In defense of old farts

I hate my own kind.


In SPJ, I get along best with the youngest members – and the oldest. But I can’t stand many who are my age. And I’m pretty sure they can’t stand me.

I turned 49 last month. and many SPJ leaders are within a decade of me. Problem is, many people my age have embraced the worst traits of those slightly younger and older than us.

Like the most self-satisfied thirtysomethings, we think we have it all figured out. Like the most reactionary retirees, we believe the best way to save the future is to double down on the past.

A middling middle age

I serve on SPJ’s board of directors, and here’s the weird thing…

Each individual is fairly cool. But put us all together, and we’re less than the sum of our parts. We don’t accomplish very much.

My working hypothesis is that we’re all roughly the same age, except for the student members (who, with a few notable exceptions, do nothing but eat their stipends).

I think most of us feel the vague pressure of middle age not to screw anything up, and we’re way past the risk-taking days of our youth. So we spackle SPJ’s corners while the foundation crumbles.

The oldest and the best

A couple board meetings ago, a former SPJ president named Dave Carlson asked for permission to speak, and he delivered an impassioned plea for us to do something big and bold to reverse our membership slide. (We’re losing about 200 members a year.)

We listened, but we didn’t do anything. No discussion, no motions, no votes.

Carlson sits on the Sigma Delta Chi board, which is the autonomous fundraising and grant-giving wing of SPJ. Many SDX board members are former presidents and board members. They remind me of former college newspaper editors.

If you ever served as editor of your college newspaper, and if you ever visited the newsroom a few years later, you probably watched the staff with a wry smile. All those editors, designers, photographers, and reporters scurrying about. Wasting calories on tiny details. Not contemplating the big decisions because they think they’ll always be there to make them later.

You might have even told them something. Like, “Hey, don’t worry about that crap. Think big. Years from now, you won’t give a damn how the folios looked, or whether that eight-inch story on page 12 clearly explained the Student Senate’s vote on Homecoming funding.”

Sometimes, it seems SDX board members feel the same way when they visit SPJ board meetings. A few always stroll in late, quietly pour a cup of coffee, grab a a danish (yes, board members receive free unhealthy noshes), and sit in the back. Every so often, as we get mired in some procedural discussion about annual report requirements or chapter ranking systems, I see them they lean towards each other and whisper.

Then I watch as they sit back with wry smiles.

Looking backward to move forward

Journalism has survived a mediapocalypse over the past decade, yet SPJ itself has changed oh-so-little. How can we represent an industry that’s rapidly evolving when we refuse to?

Here’s a prediction I’m gonna hate being right about…

SPJ keeps doing nothing until my generation of board members fades away, replaced by a younger and angrier one. These desperate newcomers ignore all advice from SPJ’s past leaders – because, honestly, where did that get us? – and lurch from one rookie mistake to another. They screw up SPJ in the opposite way, by attempting everything at once instead of nothing at all.

Some SPJ leaders probably believe I’d love to see such anarchy. They’re wrong. Before I make any proposal, I talk to SPJ old farts I respect – Steve Geimman, Bill McCloskey, Mac McKerral, and the aforementioned Dave Carlson, just to name a few of my favorites.

I have no interest in repeating old mistakes, and these guys (and sadly, they’re all white guys) know SPJ’s history because they lived it. For every crazy idea I’ve put forth, I’ve scotched twice as many because of their sage advice.

They’re like those old college editors. And I’m glad they stick around for warm coffee and cold danish.

SPJ’s future rests in their wrinkled hands – if we don’t screw up the present.


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