It’s helpful to be able to see yourself in your leadership. For members of the Society of Professional Journalists, President David E. Carlson offers a little something for everyone.
Carlson got his start in the newsrooms of small-town dailies and worked his way through a string of newspaper jobs before landing as a professor at the University of Florida. But he doesn’t just teach journalism; he teaches new media. And if you know Carlson, you know he is always seen with laptop and WIFI gadgets nearby.
Although he’s no longer working in a newsroom, Carlson does freelance as a dining critic for the Gainesville Sun. When he’s not busy teaching or SPJing, he’s been known to build furniture, cook feasts and dabble in photography.
“I probably have more hobbies than I should,” said Carlson, 54. “I have always loved woodworking and cooking. It’s so much different than what I do for a living, and it provides an alternative creative outlet,” he said.
Hobbies aside, Carlson also is passionate about SPJ and its mission of improving and protecting journalism. He first joined SPJ when he was a senior at Drake University. Like many who first come to the Society, he was hoping to make connections for jobs.
But once he was out on his own as a reporter, the twin heads of little discretionary money and newsroom apathy about the Society’s importance caused him to drop his membership.
It’s a common thread that ties him to many of SPJ’s members who allowed their own memberships to lapse for similar reasons. Now that he’s president, it’s also something he hopes SPJ can address head on.
“That cycle is repeated constantly,” he said, from the SPJ office at the National Convention in Las Vegas in October. “We need to do a better job of telling SPJ’s story to our members. We have no problem attracting members, but we do have trouble keeping them.”
There’s no shortage of important work to share with those members.
“If you’re a working journalist, you don’t have time to worry about the wording in a federal shield law or what amicus briefs have been filed. We need to do a better job of telling our members how hard we’re working every day to improve and protect journalism. SPJ membership is an investment in peace of mind,” he said.
Carlson’s professional track led him to the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in Gainesville, where he is the Cox/Palm Beach Post Professor of New Media Journalism.
Shortly after he arrived in Gainesville, Carlson was invited to participate in a panel at the 1994 SPJ National Convention in Nashville.
“It was my chance to get reacquainted with SPJ, and I liked what I saw. SPJ was doing important (lobbying) work, and I didn’t know of anyone else who was doing that work,” he said.
He takes the helm at a time when the Society is strong both financially and in terms of membership.
“Five years ago, we were flirting with 9,000 members and spending a lot more than we were taking in. Now we’re almost back to 10,000 members and maintaining steady growth, which is more important than big numbers. We’re better managed financially and are putting money in the bank.”
One key asset is the headquarters building in Indianapolis, which is owned by SPJ and the SDX Foundation. It provides financial leverage for the Society in case of tough times.
But beyond that, SPJ is becoming a stronger national voice for journalism.
“We’re fighting the right battles and are excited about a number of things down the pike,” said Carlson, adding that some are in the early formative stages.
The Society recognizes its need for some kind of marketing effort and is currently reviewing proposals that run the full spectrum of services. Carlson envisions that effort as first reaching existing members and then promoting the Society’s work to the public.
The first academic to head the Society, Carlson also brings a breadth of much-needed experience.
“I like that Dave’s completely conversant with new media,” said Irwin Gratz, immediate past president of SPJ. “The Society needs to upgrade its own communication with members and the outside world, and Dave is singularly qualified to guide that effort.
“He also brings a fiscal conservatism; over the years he has consistently preached the value of zero-based budgeting and has pledged to take a hard look at all SPJ programs in the year ahead. I think that’ll be an exercise well worth our efforts.”
Gratz, himself a vocal proponent of SPJ’s Code of Ethics, was thrilled to hear Carlson’s call for a recommitment to journalism ethics at the grass-roots level.
“For me, ethics is at the very heart of what SPJ represents: Journalists from all media who are seeking to elevate the standards of our profession,” he said.
Every organization has its challenges, and Carlson said the primary problem with SPJ is that it’s not as nimble as it needs to be.
“Frankly, I’m not sure how to solve that problem. We rely heavily on our volunteers, but they can’t always drop everything in their day job to write a quick press release,” he said.
It’s the curse and the treasure of every volunteer-driven organization.
Communications between national and local chapters is always an issue. Carlson said he plans to travel to many chapters this year, providing “inspiration without too many constraints.” As ambassador, he hopes to be a conduit for the energy and enthusiasm that occurs on both the local and national level.
There’s always the temptation upon taking leadership to set a clear list of goals, but Carlson has said he’s not so wedded to the idea of accomplishments because he recognizes that we are largely victims of circumstance.
“We may have to set aside our plans to address a more pressing need,” he said.
Two issues he plans to work hard on this year, however, are passage of a federal shield law and protecting the student press.
Diversifying the Society’s leadership is important as it seeks to infuse its leadership ladder with some new blood. That means more than race or gender; it also means diversity of media representation, geography and age, said Carlson
“We’ve tried to reduce the financial hurdles to leadership, but the fact remains that once you set foot on the leadership ladder, it’s a four-year commitment,” he said.
“Internally, our Web site needs a lot of help. It’s not very expensive to upgrade, and is an attainable goal. Quill also needs to be improved, but that will take money, and that’s something we simply don’t have in the budget this year. But we will work toward that for future,” he said.
The shift to having staff at national headquarters plan national conventions also was important to remove the burden of planning from local chapters, said Carlson.
“We saw chapters burn themselves out and all but go inactive after hosting a national convention. It’s not that they didn’t love SPJ; it’s that they were just fried.”
Though he is admittedly a laid-back individual, Carlson also is energized by the task ahead.
Asked how she feels about being an SPJ widow, Carlson’s wife, Jeanne, said she’s fine with it.
“I think this is a good thing for Dave. I encouraged him to do it. He’s very creative and thinks on his feet. He’ll be good for SPJ,” she said.
Employer support is a key factor in success as leader. Carlson said he is grateful for the support of Terry Hynes, the dean of the college of journalism at the University of Florida, who has restructured his teaching schedule to allow him the time to travel and work on behalf of SPJ members.
He’s looking forward to working with the future leadership.
“SPJ is a big battleship, and it’s tough to get it turning in one year’s time. But we’ve got a team in place who will continue to build on some accomplishments year after year,” he said.
“We have so many wonderful, talented volunteers to call on, and it’s comforting to me to have the people I do at the committee level and particularly on the executive committee.”
His leadership expansion ideas include an independent audit committee and an ad hoc committee to assess all SPJ programs to determine their continued viability.
Asked what he hopes when his term ends in Chicago next year, Carlson said, “I want to make a difference. I want SPJ to have done something definitive to improve and protect journalism.”
Wendy A. Hoke is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.