Les Brownlee’s friends and well-wishers made it difficult for the veteran journalist to sit down. They constantly approached him in the banquet room of the Chicago Athletic Club to congratulate him on the new series of programs that was beginning that night – the Les Brownlee Journalism Series.
Brownlee has belonged to SPJ longer than most members have been alive. He joined in the 1940s, the first African American admitted to the Society. He’s a former president of the Headline Club, SPJ’s Chicago chapter. He deserves any honor that anyone wants to give him.
But this was a whopper. With $15,000 in seed money from Brownlee’s friend A.C. Nielsen (yes, that A.C. Nielsen), the Brownlee series was a monthlong program of professional development events for Chicago journalists. It included the banquet where Brownlee and other Chicago journalism luminaries were inducted into the chapter’s hall of fame, a writing workshop, a bus tour of important sites in journalism, and an uplinked conversation with Chicago journalists working overseas. Altogether, more than 800 people attended, generating $17,000 in revenue and adding 50 members to the chapter’s ranks.
It’s a superlative example of what an SPJ chapter should be doing.
Chapters are SPJ’s strength – and our weakness. A vibrant chapter that presents strong programs and takes principled stands on local ethics and freedom of information issues advances SPJ’s mission of improving and protecting journalism. It proudly waves the flag for all of us. A stagnant chapter that manages barely a program a year drives members away.
The more strong chapters we have, the stronger is SPJ as a whole. Active chapters attract members. More members also give SPJ a louder voice as we promote freedom of information, the First Amendment, ethics and diversity on the national level.
Chapter Doctor Kyle Niederpruem, a Wells Key winner and former national president, is collecting examples of successful chapter activities and circulating them to chapter presidents, along with a how-to guide. The idea is to help every chapter get stronger by sharing ideas. Not every chapter can pull off a full Brownlee series, but elements of it can transfer anywhere.
Chicago is far from the only example of a chapter doing superlative work.
When Columbia University President Lee Bollinger ordered a study of whether the Graduate School of Journalism should continue to teach the craft of journalism, members of the campus SPJ chapter were alarmed that the closed-doors task force he created included only one student.
But they didn’t just gripe; they did something. Chapter leaders wrote and conducted a survey of students, which found overwhelming support for continuing the current curriculum (the report is available at http://spj.jrn.columbia.edu). They provided an important piece of information that Bollinger and the task force would otherwise have ignored. That’s service to the community of journalists the chapter serves.
Likewise, the Minnesota Pro Chapter never misses an opportunity to stand up for journalism. When the University of Minnesota Board of Regents met secretly to hire a new president – in violation of the state open meetings law – the chapter jumped in with a statement criticizing the action. It joined a lawsuit filed by news organizations challenging the regents’ action. “We and other journalists want university officials to clearly know they cannot flout the law and expect a free pass,” chapter President Mike Knaak says.
The chapter also protested the Minneapolis Police Department’s delay in releasing the names of people arrested in a high-profile case. And it is joining a coalition seeking changes in the state’s open records act to make Office of Administration advisory opinions binding. Who wouldn’t join a chapter working so hard for journalists?
When the State Department was looking for journalists to appear on a freedom of the press program beamed to four African embassies, it turned to the Washington, D.C., chapter, which quickly provided names. It’s a good example of how it pays for a chapter to build name recognition as the place to go for journalists.
Impressive work is not limited to large chapters. The Utah professional chapter, a beacon for FOI, filed two amicus briefs when overzealous prosecutors charged a high school student over content on his Web site. SPJ as a whole signed on to the amici; having local and national signatures added power to our arguments.
This barely touches the surface of what chapters are doing. Florida’s professional and student chapters have been heavily involved in efforts to keep the Sunshine State living up to its reputation for having the nation’s best open meetings and records law – a reputation put at risk in the last legislative session. Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun chapter, recognizing it has too few members from the city’s dominant daily, is holding brown-bag sessions at the Arizona Republic to acquaint staffers about SPJ’s national and local missions. The Louisville chapter will celebrate its 50th anniversary in February, a milestone that comes to chapters only if they remain vibrant and relevant year in and year out.
A lot of chapters could have been included in this column. If yours is one of them, I salute you. If it’s not, I urge you to be the member who decides it is time for this to change.
Robert Leger, editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, is president of SPJ. To know more about the chapters mentioned or to share your ideas on how SPJ can build stronger chapters, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.