It is time to change the way we elect our SPJ leaders.
For most of our history, SPJ has operated with a chapter system, and that system makes so much sense that many newer journalism organizations have copied it.
It’s a great idea to have local groups conduct programs and activities that support our core missions. Chapters give a local, personal face to an otherwise large, national organization. They are one of SPJ’s greatest strengths.
What is not a great idea is SPJ’s method of electing regional and national leaders.
Our leaders are not elected by the rank-and-file members of the Society. They are elected by delegates who represent chapters at the national convention. SPJ’s chapter system extends all the way through our system of governance. Chapters elect delegates to the national convention, one for each 50 members or part thereof, and those delegates elect the leaders of SPJ.
That’s hogwash. It is a system that disenfranchises a great many of our members.
When I was elected president in New York City, only 188 votes were cast. Yes, you can argue that those votes represented the members of perhaps 100 chapters, but that is still a minority of our membership.
When Christine Tatum was elected our next president in Las Vegas, and when Bruce Cadwallader and John Hopkins squared off for secretary-treasurer, just 175 votes were available to be cast. That is an awfully small number.
Nearly 10,000 people belong to SPJ. They all pay dues, and they all should be able to vote.
Our election system disenfranchises any SPJ member who does not belong to a chapter. Because 61 percent of our professional members belong to chapters, that means 39 percent of them have no voice whatever in the governance of SPJ. Is that fair?
The current system also disenfranchises any chapter that is not in good standing because, for example, an annual report wasn’t filed on time. In any given year, that can be a lot of chapters. At the 2005 convention in Las Vegas, 64.5 percent of our active pro chapters were eligible to send delegates, and just 95 pro-chapter delegate votes were available. Is that fair?
The current system also disenfranchises any chapter that is unable to send delegates to the national convention. In 2005, 72 of our campus chapters were eligible to send delegates, but 34 were represented. That means more than half of our campus chapters — 53.5 percent — had no voice in our 2005 elections. Is that fair?
And of those members who are represented by delegates, I wonder just how many have actually been asked who they want their delegates to elect as officers of the Society.
I believe it is time to change, and I am asking the national board to bring an amendment to our bylaws to the Chicago convention in August. The One Member, One Vote Amendment will be designed to give all SPJ members a voice in our leadership. It will seek to make all SPJ members eligible to vote in our elections.
If approved by a majority of the convention delegates, members will be able to vote for their regional director, all national board members and the SPJ officers by mail, by logging in to our Web site, SPJ.org, or at the national convention.
Campaigning and campaign speeches still can be done at the convention. They are a great part of our tradition, and that need not change. But the majority of electioneering will take place in the pages of Quill, on spj.org, via direct mail or by other means that our candidates are creative enough to develop.
The rest of our governance system will not change under this proposal.
I do not believe we should change the way SPJ amends its bylaws or the way we adopt resolutions that state the positions of the Society on various issues. Those decisions are made on the convention floor by the delegates, and I believe that should continue. It is critical that debate on such important issues is spirited and that a wide variety of points of view are heard.
The support of members everywhere is needed to make this amendment a reality. A similar direct-elections proposal was brought to the floor of the New York convention in 2004, and it failed to pass. I hope the second time will be different and will bring all members a voice in SPJ’s elections.
David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.