White guys: all is Wells

Want to nominate someone for SPJ’s “highest honor”? Better buy stamps.


The Wells Memorial Key recognizes “a member who is judged to have served the Society in the most outstanding fashion during the preceding year or over a period of years.”

You can nominate anyone you want, but they don’t really encourage it. The website says…

Submit all nomination materials unbound on 8 1/2 x 11 paper.

That’s right. Dead trees, not digital. They don’t make it easy for you. I think they like it that way.

Old white men, mostly.

Over the past 10 years (2004 to 2014) only one woman has won a Wells Key. In the previous 10 years (1993 to 2003) seven women won.

The last African-American to win was back in 1992. Last Sunday, another white man won a Wells Key. He’s the fifth in a row.

The Wells Key is perhaps the only awards program getting less diverse with each passing year.

If an award’s winners lack diversity, it’s a good bet the judges do, too.

The Wells Key is bestowed by SPJ’s “executive officers,” led by the president. Since 2000, only two women have served as president. A third started her one-year term just last weekend.

It probably won’t shock you to learn: The five consecutive white-guy winners were all former presidents.

One Wells Key winner suggested the ex-presidents win because they’re the ones who are “willing to do the work.” But it’s also true we tend to more easily recognize effort when it’s being done by people who look like us.

As an SPJ board member, I want to diversity the Wells Key winners by adding more judges. Last weekend, I made a motion to have SPJ’s entire 23-member board bestow the honor.

That’s not an ideal solution, since our board has only one Hispanic, one Native American, and no African-Americans. But at least we have 10 women and a mix of old and young. It’s a start.

It’s also a fight.

After I made my motion, old white men immediately (and condescendingly) undermined the idea…

• You’ll wilt under the workload – Past president Dave Cuillier said culling through all the nominees “is time-consuming” and “a lot of hard work.” (Apparently, lots of people mail in sheets of paper.) He doesn’t want to burden us.

• You can’t keep a secret – Wells Key winner Robert Leger, who’s president of SPJ’s foundation, said the award’s signature feature is its surprise – the winner isn’t announced beforehand. Leger said the board would let the winner slip and ruin everything.

• You got better things to do – Cuillier also suggested my motion was “ticky tack.” He suggested we stick to “bigger issues.”

I’d quote you exactly what both men said, as well as some other men, but for some reason, SPJ’s recording of that part of the board meeting cuts off. It’s the only board meeting video on the SPJ website that does that.

Regardless, these arguments offended me and at least a few others….

• The board already works hard. In fact, we could easily delegate more mundane governance so we’d have more time to look at “bigger issues.” I wouldn’t be the first SPJ board member to wonder if presidents load up their agendas with minor items so the board doesn’t have time to delve deeply into protected traditions.

• This is a big deal. How can deciding “SPJ’s highest honor” not be considered a “bigger issue”? How is diversity not a “bigger issue”?

• We’re not gossips. The SPJ board is loaded with journalists who have protected juicier sources than a Wells Key winner.

After much debate and urging, I amended my motion. It now simply instructs SPJ’s senior leaders to devise their own plan for expanding the Wells Key judging. They have until April.

When I asked if that would make the deadline for next year’s winner, the answer was a very squishy “maybe.”

My fear…

The old white men will simply delay, wear down, and outlast the reformers. That’s so common, it’s almost a cliche.

The fact is, there are nearly as many Wells Key winners in leadership positions as there are non-winners. SPJ’s foundation, called Sigma Delta Chi, has four officers – and three are Well’s Key winners, as are 10 of its 29 members. That’s a lot of status quo firepower.

Thing is, I haven’t even gotten to the most controversial part. First, I wanted to get my original motion through before I proposed this…

SPJ should mimic the NFL.

Since 2003, the National Football League has operated under something called the Rooney Rule. It requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for high-level coaching positions.

The Rooney Rule doesn’t set quotas. It simply forces you to consider people who don’t look like you. And it’s worked. NFL teams have hired more minority coaches since the rule passed.

I want a Rooney Rule for SPJ.

There are many Wells Key winners I deeply respect (even though they might not respect me after this post). David Carlson, Steve Geimann, Irwin Gratz, Bill McCloskey, Mac McKerral, just to name a few.

SPJ wouldn’t be where it is today without those old white guys. But it needs more than old white guys if it’s going to survive tomorrow.

If you doubt that, here’s what one Wells Key winner told me – and the entire foundation board – when I mocked the paper-only application process…

It’s hardly burdensome to ask for hard copies.

Yup, that’s how you endear yourself to the next generation of journalists.


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