Better than you

SPJ Florida is the best chapter in the country – this year and this decade.

Today, SPJ Florida won Large Chapter of the Year for the sixth time between 2010 and 2020. SPJ doesn’t keep very good track of these things, but that’s got to be a record.

So does this: Previously, the chapter never won once.

No one knows when SPJ Florida started, but it was before I was born in 1965. A retired Miami Herald copyeditor once told me as much.

That year, John “Hop” Hopkins recalled going to a Miami bar for monthly meetings. This was four years before SPJ allowed women to join. So Hop said – without apparent irony or self-awareness – that some members kept up their dues so they’d have a legit excuse for not rushing home to the wife after a hard day in the newsroom.

That must’ve been back when America was great.

After five decades, warring came before winning.

In 2009, I led a bloodless coup that replaced all the old-timers (including Hop) with a board of mostly twentysomethings. I was elected president.

While I followed SPJ bylaws – and if you know anything about SPJ leaders, they simply adore bylaws – the old board lost their minds. “There have been 12 letters of complaint about the election lodged with the National President,” a South Florida weekly reported.

To appease their bloodlust, I offered to resign as president as long as the newcomers could stay. They accepted, satisfied they’d taken something from me, just as I’d taken something from them.

But that was always the plan, because I knew those old-timers would be furious: I was cutting them off from their “monthly meetings,” which were really just an excuse to rotate among nice restaurants and charge SPJ for their dinners.

Sadly, that’s still common today outside of Florida. In fact, I’d say most SPJ chapters eat more than they accomplish.

The youth movement moved fast.

Despite predictions of doom – several old board members said their young replacements lacked “real world experience” – things started happening right away.

Only a few months later, they won Chapter of the Year for the first time ever. They kept winning, too…

  • 2010
  • 2014
  • 2016*
  • 2017
  • 2019*
  • 2020

…and in case you’re wondering, the asterisks indicate when SPJ Florida shared the award with chapters that did much less.

Why? Because a majority of the SPJ leaders who choose Chapter of the Year said they “felt bad” for the other chapters and didn’t want them to get discouraged because “Florida wins so much.”

I suggested participation trophies instead, but everyone thought I was joking. I really wasn’t. I was joking when I suggested an SPJ Most Chapter Meals Eaten award. Alas, neither idea went anywhere.

So why does SPJ Florida keep winning?

You’d think a bunch of scheming whippersnappers who seized control by running as a youthful slate of candidates would irk SPJ’s establishment. And they certainly did.

(My favorite protest came during the bitterly contested election itself, which was held in a South Florida wine bar. One of the oldest board members drunkenly insisted he should be reelected because, “I took a bullet in the knee in Korea!”)

I’m usually unimpressed with awards, and the very few I’ve won are in the closet in my spare room. But I love when SPJ Florida wins Chapter of the Year because I know how much it pains some SPJ leaders to smile and hand a plaque to a bunch of young upstarts.

So why do they keep winning? Simple. They do stuff. A lot of stuff. And not just panel discussions and webinars. In fact, SPJ Florida has learned something most other chapters haven’t: Talking is good, doing is better.

So just in the past year, they’ve…

…and that’s not nearly a complete list.

I don’t know if SPJ Florida will rack up another decade like the one that just ended. But I do know this: They’ve stayed young, so maybe. Only one board member is over 40, and most are under 30. They’re also SPJ’s most diverse chapter board, featuring only one straight white men like me.

(The smartest move I ever made was getting out of their way, and each subsequent generation of chapter leaders has done the same damn thing.)

I actually hope SPJ Florida never wins another Chapter of the Year award – because every other chapter copies them and kicks their ass.

So here’s to more youth coups.

Editor’s note: Wonder if I’m hurting SPJ Florida’s chances for future awards by what I’ve written here? Don’t worry. SPJ leaders don’t read SPJ blogs. So they’ll never see this post. Not even if you send them a link. Go ahead. I dare you.


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