Old excuses for new name

I’ve mentioned five reasons to change SPJ’s name. Here are five excuses not to.

1. It’ll cost too much.

2. It won’t lure new members and will scare off existing ones.

3. That’ll dilute our commitment to journalism.

4. It’ll be PR/branding nightmare.

5. Even contemplating a name change will devolve into a bloody battle, pitting SPJ brother against SPJ sister.

I’ve heard all these concerns since I proposed changing our name to the Society for Professional Journalism. So last week, I asked Mike Cavender about them.


Another journalism group has already been through this, and it has zero regrets.

Mike Cavender is executive director of RTDNA – which stands for the Radio Television Digital News Association.

But four years ago, it was RTNDA – the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Cavender, who had previously served as chairman of the RTNDA board, helped lead the name change.

Here’s how it went…

1. It didn’t cost a lot.

Cavender concedes, “You got everything from stationery to the website that’s gotta be changed.” But those don’t consume a lot of calories and cash.

(Indeed, SPJ webmaster Bill O’Keefe told me last week that updating the website “wouldn’t really cost anything.” He said, “Barring any rude surprises or unexplained phenomena, it would take a day of combing all our sites and networks for every instance of the name and switching out the ones that apply.”)

The big expense is legally changing the name, from IRS documents to the Articles of Incorporation. So Cavender just didn’t do it.

Instead, he used a DBA. That’s short for doing business as.

“We’re the Radio and Television News Directors Association dba RTDNA,” he says. “Many companies out there are DBAs, and their real corporate names are totally different. You just never see it. It’s totally acceptable and totally legal.”

And totally easy and totally cheap.

2. It may have boosted membership – or maybe not.

Cavender says the name change kicked off a new mission…

“We have become, over the last few years, far more inclusive in terms of members who are reporters and multimedia journalists. Did our name change have anything to do with that? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ve been able to communicate that we’re more inclusive.”

Has RTDNA lost members because of the name change? No. Cavender says some old-timers still aren’t pleased – “anybody who’s been there for awhile might not get used to the new name” – but they haven’t fled in a huff, either.

3. It changed the membership, not the leadership.

One question I’ve heard several times…

What if hundreds of non-journalists join SPJ and nominate one of their own for  president? They’ll take over the organization!

To which I say: Outstanding!

The past four SPJ presidents have run unopposed. In fact, since 2008, only a handful of races have been contested – and there are 23 positions.

If “non-journalists” run for office and so offend the journalists, then perhaps the latter will start voting. The last national election three weeks ago turned out less than 700 of SPJ’s 7,800 members – and the voting was online.

So I question SPJ’s commitment now.

But if anyone frets SPJ’s board will be seized in a bloodless coup, consider RTDNA’s board. It’s been four years since it expanded beyond TV and radio directors to everyone in those fields, plus digital journalists.

Yet the RTDNA chairman, chairwoman-elect, past chairman, treasurer,  secretary, and its nine regional directors are all still directors, managers, or even vice presidents. So no coup there.

4. It helped the PR and branding.

Recalls Cavender…

Five years ago, we began to look at the rise in digital journalism, which was pretty young at that time. But clearly, that was where the electronic media was going to gain strength. We wanted to be perceived as an organization that represented all electronic media –not just TV and radio.

So how’d it go? Cavender says the new name was perfect PR: “I would absolutely do it again.”

For SPJ, I fail to see how a similar discussion reflects poorly on our goals of an ethical and free press. After all, I’m not proposing we rename ourselves the Society for Pedophilia Jokes.

5. It didn’t descend into open warfare.

But it wasn’t a walk in the park, either.

“I recall board meetings that were very much contentious,” Cavender says. “We probably considered this issue for the better part of a year before we were able to make a sufficient case.”

The final vote “was convincing but not unanimous.” Still, there were no lingering animosities, and Cavender says everyone got over themselves pretty quick.

Many SPJ old-timers recall the 1988 fight that got us the name we have now. Back then, it was SPJ-SDX, and before that, just Sigma Delta Chi. (SPJ started as an all-white, all-male fraternity.)

Of course, that was the pre-Internet era, when it was hard as hell to scrutinize an issue in advance. As RTDNA learned, you can muse online and defuse emotions.

I’m hoping SPJ will learn from RTDNA’s experience and follow its path. Alas, I’m skeptical because…

SPJ moves with all the speed and grace of an oil tanker executing a three-point turn.

On Aug. 26, SPJ’s delegates ordered the board of directors to discuss a name change.

The next morning, SPJ president Dave Cuillier announced he’d appoint a task force to study it.

But as of today, still no task force. How long does it take to task such a force? When does a task force become a tardy force?

All I know for sure is that I’m on this force. Cuillier emailed me Sept. 6 to confirm it. Maybe he’s just having a hard time finding anyone to serve on the damn thing when they learn I’m already on it.

Still, if RTDNA can change its name within a year, SPJ should be able to do the same. So damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.

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