After a few years of inactivity, the St. Louis Pro Chapter is getting a new lease on life, thanks in large part to the efforts of one local journalist.
Jeff Douglas, an editorial assistant for The Associated Press, came to town from Kansas City five months ago and has been working diligently to restore the 75-year-old chapter.
“When (SPJ) folks got wind I was coming, they said ‘Let’s have a regional (conference),’ ” Douglas said. “I can never say no. I just care about this organization too much.”
Douglas got involved with SPJ in 1999 at the University of Missouri during his freshman year. While there, he was instrumental in restarting the student chapter. Seven years later (and after holding a national board position in 2001-02 as a student representative), Douglas is back in the business of resurrecting chapters.
“I’ve just had so much fun doing this. … It’s never been unrewarding and it’s never been dissatisfying,” he said.
At the regional conference in April, he put the word out about reviving the chapter, assembling the beginnings of a board and trying to reach the large contingent of area journalists.
“There are a lot of potential SPJ members out there that just don’t know (about the organization),” Douglas said.
By making SPJ pitches wherever and whenever possible, Douglas is alerting potential members about SPJ’s second coming. Freelance writer Victoria Siegel heard about the chapter’s revival and tracked down Douglas to get involved.
“He is extremely knowledgeable about SPJ, and he is very enthusiastic,” she said, adding that Douglas is looking to build the future leadership of the chapter.
Siegel is programming director for the chapter and is putting together concepts for events and securing places to meet. She said the city has journalism opportunities comparable to bigger cities such as New York.
“St. Louis (journalists are) very good at supporting professional organizations,” she said. “If you put together something high-quality, St. Louis (journalists) will support it.
“The enthusiasm for (the chapter) is very good. I’m guessing that a year from now we’ll have a very hearty chapter.”
Pat Gauen, public safety editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and an SPJ member since 1974, said Douglas has been a “sparkplug” for restarting the chapter.
“He’s very committed and aggressive, and he’s also very inclusive,” Gauen said. “I think he’s doing all the right things. I’d be surprised if this organization didn’t have pretty immediate success.”
Douglas will not be staying long enough to see the fruits of his labor, as he is only scheduled to work for the AP in St. Louis for one year. After that, he may head back to Kansas City or go somewhere else, but for now it is still up in the air. He said his job is to “parachute down here” and set up a strong chapter.
“You need someone that’s brave enough to say ‘I’ll be the president,’ ” Douglas said. “My hope is that within six months I can step back as president and let another president step in.”
Douglas said his goal is to have 100 members by next June. For now he is mobilizing his troops, taking care of housekeeping items (such as rewriting the chapter bylaws) and putting together program ideas — a panel with old-time journalists to discuss the changing profession, a workshop promoting cooperation between reporters and photographers and a political debate during election season, among other options.
SPJ has allowed Douglas to build professional relationships and friendships across the country, and he said he would not be a journalist today without it. His involvement in SPJ is a way to share that excitement with others.
“You can call it a bug, or a disease or a virus. But it’s not a bad thing like that — in the sense that it just won’t go away,” he said. “I think it’s really easy to get excited about a job you think is important. … It’s a lot more than just a paycheck.”