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Home > Publications > Quill > From the President

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
From the President

In the year 2064: SPJ will protect democracy

By David Cuillier

The future of SPJ, journalism and even democracy rest squarely on two people’s shoulders: Joe and Chris.

That’s a huge burden, I know, and it might seem a little melodramatic, but it’s true. I’m talking about two people who really keep our organization moving: SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel and Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Director Chris Vachon.

Sure, significant change in SPJ requires support and hard work from all of us — members, volunteers, staff, elected board members and the SDX Foundation. But change won’t happen without Joe and Chris, or at least without their vision.

You might have read Joe’s May 30 blog post outlining the future of SPJ in 50 years. If you haven’t read it, please do. I don’t know if we will drive hovercrafts and command robot servants in 2064, but I do believe Joe is right about SPJ’s potentially world-changing future:

SPJ will protect democracy. It is essential we identify our purpose in the world and focus everything we do around it. Is our purpose to hold meetings and fill out chapter paperwork? No! It’s about making journalism better so people can get the information they need to self-govern. Or as Joe states: “How can SPJ positively affect and protect democracy through journalism?” That means helping journalists do their jobs better, as well as promoting ethics, diversity and press freedom. We know that now. We will live it in 2064.

SPJ will be the primary advocate for journalism. We already are positioned as one of the few journalism organizations established as a 501(c )(6), which means we are legally entitled and responsible to fight, advocate and even lobby for press freedom. Other organizations are struggling to maintain the fight, and budgets rise and fall with the economy and whims of transient leaders. That is why I would like to launch an endowed advocacy fund this fall and continue building it for the next 30 years and beyond. War over information requires a hefty war chest.

SPJ will not rely on membership. Organizations that put their trust in membership dues for survival are dying. Sure, I hope we will have members, and lots of them, but our financial stability should not rest on it. SPJ has had as many as 20,000 members in its history, and now it is down to 7,500. It is still the largest journalism organization in the U.S., but we can’t rely on members for survival. Interestingly, while we continue to shrink in membership, we are in the strongest financial and administrative state in decades. That does not mean we don’t serve members — in fact, we should probably provide more member benefits. It’s just we aren’t reliant on member dues for survival.

SPJ will help other groups improve journalism. For too long, journalism organizations have scrabbled against each other when we should instead have been working together. SPJ can’t provide the level of training in environmental journalism that the Society of Environmental Journalists can. So why try? Instead, help them do their work better and we help journalism, and therefore democracy. Already journalism groups are turning to SPJ to help with administration, conference planning, training and membership management. Joe calls this the “ConAgra” model, or similarly perhaps SPJ serves as the shopping mall structure that aids individual stores in selling their wares. We are really good at running stuff. Let’s use those skills to help other journalism organizations meet their missions, at lower cost and greater reach. Imagine, for example, a mega-journalism conference once a year, where 20,000 journalists converge to participate in their own specialized gatherings but share in joint sessions, lower hotel costs and big-name speakers, including U.S. presidents.

SDX will foster training throughout journalism. The SDX Foundation, created to assist in SPJ’s missions, has a $12 million endowment that funds a variety of SPJ functions, primarily in education and training. In 2064, SDX can focus all of its money on training and education while SPJ attends to member benefits, journalism group assistance and advocacy. A clear delineation of duties will advance journalism, and therefore democracy.

Will SPJ chapters still exist in 2064? I imagine they will, depending on the needs of journalists. There is still something to be said for journalists getting together in communities for programming, networking and collegiality. That might change, though, in 50 years.

I would like to see our organization evolve to meet the needs of the members and journalism. For example, perhaps “communities” based on career and beat interests (e.g., freelancing) become important structures of governance within SPJ. Maybe we no longer have delegates making decisions at a national convention and instead rely on online voting by members. Maybe we devise a new board structure or create new staff positions never imagined.

All I know is that I feel great about SPJ’s future given the forward thinking of Joe, Chris and the organization’s leaders and members. It has been an exciting year to be president, and it is just going to become more interesting during the next 50 years.

Strap in and see you in 2064!

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