be held where people are welcome to attend and can easily access. Consider GoToMeeting or other electronic means of broadcasting meetings and allowing participation for those cannot get to the meeting, but are interested in what happens.

    — Account for circumstances where private discussion among leaders is necessary, similar to state open meeting laws. For example, typical exemptions that might allow meeting in “executive session” include considering/debating the qualifications of new leader appointees, rent negotiations for space, pending/potential litigation, etc. If board members do discuss matters in executive session, they should come out and make any decisions and votes publicly.

Membership planning proposal approved (I voted no)

I wrote on Monday — before an electronic meeting of the SPJ national board — about a proposal we were considering for creating a strategy on reversing SPJ’s trend of declining membership. I promised an update after the board voted.

SPJ National President Paul Fletcher proposed spending $8,600 on a brainstorming session in Scottsdale, Ariz., in January at the same time the SPJ Executive Committee meets.

The money would cover travel, lodging and meals for Robyn Davis Sekula, the chairwoman of SPJ’s Membership Committee; April Bethea, the chairwoman of SPJ’s Diversity Committee; and an SPJ member to be determined who does not belong to a chapter.

It also would pay for SPJ Communications Strategist Jennifer Royer and Membership Director Linda Hall to join the session. Other SPJ staffers who typically attend the Executive Committee meeting would already be there.

I was receptive to part of this idea. I can see the value of getting people together to dive into an important topic. SPJ has lost thousands of members in the last several years.

What I did not support, though, was the majority of the $8,600 proposal — $4,450 for fees and expenses for facilitator Tim Daniel.

The board previously was told that Daniel has experience leading other journalism organizations through strategy sessions, but does not have experience in association membership.

I don’t see the logic in hiring someone to run a meeting on a topic everyone else in the room already understands.

I also didn’t understand why we didn’t instead pursue a consultant who specializes in association membership, or even ask for a few quotes. (I’m not sure I would have supported that plan either, but it at least made more sense to me.)

Before and during the meeting, I was told:

• A consultant could come up with a membership plan, which we might adapt. But a strategic plan that we created on our own would go deeper and be more meaningful.

• Participants in a strategy session might come in with preconceived opinions. It’s better to have a neutral outsider in charge.

• A trained facilitator makes sure everyone is heard, not just those who speak the most often or loudest.

I don’t agree with these explanations, so I voted no.

I’m not sure of the final vote, but I think 12 of the 23 board members were in on the call. And I know two people voted no (me and Region 5 Director Deborah Givens). That probably makes the final vote 10-2.

I’m typically tuned in to the final results of any meeting I’m in, but the board’s electronic meetings sometimes make that difficult.

It’s easier to follow along through a computer, with a chat function. When we have these meetings during the workday, I have to participate by phone and that’s less orderly.

When I see a final tally (which is required for the board’s roll-call votes), I’ll post it here.

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