Posts Tagged ‘San Antonio’


Don’t confuse sponsorship with like-mindedness

It’s understandable to treat conference “sponsorship” as a sign of endorsement, admiration, or some other positive connection. That’s how some critics have characterized the Fox sponsorship at this year’s Excellence in Journalism conference next week.

That’s not how I see it. (Note: I am a member of the board of directors of the Society of Professional Journalists, but speaking only for myself.)

Ours is a journalism conference. That doesn’t mean every journalist or news organization invited to participate or share the costs has been vetted for impurities. Program participants have expertise to share. Sponsors make a financial commitment to help with the cause — training journalists, celebrating excellence, honoring stalwarts.

This year, the Fox Corporation is a platinum sponsor, providing $50,000. The sponsorship includes two programs it will hold during EIJ. The plan was for a boot camp on multimedia reporting and a session on how women can establish themselves in the media world, but that has changed — the boot camp will be offered twice instead.

Fox will get exhibit space and its logo on conference tote bags.

I can’t imagine canceling those programs, denying everyone who signed up to learn, a few weeks in advance because of a segment Fox News aired. (The host said of people crossing the U.S. border: “… we have been invaded by a horde, a rampaging horde, of illegal aliens.” He also said: “But when you go back in time and when you look at what an invasion is, whether it’s the Nazis invading France and Western Europe — whether the Muslims were invading a country back in the early years. It was an invasion.”)

Is that giving Fox a free pass for odious remarks by one pundit? Hardly.

In announcing that Fox would remain an EIJ sponsor, SPJ issued a press release that, in the first sentence, blasted the pundit’s “invasion” remarks as “vile anti-immigrant commentary.”

To be clear: SPJ is accepting a sponsor’s money to help put on a worthwhile conference while calling out something the sponsor aired. That sounds like a wise approach to me.

A partnership in producing a conference does not make the partners simpatico in journalism or in business decisions that allow inflammatory rhetoric a place on the air, online or in print.

Fox and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have had an ongoing connection in conference sponsorship.

NAHJ has been a partner with SPJ and the Radio Television Digital News Association at EIJ conventions in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

Fox has been an EIJ sponsor in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

What suddenly made Fox toxic this year? Or, more specifically, in August, after being acceptable as a sponsor in July, June and the rest of the year?

In a statement, NAHJ President Hugo Balta said his organization took a stand after the Fox News Radio host (whose show can only be heard through a subscription) used prejudicial language to describe Latino immigrants.

The first few paragraphs of Balta’s statement addressed news coverage — such as the value of “simply reporting the facts, without bias ….”

Even though Balta didn’t give examples of bias in Fox’s news coverage, it’s hard to argue with the principle. The language and tone of immigration coverage is worth self-examination by all media, beyond what one pundit says.

In 2011, SPJ took on a question about proper terminology. At the urging of our Diversity Committee, delegates at the national convention approved a resolution urging journalists to stop using “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” to describe “undocumented people living in the United States.”

However, The Associated Press Stylebook, the source for many newsrooms, discourages the use of “undocumented,” too.

The serious among us strive, and sometimes struggle, to get it right.

What better place for examinations of this type than a conference in San Antonio, among three major journalism organizations.

Not everyone, even within SPJ, agrees with the approach to sponsorship that I described.

A similar argument came up last year about EIJ sponsorship by the Charles Koch Institute. SPJ chapters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago and elsewhere were unhappy about the arrangement and called for change.

I oppose litmus tests for sponsors who otherwise fit the guidelines we have in place.

The threshold might sound obvious — we know it when we see it, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about the limits of obscenity.

But imagine the vetting process — reviewing a sponsor’s ethical practices, diversity in the newsroom, marketing, corporate morality, and on and on. It can quickly turn into quicksand.

I will keep an open mind for ideas for improvement if we revisit the topic of sponsorship and welcome the recommendations of critics, including chapters who spoke out before. But snap judgments about a sponsor shortly before a convention aren’t a sound foundation for a policy.

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.

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.

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