Fly in the newsprint

Journalists should never shoot the messenger. Especially since the messenger is often one of them.

But when I proposed changing SPJ’s name to the Society for Professional Journalism, some SPJers took to heart the expression, “Consider the source.” Here’s my favorite example.

Phil Rudell, the treasurer of the Central Ohio chapter, described my effort to his constituents like this

A poorly worded proposal to change the name of the organization to the Society for Professional Journalism. This came from Region 3 Director (and all-around gadfly) Michael Koretzky, which undoubtedly contributed to its defeat.

…which raises three questions:

  1. How was it poorly worded? I thought I was pretty damned articulate.
  2. Am I really such an asshole that any idea of mine instantly sucks?
  3. Isn’t being a gadfly a good thing? The dictionary definition is, “a person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism.” Which sounds a lot like a journalist.

SPJ name change

Luckily, changing SPJ’s name – and mission – has avid support from less gadfly-ish SPJers than me.

Younger, too.

I’m 48 years old and served on SPJ’s Name Change Task Force. Last month, we turned in our report, which recommended (over my objection) SPJ keep its name the same.

But this paragraph was key…

The majority of those surveyed indicated an opposition to the name change, but we note that the vast majority of those who participated in our focus groups represented members 30 and older. Thus the very group that we are aiming to reach was the least represented.

…and in fact, no one on the task force was under 30. Phil Rudell, the gadfly-hating guy I mentioned above? He’s retired.

Old-time SPJers across the country told the task force the name change was “unnecessary” (Georgia), “goofy” (Washington State), and will “accomplish nothing” (Massachusetts). My favorite comment came from a retired professor who joined SPJ in 1954…

I can’t see any compelling reason to take any more time than necessary to dispose of this suggestion and get on about our business. Continued dedication to the goals of the society in turbulent media times is what’s needed.

Right. Stay the course. Because that always works.

Thankfully, many SPJers both younger and wiser than me favor a name change and all that comes with it.

SPJ rename

Here’s a half-dozen of them in their own words – a youth movement vs. no movement…

Monica Guzman

Monica GuzmanShe’s the lifestyle tech columnist for The Seattle Times and sits on the advisory board for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In SPJ, she’s vice president of the Western Washington chapter and was one of Quill magazine’s “20 Journalists to Follow on Twitter”…

Anyone can commit acts of journalism. Anyone. The witness with an iPhone, the stakeholder with a passion, the person who tells her side of a critical story and the guy who broadcasts a rumor without taking steps to see if it’s true. Our democracy turns on the information that’s out there, and the information that’s out there is not shared exclusively – sometimes not even primarily – by people who would call themselves professional journalists.

If we believe that journalism is essential for democracy, why would we serve and inspire only some of the people who practice it? There should be a Society for Professional Journalism. It’s what this world demands.

SPJ Florida

SPJ name changeTwo weeks ago, the chapter’s board voted unanimously to support changing SPJ’s name and expanding its mission. All of the chapter’s officers graduated from college within the past seven years. (And lest you think they’re too young to excel, they won Large Chapter of the Year when they were even younger – in 2010.)

Says chapter president Jason Parsley (class of 2007)…

SPJ Florida understands the need to evolve. There are far more people in this country that support journalism versus journalists. Those people are potential members. Those people are our future.

The definition of journalist has devolved into an almost meaningless term. With the rise of blogs and social media, anybody can practice journalism. That’s why it’s so important to expand our mission and broaden our base. It’s time for our organization to grow – not shrink.

Gideon Grudo

SPJ renameHe’s special projects manager for Air Force Magazine and was previously managing editor of Florida’s largest gay publication. He’s a former SPJ national student board member, former vice president of SPJ Florida, and a current D.C. Pro member…

This organization by any other name would remain just as diverse. Thing is: SPJ already IS the Society for Professional Journalism. It’s just in denial about it – probably the same it was when it opened its doors to women five years after the Civil Rights Act.

Let’s be loving parents who are empathetic and attempt to teach, instead of being embittered aunts who are self-pitying and self-destructive. We have a great opportunity to be a beacon of education and light for a confused media and its more confused laborers.

Lindsey Cook

She’s the only computer science and journalism double major at the University of Georgia, interned at The Washington Post, and won a coveted AP-Google scholarship. She’s a student member of SPJ’s national board and Region 3’s assistant director.

In my short life as a coder – journalist? journo-supporter? – I’ve already had people claim I wasn’t a journalist. I’ve operated teleprompters and screened calls for Voice of America, and I’ve designed maps for The Washington Post. In which functions would I be able to call myself a journalist?

I’ve watched my coder/storyteller friends land jobs at the Texas Tribune and Google. These are people trained in storytelling who have chosen different tools with which to tell stories. They believe in the power of journaliSM. They support journaliSM.

Most likely, these coder journalists’ careers – just like most others entering the workforce – will look more like a jungle gym than a ladder. We’ll jump from a newspaper to a PR firm to a tech start-up and back again. We still love journalism. We’re still telling stories. Others may not consider us journalists.

In an organization struggling to maintain relevancy with a younger population with a more diverse skill set, do we really want to say to these people, “Come back when you work for a traditional newspaper”? No matter what you’re writing or where, if you support journalism, I’d like you to join the Society for Professional Journalism. Because practicing and supporting journalism is about more than what’s on your business card.

Lynn Walsh

walshA few months ago, she helped launch a new National Digital Content Desk for Scripps in Cincinnati, creating content for more than 30 newspapers and TV stations. In SPJ, she served as chairman of the Gen J committee and is now a member of the FOI Committee.

Deciding whether someone is a “journalist” is becoming more and more difficult – and that’s exciting. Why? For one, a group of white men huddled at a table in a small room with typewriters are not the only people determining what is “news.”

If something isn’t covered on the local news, it doesn’t mean a community isn’t talking about it. That’s exciting. It also can be frustrating for those trying to define what is journalism and who is journalism. For me, the questions should focus on how we can make obtaining information and telling important stories easier for everyone who wants to do so.

I also think that, while SPJ does participate in possible solutions to these questions, it can do more. To do that, SPJ needs to shift it’s priorities and reach out to people and organizations they traditionally haven’t. I think this can be done without changing a name, but if changing the name of SPJ means that it will do more for journalism and the people who care about it and the people fighting for it, then I’m all for it.

April Dudash

She covers Duke University for The Durham Herald-Sun. Before that, she was a military reporter. And before that, she interned in SPJ’s national headquarters, researching and reporting on freedom of information. She’s president of the North Carolina chapter.

I’m imagining myself at an awkward 16 years old, having just joined the high school newspaper – and wondering if I would have felt comfortable joining an organization titled, “Society of Professional Journalists.”

At that age, I had found a strong force in my life, one that would guide my passions and my early career. But as that fledgling journalist who barely knew what AP Style was, I wouldn’t have felt like I fit in with an organization dedicated specifically to “professional journalists.” I still needed to hatch, and SPJ could have been the incubator I desperately needed.

When I hear arguments about maintaining SPJ’s current name, a lot of times it’s about maintaining exclusiveness. It’s about being part of the it-crowd, maintaining the “club” atmosphere.

And yet we argue this as we keep accepting associate membership dues, for those who simply “support SPJ’s mission.”

Yes, the role of journalism is changing, as we experiment with online platforms and as more people pick up home video cameras and film a neighborhood segment that ends up on the 6 o’ clock news. Then there are the community activists who submit FOIA requests and crack down on city government, even though they haven’t received formal journalism training.

With waning public trust in the media nowadays, we need more people on our side, to defend us and who want to align themselves with our mission, for the benefit of their neighborhoods, their schools, their local government – to seek the truth and report it, sometimes no matter what the cost.

spj rename

Someday, SPJ will change its name and widen its reach.

These young SPJers will get elected to the national board, and more than one will become president. So the question isn’t, “When’s this gonna happen?”

It’s, “What’ll be left of SPJ when it does?”

And, “Will it be too late by then?”

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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