“May you live in interesting times” is an old saying in China. It was conceived as a curse, but most journalists would probably consider it a blessing.
For the Society of Professional Journalists, these are very interesting times – which provide challenges that we must treat as opportunities to expand SPJ’s roles and influence.
The challenges are both external, as we seek to fulfill our missions, and internal, as we try to ensure the Society’s organizational and financial health.
Externally, the war on terrorism has put freedom of information under attack as never before, and SPJ has been a leader in fighting war-related restrictions on information, fulfilling one of our core missions. We have been able to increase our profile on FOI and other issues partly because of our revamped Web site, which is designed with SPJ members in mind. Please use it.
FOI Co-Chair Ian Marquand is making sure SPJ continues to be the leader on FOI issues, with his work on our Open Doors Project. The key feature of this effort is a guidebook for using FOI laws, fighting FOI battles and generating public support for freedom of information.
Our other core mission is ethics, and our Ethics Committee is examining war coverage to find examples where ethical concerns have been properly exercised and where journalists fell short – and whether our Code of Ethics needs to be expanded to provide more guidance as we operate in a changed environment and cover a war like none of us has ever seen before.
Internally, our main challenge remains membership. In coordination with our professional chapters, we are conducting our first major membership campaign in many years to reverse a slow decline that could compromise our ability to improve and protect journalism. I hope all SPJ members will contribute their individual efforts to this campaign by inviting journalists to join.
Any volunteer organization has only so much time and energy, so its focus often shifts, depending on events. For a couple of years, I think, we let membership concerns suffer because we were focused on issues relating to our headquarters – first, where we would be located after our lease in Greencastle, Ind., expired, followed by the purchase and renovation of our first piece of real estate, the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center in Indianapolis.
Our headquarters building has a large second floor and basement for meetings, and we plan to show it off next month when the SPJ Board of Directors and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board meet there. Some of our board members have never seen our headquarters or talked with our staff on their turf. Most of our members certainly haven’t had that opportunity, but if you happen to be in Indianapolis, you are most welcome to visit SPJ at 3909 N. Meridian Ave.
Our executive director in 1999-2001, Jim Gray, did a fine job on the headquarters project, and our move to Indianapolis appeared to help us get more and better applications to fill Jim’s position after he resigned in November.
On Feb. 3, the SPJ Board unanimously endorsed the recommendation of our search committee, headed by President-Elect Robert Leger, and hired Terry Harper of Indianapolis to be the new executive director of SPJ and SDX.
Those who have worked with Terry describe him as committed, driven, hard-working, and detail-oriented. They say he is someone who makes sure that his board has all the information it needs, and that his staff understands the organization’s goals and how to achieve them. In 1990, when he was in his mid-20s, Terry became executive director of the Indianapolis-based Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and led it to financial and membership growth. Just as impressively, he held the job for nine years.
Terry is not a journalist, but that’s not required. In SPJ, the volunteer leaders do the talking and the executive director does the managing. We do need employees who have an affinity for journalism, and Terry and his staff have that. We are confident of their abilities to make SPJ bigger and better.
I am especially confident of that because of the presence of Deputy Director Julie Grimes, who was our acting executive director for almost four months. This was a trying time for Julie and the rest of our staff, but she more than justified our confidence in her. Every SPJ member should be thankful that she is at headquarters. She exemplifies the dedication demonstrated by a long line of key staffers and volunteer leaders that have kept SPJ at the forefront of journalism issues for almost 100 years. All of us should try to live up to those examples.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.