OPEN UP!

Why does SPJ act like the enemy?

“We as members spend much time fighting for access,” one frustrated SPJer wrote me and my fellow SPJ leaders last week. “We should lead by example.”

The past couple years, SPJ’s example has been the Trump administration.

When our members want to know what SPJ is doing and spending, at first we ignore them. If they don’t go away, we get passive-aggressive: We apologize but say we’re busy doing important stuff.

If that doesn’t stand them down, we cite flimsy legal reasons no one – not even us – really believes. Finally, we promise to be more transparent next time. Except the next time, it starts all over again.

This year alone, we’ve held meetings without posting agendas. We’ve had “technical issues” on conference calls that cut off open forums. We’ve made late-night announcements of embarrassing news. We’ve gone into “executive session” to discuss things privately that should’ve been done publicly.

We’ve lied about how convention sponsorships work, we’ve blamed staff for chapters not getting money they’re owed, and we’ve refused to release public information until the law absolutely requires us to.

Basically, we’ve mastered the tactics of shady government leaders we lament in our own coverage.

Angry at the irony

“Tell members the full story. Own the actions,” SPJer Forrest Gossett wrote the board on Friday. “I would be willing to venture that most members will appreciate full disclosure.”

If I could put Forrest’s words on a T-shirt – and I’ve designed two SPJ shirts so far – I’d silk-screen one for each of my fellow board members.

Alas, attire won’t matter. Only this will: a transparency pledge that each candidate signs, with the promise to resign if they don’t live up to its terms.

Click that link to read my draft of such a pledge. If you’re interested in editing it or writing one of your own, email me. Let’s do this thing.

If you’re marveling at the irony that a journalism organization run by journalists wants to keep secrets from their dues-paying journalist-members, here’s how that happened…

The psychology of SPJ secrecy

Over the past few years, my fellow regional director Andy Schotz and I have spent much blood and treasure crusading for SPJ transparency. To name-check other directors who have fought this same losing battle: Sue Kopen-Katcef, Lauren Bartlett, and Mike Reilley.

Other directors have supported openness, if not on the front lines, then near it: Mike Savino, Kelly Kissel, and Joe Radske. And in fact, few others have opposed transparency, even if they haven’t exactly rushed to the ramparts.

So you might be thinking, “Hell, that’s most of the board. Why isn’t SPJ already more transparent?”

Blame the officers. That’s the president, president-elect, and treasurer.

Over the past couple years, we’ve had presidents who presided over very bad news – plummeting membership and deficit spending. They want to burnish their reputations, not tarnish them. So spin became more crucial than candor.

The president-elects don’t argue with the PR-tense presidents because they are, and I’m quoting one of them here, “waiting my turn.” They fret about setting a trend: What if, when my time comes, my president-elect argues with me?

Next up are the treasurers. They’re planning to run for president-elect, so they do nothing and say little. Why alienate voters by taking a stand? Best to speak up on mundane issues and appear active and engaged.

Since these three officers set the agenda and guide the board, it takes an open revolt to let the sunshine in. And there’s a price to be paid for leading an uprising. When those three officers don’t like you, they can really mess you up.

The limits of the system

Since SPJ’s bottom line isn’t getting better any time soon – because those officers never consider bold initiatives, lest they fail and jeopardize their eventual Wells Key – nothing will change. Unless SPJ voters change it.

That means voting for candidates who do more than just say they’ll be transparent. It means making them sign a pledge and sticking to it. If they break that pledge, we ensure they never get elected to another SPJ post.

Here’s my draft of a transparency pledge. I’d love to hear your edits and ideas.


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.


comments powered by Disqus

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ