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Monday, February 6, 2012
Education Toolbox

SPJ chapter for pro and student needs

By Butler Cain

The Texas panhandle is close to establishing its very own SPJ chapter.

When I arrived as a faculty member at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, one of my primary goals was to establish an SPJ chapter on campus. I soon learned that not only is there no student SPJ chapter in the panhandle, there’s no professional chapter, either.

SPJ is a vital resource for both professional journalists and journalism education, so I’m keenly interested in making sure the organization has a presence here. The more I talked about it, the more I discovered there are other journalists and educators in the Texas panhandle who feel the same way.

What started as a plan focusing on my own campus has now become a collaborative effort to create a new kind of SPJ chapter that is built around the needs of both professionals and students. WTAMU is now cooperating with the Amarillo Globe-News, the local daily newspaper, and Amarillo College, a public community college, to establish a different type of chapter — a hybrid, if you will — in the Texas panhandle.

SPJ’s membership coordinator, Linda Hall, has given us plenty of encouragement and guidance on how to do this. She suggested we set up the chapter under the “professional” label but create bylaws that allow for significant student participation, as well. My colleagues and I believe this would create an organization that offers all of its members several advantages. For Mike Haynes, the student media adviser at Amarillo College, the pluses include giving his students a chance to interact with their potential internship directors or employers.

This type of chapter isn’t totally unprecedented. SPJ’s national bylaws allow local professional chapters to admit students as full members, if the chapter bylaws allow it. The South Florida Pro chapter has done so successfully for several years.

“It will be great for our mass communication students to have a way to get to know local professionals and to learn from them,” Haynes said. “A local SPJ chapter that combines students and professionals will make it much easier for our students to get into the swing of professional journalism. If nothing else, they’ll make valuable contacts.”

That possibility has helped create a significant amount of buzz among students at both WTAMU and Amarillo College. As part of our application, SPJ requires us to submit the names and contact information of at least 20 people who are willing to consider joining the chapter. Practically everyone on our list is a student.

Maria Molina, editor of West Texas A&M’s student newspaper, The Prairie, said establishing a chapter that brings together professionals and students will provide significant opportunities for career development.

“Being a professional in the field is not the same as working for the school newspaper,” she said, “and an SPJ chapter will allow us students to get a little more knowledge about the opportunities we have after we graduate or how to fix what we are doing wrong before we graduate.”

Molina is also interested in the opportunities our new chapter will provide for networking with students from other panhandle-area community colleges. WTAMU and Amarillo College have already begun laying a foundation for that type of exchange by hosting a “meet and greet” for students from both schools during the fall 2011 semester. We’ll conduct another one in the spring.

While the advantages for students are readily apparent, there are also professional development opportunities for journalists of all experience levels. That’s why the effort to create this new type of SPJ chapter is getting a tremendous amount of support from Les Simpson, publisher of the Amarillo Globe-News. An SPJ chapter, he said, will be an important resource for keeping professional journalists focused on their mission and purpose.

“I have a lot of very new and young journalists on the staff of the Amarillo Globe-News,” Simpson said. “A professional organization like SPJ will help supplement and reinforce the training that we try to give them. I think it will also increase the amount of pride they have in our profession.”

There’s also hope that our new chapter will give area journalists more than an excuse simply to get together. Mike Haynes said he hopes it will contribute to the creation of better journalism.

“It’s been several decades since the local media, especially those who cover news daily, have had an active professional group,” he said. “Regular gatherings of newspaper, television and even radio journalists could improve the collective journalistic climate here and give reporters and editors a place to talk shop other than happy hour after work.”

Improving journalism in the Texas panhandle is at the core of our efforts to establish an SPJ chapter here. Any time professionals and students can get together to talk about journalism, its challenges and its responsibilities, great things are bound to happen.

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