Archive for September, 2012

It Wasn’t All Fun and Games in Florida

It was great seeing fellow Region 9 members at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Fort Lauderdale. Three of our four pro chapters were well represented, and I saw a few of our student members there.

Like other SPJ conventions, it was a great time to meet with folks from other parts of the country, build up the network and renew friendships. But we also got a lot of work done as well.

One great piece of news that came up during the convention was Rio Grande Pro’s decision to host the 2013 regional convention. As those of you who have hosted a regional conference know, this is not a light undertaking. I’ve been there.  I’ve pledged my support to help in any way I can, and I want to urge everyone in the region to pitch in, whether it is expertise, planning assistance or even money. While the folks in New Mexico are gracious enough to host the chapter, let’s remember it is a regional conference and work together to again demonstrate why this is one of SPJ’s greatest regions. If you are interested in helping, contact Julie Ann Grimm in New Mexico or me. And our good friend and now immediate past-president John Ensslin said he would try to adjust his schedule to come to the regional to represent SPJ’s executive committee.

Here’s a recap of what happened at the national board meeting.

The board voted to create a traveling Ted Scripps Leadership Institute. SPJ used to conduct this great training program at IUPUI’s hotel/conference center in Indianapolis, but the university is closing it to use the space for classrooms and dorms. To replace it, the board voted to give staff the go-ahead to launch a traveling program. The goal is to visit four regions a year, at a place that will be no more than eight hours’ drive for any SPJ member in the region. The program will allow for more people from chapters to get the leadership training and bring it home to strengthen the chapters. Those of you who have been through the training know what a valuable resource this is, so it is exciting to see that it will continue in a way that will make it accessible to more SPJ members than before.

Starting in January, you’ll be able to pay for your SPJ membership with a credit card. Joe Skeel, our national director, told us the office finally has the software package in place to make this possible. This will allow people to set up an automatic renewal on their membership, as well as to pay their dues on a monthly basis rather than yearly. That should make membership a bit affordable. However, you’ll have to opt in to the program, and it will cost an extra $5 a year to cover the cost of processing credit cards. But it has the potential to reduce dues to a $6.67 monthly payment. I’ll post more details as they become available.

The board also voted to roll out an institutional membership program. This will allow a news outlet to join SPJ and get its employees a $15 discount on annual dues. The program will have three tiers  — bronze, silver and gold — with additional benefits for the higher levels. For example, a gold member would pay $1,250 a year and get a free national convention registration for one person and an in-person in-house training program for all employees. Other benefits include a free regional conference registration, free job postings and customized webinar, which would be available to gold and silver institutional members. If you weigh the costs of sending one employee to Poynter, SPJ National or other training programs, the gold membership can be a bargain when you figure you can bring in a high-quality training program for your entire staff each year. Joe Skeel said the program came about after interviewing newsroom managers about what they wanted out of SPJ. One of the goals is to get the SPJ culture into more newsrooms.

SPJ also prepared guidelines for the best practices in chapter finances in the wake of the embezzlement scandal that rocked Region 8 this year. I will send out copies to the chapter leaders, but essentially it calls for additional oversight of chapter accounts and recommends such things as having second signers on checks and regular reviews of the finances.

The board also adopted procedures for creating chapters overseas. This is a response to journalists overseas who see what SPJ stands for and want to see it in their countries.

During our Sunday meeting, the SPJ national board voted to give each of the national committees that meet during the national convention one free convention registration. This is a measure I fought hard for. At points, I felt like Benjamin Franklin working the salons of Paris trying to convince the French to support American independence. But I believe that the national committee chairs are some of the hardest-working people at SPJ’s national level. And for many of them, it is a serious sacrifice to take time away from jobs and families to come to the convention to conduct committee meetings and other tasks at the convention. While a free convention registration doesn’t fully make up for that, it is a way to thank these people for their service. We’re going to do it for one year, with the option to review it at next year’s convention, which will be at the Anaheim Marriott, next door to DisneyLand.

Utah Headliners and Colorado Pro were both recognized in SPJ’s Circle of Excellence for work in FOI and campus relations respectively. Congratulations to those chapters.

I also want to thank you all for your support. You all are the people who truly make SPJ a worthwhile organization. You are the ones in the trenches fighting the battles for open government, encouraging students that journalism is a worthy profession at a time when others are writing its epitath and carrying SPJ’s standards into newsrooms around the region. You are the folks who make SPJ great, and I consider it a privilege to serve as your representative and voice on the national board.

Why I’m an SPJ Member

The Sanpete Messenger, a weekly newspaper serving the communities in Utah’s rural Sanpete County, was in an open-records fight with the Utah Highway Patrol.

Christian Probasco, a reporter with the Messenger, was seeking information on an accident where a teenage boy who wandered away from a group home was hit and injured by a car on a rural highway at night. The UHP provided the information, but redacted the information on the boy. Probasco said he was told that the patrol had a policy to not release minors’ names, despite state laws saying that the media had access to accident reports.

Probasco wasn’t willing to let it go, especially with the possibility that the denial was politically motivated; he and his publisher said the investigating officer might be the co-owner — with a local mayor —of the group home the boy was living at.

Probasco appealed this denial through the Department of Public Safety and was denied, all claiming that releasing the boy’s name would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” The next level of recourse was the Utah State Records Committee, a body that hears appeals under the state Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). Appearing before the committee can be intimidating for the average person. Those who speak have to swear to tell the truth under pain of perjury charges. They have to present their cases in about a half-hour. And they have to face the people withholding the records and their attorneys.

In this case, Probasco and his publisher, Suzanne Dean, were facing an assistant Utah Attorney General. And, they had to take off an entire day to make the trip to Salt Lake City.

Adding to the potential stress level were the consequences if they lost. If the board agreed with the highway patrol, it would set a precedent for withholding minors’ names, and embolden bureaucrats to further shroud records in secrecy.

Fortunately, Dean and Probasco didn’t go in alone. SPJ was at their side.

SPJ National FOI Chairwoman Linda Petersen was there, testifying that the state’s arguments for privacy were a ridiculous twisting of GRAMA. “It is a very dangerous thing when law enforcers become interpreters of the law,” Petersen said.

Sheryl Worsley, president of the Utah Headliners Chapter was there as well. She told the committee that having information like Probasco sought is what helps journalists tell the stories that make a difference, that put human faces on problems and motivate people to right wrongs.

Joel Campbell, a former National FOI chairman, also reminded the committee that the state Legislature said journalists could have all names listed in a motor-vehicle accident report, giving them the historical background on the legislation.

I was there as part of the contingent of reporters covering the hearing, many of whom were alerted by Campbell, Petersen and Worsley to the significance of the hearing.

The good news is that Probasco won. The committee ruled that the state, which even went as far as to suggest the teen should not be named because there was a possibility he might be criminally charged for walking in the road at night, failed to prove the request was a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. I can’t say if SPJ’s presence tipped the scales, but it showed that someone was watching and willing to stand up for the public’s right to know.

The case is not over just yet; the state is mulling a possible appeal to district court. But Dean and Probasco know if that should happen, they have friends in SPJ who will stand beside them at the barricades.

And that is why I’m an SPJ member.


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