Fort Worth, Texas, hailed by legendary Star-Telegram publisher Amon G. Carter as the place where the West begins, was the site of the 2002 SPJ National Convention.
More than 600 professional and student journalists made the trek to the Lone Star State for a weekend of fellowship and professional development. Set amid Sundance Square and the Stockyards, the elegant Renaissance Worthington Hotel was the perfect venue for the zenith of SPJ’s year.
The local planning committee, chaired by Kay Pirtle with expert assistance from Programming Chair Dorothy Estes, Sponsorship Chair Gary Hardee and jack-of-all-trades John Dycus, put together a comprehensive program ensuring every journalist in attendance could find a number of educational sessions to his or her liking.
In addition to professional development, the National Convention serves as SPJ’s supreme governing body. The House of Delegates selected the Society’s new leadership, amended the bylaws and adopted a number of resolutions stating SPJ’s position on a number of important issues.
Highlights of the convention:
• The convention was kicked off in true Texas style with an opening night “jolly-up and big-hair fandango” at Billy Bob’s Texas, touted as the world’s largest honky-tonk. Two-steppin’, a Wild West Show, bull riding and all the barbecue you could stuff in your gullet made for a memorable evening.
• The traditional passing of the gavel occurred as Al Cross, political columnist at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, turned the mantle of leadership over to Robert Leger, editorial page editor at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Mac McKerral, editor of The Business Journal of Tampa Bay, was elected president-elect, while Irwin Gratz, morning editor and producer for Maine Public Broadcasting, became secretary-treasurer.
• The House of Delegates adopted several resolutions during its main business session. One resolution called on news organizations to commit time and money to remind Americans of the value of the First Amendment. Another urged reporters and editors to take care in writing about people named as suspects but not charged. The Society’s board of directors also adopted a resolution emphasizing SPJ’s support of diversity in staffing and coverage. The full text of all resolutions adopted appears in the SPJ Report insert this month.
• Educational sessions included topics such as health hazards facing journalists, census data and the balance between national security and open government. Headline sessions discussed the effect of civic journalism, journalists and trauma, and Afghanistan’s future.
• Some of the many sessions geared toward students focused on covering crime on the college campus, running a successful student chapter and internships. Special critique sessions allowed students to benefit from the wisdom of more experienced journalists.
• A number of sessions dealt with some of SPJ’s bread-and-butter issues: freedom of information, the First Amendment and ethics. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a workshop on making an ethical checklist. The Project Watchdog program dealt with the First Amendment in time of war. Ian Marquand, co-chair of the Society’s FOI Committee, introduced SPJ’s newest FOI resource, “Open Doors.”
• Bob Scheiffer, Fort Worth native and CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent, was in the hot seat at the annual Legal Defense Fund luncheon and roast. The luncheon and subsequent LDF auction raised more than $12,000 to continue to support journalists and media organizations facing legal challenges to preserving a free press and open government.
• Vanessa Leggett, who missed the 2001 convention because she was jailed for 168 days for refusing to turn over her notes on a murder-for-hire story, spoke at the opening session. She later was recognized with one of SPJ’s First Amendment Awards.
• The Working Press, the student-run convention newspaper, cranked out three issues during the weekend, sometimes working into the wee hours of the morning putting the finishing touches on each issue. Special thanks are in order to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram for printing the paper and to Apple Computer for providing the state-of-the-art workstations.
• Kyle Niederpruem, past SPJ president, and Julie Grimes, SPJ’s deputy executive director, were recipients of the Society’s highest individual honor, the Wells Memorial Key, for their signal service to the organization.
• Recognized as Fellows of the Society were Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post, and David Handschuh, photographer for the New York Daily News. Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., were recognized with the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. The top chapters in SPJ included Minnesota Pro in the large chapter category and Arkansas Pro in the small category. The University of Florida was named outstanding student chapter.
• The United States Postal Service dedicated a new stamp honoring women in journalism. The first-class stamp features Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Ethel L. Payne and Marguerite Higgins. Legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who actually knew three of the women on the stamps, was featured speaker at the ceremony. The first-day cancellation celebration attracted hundreds of philatelists from the region.
• Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger praised the work of slain journalist Daniel Pearl and defended the Journal’s decision to hand over al Qaeda files to the U.S. government. “I didn’t want to take the risk that thousands might die just so we could avoid appearing too close to the government,” said Steiger. Steiger spoke during SPJ’s annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards banquet.
• SPJ celebrated the launch of the SPJ Rainbow Sourcebook with a discussion with some of the best Mexican-American authors in the country. Poets and fiction writers participated in an afternoon reception and reading moderated by SPJ Diversity Chair Sally Lehrman. Check out the Rainbow Sourcebook online at www.spj.org.
• New York Daily News photographer David Handschuh shared his experiences covering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. He also advocated for counseling for journalists who experience trauma. “We are a community,” said Handschuh. “We ask questions as a job. By asking questions of each other we can engage in peer counseling.”
• Representatives from the media and the clergy discussed the recent coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops expressed concern about sloppy coverage and suggested that journalists take more care in their reporting. Journalists shared frustrations about seeking information and constantly hearing, “no comment.”
• SPJ recognized six organizations or individuals for their press advocacy work. SPJ FOI Chair Ian Marquand presented Sunshine awards to: the Pennsylvania First Amendment Coalition and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, SPJ member Joseph Tyrrell, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California First Amendment Coalition, Barbara Petersen of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, and Sandra Chance of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
In 2003, the SPJ National Convention will head to sunny Tampa, Fla. The Hyatt Regency Tampa will play host to SPJ on Sept. 11-13. Planning is well under way by the Mid Florida Pro Chapter, host chapter for the 2003 convention. Check out SPJ’s Web site – www.spj.org – in the coming weeks and months for a complete wrap-up of the 2002 convention and details on 2003.