What “for” looks like

SPJ name changeIf SPJ becomes the Society for Professional Journalism, what else changes, besides a letter and a preposition?

Let us count the ways.

First, though, let’s be clear about what doesn’t change.

With a new name, SPJ morphs into an advocacy group for good journalism. But it won’t shed its current mission of representing and training those who already do (or want to learn) good journalism.

Then again, if you keep adding items to the menu without dropping some, you end up big, bloated, and boring – just like Denny’s. And no one goes to Denny’s on purpose.

So here are three short, sharp examples of what change might look like…

What to cut…

SPJ’s Ethics Committee does a lot of hard work no one cares about. Position papers, for instance. The committee has posted eight online, from accountability (24 page views per month in 2013) to plagiarism (the most popular at 166 views per month last year).

And in this post-print era, the Ethics Committee published a book in 2011 called Journalism Ethics. So far, few have been sold. How few? SPJ doesn’t even track the number (which is a separate problem), but Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith said in a meeting last year that “several schools” use it as a textbook – which he thought was admirable because, “There are quite a few other good books out there.”

But if that’s so, why are we wasting precious time competing with something that’s already done well? And it did take time. I sat through Ethics Committee and SDX meetings where this consumed hours and calories better spent elsewhere, much less the time and brainpower to write it. And now there’s talk of an update.

What to do instead…

The most popular page on SPJ’s website, besides the homepage, is its Code of Ethics. It got 4,725 views in one week in mid-December.

It’s common knowledge among SPJ leaders that the Code is also the most popular web page for non-journalists – it’s the No. 1 reason anyone outside of SPJ knows about us.

Yet when you visit that page, there’s precious little else besides the Code – just a small blue box with a link to an expanded explanation that’s long, gray, and dull. I’d rather our Ethics Committee write eight perky intro sentences about SPJ and the Code than eight ponderous position papers.

And instead of an ethics textbook for a handful of journalism students, I’d rather SPJ publish a public appeal for updating the Code. At its last annual convention in Anaheim, SPJ launched a conversation to edit the Code for the first time since 1996 – which was way before Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones.

But all the talk is amongst our members, mostly on a blog called Code Words that gets less than 20 page views per month. Why not solicit an opinion from anyone who visits the Code of Ethics page? A society for professional journalism would surely do that.

Finally, I’ll tout one of my own programs…

S.I.N. challenges college media outlets to break as many entries in the Code of Ethics as humanly possible in a single print or online issue. When a Florida university did this a couple years ago, it wasn’t just educational for the staff. That particular print edition had the lowest returns for the school year (save for the annual football issue) and a Student Affairs dean commented, “I liked it. I didn’t realize journalists had so many ethics!”

What to cut…

The Code of Ethics might be what SPJ is best known for, but Freedom of Information is the best thing it does.

For the past few years, SPJ’s has been obsessed with a Federal Shield Law. It’s certainly a noble and sexy cause. But SPJ’s time-consuming lobbying efforts have accomplished nothing tangible. SPJ has swayed no member of Congress, and I’ve heard of no media outlet taking up SPJ’s plea to “Talk about it. Write about it. Editorialize about it.”

And in fact, how many of SPJ’s 8,000 members will ever need a federal shield law? Or a state one?

I’m not suggesting SPJ ignore the issue. I’m proposing we transfer some of the many hours we burn on it. The sad fact is, for all the Shield Law effort, SPJ’s web page on the topic has attracted less traffic than SPJ’s high school essay contest page.

What to do instead…

If we want to push a federal shield law, Congress doesn’t care about journalists. It cares about voters. Let’s convince the public why it’s crucial. Educating the public about journalism is what a for organization would do.

Freedom of Information shouldn’t be reserved just for journalists. SPJ should train the public on the topic. For instance, the FOI page has a nifty little box that sends you to a couple of FAQs with helpful links – one for students and one for pros. Why not add a third for the public? SPJ should train everyone to use journalism tactics, even if they aren’t journalists.

And once again, I’ll pimp one of my own programs. The First Amendment Free Food Festival feeds college students a free lunch in exchange for signing away their Constitutional rights.

While organized by SPJ college chapters and other student journalists, the event is aimed squarely at the public. That’s why it’s garnered more media coverage than the shield law efforts, even getting SPJ chapter leaders uncomfortably interviewed on FOX News.

What to cut…

SPJ offers solid onsite training, both at its national convention and with traveling workshops called JournCamps.

SPJ also hosts regional conferences, which almost universally suck. I can say this without reservation or accusation, because I’m a regional director who’s had to host them.

SPJ requires its RDs to organize regional conferences each spring. But with a budget of only $500 from SPJ National, these things end up being held on college campuses. With a couple of rare and wonderful exceptions, a majority of regional conferences attract 100 or so attendees, mostly college students. And no one leaves exclaiming, “Wow, that was awesome!”

What to do instead…

Remove the requirement for regional conferences. Keep the good ones and take the lame ones off life support. Use that free time and small sums to train “citizen journalists.” Teach the public how our skills, when ethically and professionally executed, can improve their lives – not just by reading and watching our coverage, but also by doing it themselves.

DIY journalism.

This is the only way out of the wilderness I see for SPJ. It’s scary for long-time members, who grew up in an SPJ that was insular and traditional and static. But ever since the recession, SPJ has had a new tradition: Losing hundreds of members a year.

The real question is: If changing SPJ’s name and expanding SPJ’s mission is too drastic, do you really think our current incremental efforts are going to bring us back more than 1,000 members?

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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