More than a name change

Even though I have a penis, I can join the National Organization for Women.

And even though I have very little pigment, I can join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

So why can’t fans of ethical and responsible media join the Society for Professional Journalism? Because it doesn’t exist. Yet.

Last week, I officially asked SPJ to change its name. At its annual convention in Anaheim, I submitted a resolution called Renaming SPJ the Society for Professional Journalism.

SPJ is, at its core, a quaint and cumbersome direct democracy. It reminds me of both ancient Greece and my high school’s Student Council…

Each SPJ chapter is awarded delegates based on its membership ranks, and they vote on resolutions once a year by holding up numbered cards. A sergeant-at-arms and his assistants count them, and resolutions pass or fail.

And so last week, delegates gravely pondered such weighty issues as Thanking SPJ Staff and Recognizing Past Leaders.

But here’s what I compelled them to contemplate…

Journalism is changing, and SPJ needs to change with it.

SPJ is more than a century old, but it took until 1969 to allow women to join. It just doesn’t like the word “change.”

(Seriously, try this: Go to the SPJ website, type the word change into the search box, then hit enter. It stubbornly defaults to change password. You literally can’t ask SPJ about change.)

So why do I want to change SPJ’s name? Five good reasons…

1. SPJ membership has fallen 20 percent since the mediapocalypse.

That’s actually not as bad as other journalism organizations, some of whom went out of business. But the sad fact is, for all of its 103 years, most SPJ members worked in traditional print newsrooms. From where are we going to replace those people?

A name change is not enough. We need to evolve from a trade organization to an advocacy group. Anyone should be able to pay dues and vote for officers, as long as they endorse and defend professional journalism – from SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics to its staunch support of a free press.

2. SPJ sucks at lobbying.

If you search the SPJ website for shield law, it’ll let you do that. You’ll land on an entire microsite called Struggling to Report: The Fight for a Federal Shield Law. SPJ has burned a lot of kilobytes and calories lobbying Congress on this topic.

Alas, Congress doesn’t care about SPJ. Why should lawmakers fear the nation’s largest organization for the nation’s fastest-shrinking profession? If SPJ represented everyone who’d benefit from a shield law – from reporters to readers – it might get more office visits on Capitol Hill.

3. SPJ should define journalism, not journalists.

The major intestinal blockage to easy passage of a federal shield law is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who’s constipated the process with her demand to define a journalist as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information.”

At the same Anaheim meeting where I proposed the name change, delegates voted unanimously for a resolution called Defining journalist. It concludes…

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Society of Professional Journalists strongly rejects any attempts to define a journalist in any way other than as someone who commits acts of journalism and admonishes Congress for stalling long overdue protection for journalists.

So why is SPJ defining “journalist” in its own name? I like the phrase, commits acts of journalism. If I thought it would fly, I would’ve proposed, “The Society for Committing Acts of Journalism.”

4. SPJ should treat its members like it treats its board of directors.

The elected leader of SPJ is not a professional journalist.

SPJ’s current board of directors is led by a college professor (an awesome one) and has six other profs on it – plus two students and a retired PR guy. The last board had a full-fledged media relations dude serving on its executive committee.

I wouldn’t trade our board members for anyone – well, honestly, a few I would – because they’re seriously committed to good journalism. I don’t care what it says under their names on their LinkedIn profiles.

5. We should train everyone to be journalists.

SPJ spends a lot of time teaching journalists how to blog. But it spends almost no time teaching bloggers how to be journalists.

SPJ can embark upon an entirely new and noble mission. A name change would welcome hundreds of amateur journalists who strive to be professional in their pursuits, whatever the hell those might be – from mommy blogging to city council watchdogging.

So I’m not just talking about changing SPJ’s name. I’m talking about changing its purpose.

And I wasn’t expecting that to happen in Anaheim last week. If I’ve learned anything from serving three years on SPJ’s national board, it’s this…

SPJ is as nimble as a school bus running a slalom course.

I submitted the name-change resolution to start a conversation. So it was hilarious and pathetic that the conversation lasted only a few minutes.

First, one delegate moved to limit debate to 15 minutes. Then, before those few minutes expired, another made a motion to “call the question” – cutting off debate to vote right away.

The reason? “This is a big decision with a lot of implications, and it requires further discussion.”

Yeah, well, that’s why I submitted the damn thing. Instead, delegates spent more time on a resolution called Thanking SPJ President Sonny Albarado.

I’m thankful for Monica Guzman, a young tech-savvy journalist who has almost as many Twitter followers (19,735) as all of SPJ (20,604).

At the end of the meeting, when the resolutions chairman asked if delegates had any other business to bring forth, Guzman raised her hand and admitted she was confused.

“I’m new at this, and I’m not sure what just happened,” she said. Turns out, SPJ doesn’t prep delegates in its arcane parliamentary procedure, and Guzman wanted to talk more about the name change.

You know the psychology: Once one person admits they didn’t understand something, others feel comfortable chiming in. A grassroots groundswell ensued, and an eccentric (and terrific) SPJ veteran named Mark Scarp informed and opined…

The delegates are the supreme legislative body of SPJ. If they choose, they can order the board of directors to discuss this issue and report back to this body when it reconvenes next year.

And that’s exactly what the delegates decided to do on a second vote. But at our board meeting the next day, SPJ president Dave Cuillier simply announced he was appointing a task force. I had to raise my hand and ask that we actually discuss it – for 15 minutes.

We went around the room, and I was pleasantly surprised how the reaction split three ways, in this order: mostly ambivalent, somewhat supportive, only a few steadfastly opposed.

I usually loathe task forces, project teams, and ad hoc committees. In SPJ, they’re the gulags where good ideas are sent to slowly die. But I’ll reserve judgment on Cuillier’s New Name Task Force until I see who he puts on it. Because if it doesn’t include me, the guy who wrote the resolution, I’ll be seriously pissed off.

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