By Terry Harper
As I write this column, I have occupied the executive director’s chair of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation for a grand total of 32 days.
In that brief time, I tagged along with SPJ’s leadership on visits to Capitol Hill; attended a meeting of SPJ’s Finance Committee in Washington, D.C.; participated in the Region 4 Conference at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; and had the opportunity to spend a day with longtime SPJ leader and current SDX Foundation Treasurer Howard Dubin in Evanston, Ill. I also have spent countless hours with SPJ’s professional staff – both individually and collectively – trying to get a handle on all that goes on here at 3909 N. Meridian St.
My interaction with members and staff points to one thing: the Society of Professional Journalists has some important decisions to make regarding its future. From my point of view, SPJ needs to address two primary issues that will determine its course for the foreseeable future.
The first is that of having a local or national focus. Should SPJ concentrate on top-down efforts or deliver resources at the grassroots level? In recent years, the Society has experienced the erosion of local participation even while national advocacy for the profession in the areas of freedom of the press and freedom of information has remained strong.
People join an organization for many reasons, not the least of which is the organization’s mission. Another equally important reason is because someone they know and trust asks them to join. There is a personal connection. This occurs primarily at the chapter level. SPJ might want to re-examine its recruitment and retention activities to take this into account.
The second issue is one of generalization vs. specialization. Does SPJ want to try to be everything to everybody, or does it select a few critical focus areas and form outside partnerships to fill in the gaps?
Dozens of “niche” journalism organizations have sprung up over the years in response to unmet needs or a desire to affiliate with like-minded people. These organizations all serve valuable purposes for those who join them. SPJ continues as a very broad-based association with the expansive mission of “improving and protecting journalism” at its foundation. It might be time for SPJ to reconsider its shotgun approach and hone in on two or three key areas that will redefine the organization for the next generation of journalists and beyond.
One of the challenges SPJ faces as an organization is that its successes at the national level benefit all journalists, regardless of membership. Every time SPJ breaks down another barrier to freedom of information, all journalists win. So some journalists might question the need to join SPJ when they will benefit regardless.
This column certainly asks more questions than it answers. The membership of SPJ – and working journalists in particular – needs to provide these answers. Once the membership decides on an overall direction and focus, the professional staff can develop and execute programs designed to accomplish those objectives.
Your constructive criticism and helpful suggestions are encouraged. Only through the active involvement of the membership can SPJ overcome its challenges and continue to be the premier journalism organization.
Contact Executive Director Terry Harper at 317/927-8000 ext. 220 or at email@example.com.