How to be Chapter of the Year

If you’re in charge of a pro or student SPJ chapter, you might be wondering…

How the hell do we win a National Chapter of the Year award?

As one of SPJ’s 23 national board members, I can tell you: I have no friggin’ idea. All I know for sure is that there’s a byzantine system for choosing…

The byzantine system

Each chapter uploads an annual report to SPJ headquarters in Indianapolis (and those suckers are due May 1 for campus chapters and May 6 for pro chapters).

HQ forwards those reports to the corresponding regional directors – there are 12 of us – who read them and fill out their own reports.

The regional directors send everything back to HQ.

HQ dumps all of the pro stuff on the board’s pair of at-large directors, who choose the best large (75 or more members) and small (less than 75) chapters of the year based on…I dunno. Whatever they want, I guess.

The student packages go to the vice president for campus affairs, who told me last weekend that he chooses one winner only from those the regional directors touted in their reports.

The nonexistent rules

Of course, this just tells you how the information circulates. It doesn’t describe what qualities a chapter must possess to impress.

You’d think for such a high honor, there’d be some rules or guidelines or even hints. But this is the only mention of the topic I could find on SPJ’s website, halfway down the page summing up the myriad of SPJ awards…

Outstanding Professional and Campus Chapter Awards
The awards salute chapters for overall excellence in supporting the Society’s missions, members and the profession. Up to three large and three small professional chapters will be selected each year for recognition, with one in each category being chosen as the chapter of the year. On the campus level, one will be selected from each of SPJ’s 12 regions, with one being chosen as the overall campus chapter of the year.

Weirdly, there are lesser chapter awards called the Circle of Excellence, and they get their own page. But it doesn’t tell you who does the choosing.

My criteria

The SPJ board meets again at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Anaheim this summer, and I’ll agitate for some clearer standards.

For discussion purposes, here are mine…

• Programming (30 percent) – Nothing else matters if you don’t do something. You can host lectures and panel discussions, but you get extra credit for hands-on creativity. I’m partial to my home chapter, SPJ South Florida, which gets serious (an obit-writing workshop in a funeral home) and humorous (a Speed Team Scrabble tournament) with its participatory programs.

• Membership (15 percent) – Good programs means more members. So if you do the former, you’re halfway home on the latter.

• Outreach (15 percent) – The next SPJ president, Dave Cuillier, blew my mind over the weekend when he told me, “We should be the Society for Professional Journalists.” He’s right. SPJ shouldn’t just train journalists, it should educate their customers – who are, basically, everyone who can read. Does your chapter visit high school classes? Speak about our craft to local business groups and charities? Defend free speech even when it’s not journalists doing the speechifying?

• Scholarships (10 percent) – Some chapters, like Western Washington, award a couple of $2,000 scholarships each year. But even if it’s just one for $200, you’re helping the next generation of journalists.

• National volunteering (10 percent) – SPJ needs judges for its annual Mark of Excellence and high school essay contests. It has committees that need members and regional directors who need assistant RDs (mine is Lindsey Cook). You can run for national office yourself – then help me fix these damn Chapter of the Year awards.

• Convention and conference attendance (10 percent) – Woody Allen once said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” Here it’s only 10 percent, because it costs money to attend SPJ’s national convention and even its regional conferences. Some chapters have more passion than cash, and they shouldn’t be punished for that.

• Reporting on time (10 percent) – If you turn in your annual report late, it costs you. Harsh? Hell, no. We’re journalists. We’re supposed to make deadlines.

Now what?

I suppose I could say, “Tell SPJ leaders what you think!” But when editorial page writers and op-ed columnists do that, not much usually happens. So I plan to announce my own SPJ Awards this summer. And unlike the official SPJ awards, mine will come with prizes. Weird prizes.

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