This is a challenging time for journalism and for the Society. And not just because of current events. Even before Sept. 11, many of us were worried about the future of journalism in a world of multiplying media – where the market share of most companies was shrinking, news judgments were increasingly a function of marketing strategy, and the promise of a new world of online journalism had faded with the burst of the dot-com bubble. Led by the networks, particularly those on cable, everyone was looking for an angle, an edge no one else had. Chatter and punditry replaced real reporting and real news. The markets for entertainment and opinion were increasing, and the market for facts was decreasing proportionately. We were losing sight of our principles. For most Americans, the era of journalistic objectivity was over, if it ever existed in their minds. Our public approval numbers were lower than ever. Sept. 11 changed much of that. Suddenly, real reporting and real news are much more in demand. There is huge interest in foreign policy and international news, which had been relegated mainly to the briefs columns and the opinion pages. Now they can be issues of life and death. For once, what the public needs from the news media was pretty much what it wants from us, and our poll ratings rival those of President Bush. But we aren’t in this business to be popular. We know our popularity bubble will burst. In a time of national distress, we face tough challenges as we try to cover a war like one never waged before – one without a fully defined enemy, being fought without a clear front, much of it in secret, and much of it within our own borders. And this war is being run largely by the same people who ran the war against Iraq. Because of their restrictions on journalists then, that war may have been the most poorly covered American war since our Revolution. SPJ played a major role in organizing congressional hearings on news coverage of that war, and I promise you that we will be a leader in fighting restrictions on journalism in covering this one. We took the lead in writing the statement of principles for a coalition of media groups on that subject. In stormy times like these, journalists and all Americans need a beacon to define the shores and shoals on which journalism and the national cause can founder. That is what I want SPJ to be – a beacon on a hill, showing the value of freedom of information, and reminding citizens and journalists of ethical principles that are more important than ever. I believe this organization stands for the proposition that journalism is more than a business. It is a calling, and it is a public service – especially in times like these. These are also times to show our stuff on other missions, such as professional development and diversity. It is more important than ever that we develop our talents and bring them to bear. And as we witness the sad misunderstandings and hate toward Americans whose backgrounds make them different from most of us, it is also important that we remind America of the value of diversity and the need for it in our newsrooms. But we must focus on our core missions of FOI and ethics. The FOI battles will be fought mainly in Washington, and I promise you that this organization will have a stronger Washington presence, a priority established by my predecessor Ray Marcano, and one on which we made some progress this summer. We also need a greater presence in our nation’s other major media center, New York. Among the steps toward that is our acceptance of the New York Deadline Club’s bid to host the national convention in 2004. On ethics, I promise you that we will be more proactive in looking for leadership opportunities. To that end, I have appointed Casey Bukro of The Chicago Tribune as a co-chairman of our Ethics Committee, to serve with co-chairman Fred Brown and chairman Gary Hill. Bukro has been a sometimes lonely voice in urging journalists to take note of our colleagues’ ethical transgressions. I have asked him to look for opportunities for SPJ to take the lead in advancing the cause of ethics in journalism. The four main principles of the SPJ Code of Ethics are especially relevant at a time like this: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. As journalism tries to balance the first principle with the second, it will be best served by remembering the third. We must not get so caught up in the national cause that we compromise our independence, which is essential to our credibility. As journalism enters a new era, so does the Society of Professional Journalists. We have a sharp, new headquarters and a dedicated, professional staff, and you have elected a strong group of volunteer leaders who will help me use our resources to advance our missions. But we will not be able to fulfill our great promise unless we have more members. That is the main reason this is a challenging time for SPJ. And that is where you come in. I want you to take a cue from the dedication of Howard Dubin, who will be the national membership chair during my term. Thanks to Howard’s generosity, we will soon launch one of the largest membership recruitment campaigns in the Society’s history. That campaign will not be successful without the full involvement of you and your chapters. We will be asking for your help and advice as we put together the strategy and tactics of this campaign, which will be tailored to your particular area. Then, when the campaign is launched, it will be up to you to follow up. This campaign won’t do too much more than just pay for itself without personal contact. If you are a volunteer leader of this Society, I expect you to take part.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.