News anchor Peter Jennings inspired many of today’s journalists to enter the field. But for an adolescent Christine Tatum, the new SPJ President, it wasn’t Jennings’ award-winning reports that caught her eye.
“I thought he was so handsome,” whispered Tatum, excitedly, from her home in Denver. “I had such a crush on him. That really put me on this track.”
Tatum, who goes by “Christie,” is known for her tongue-in-cheek comments. Most National Board members tower over the president’s 5-foot-4.5-inch frame, but her self-described “spunky” demeanor makes her one of SPJ’s largest personalities.
During a telephone interview several weeks ago, as Tatum’s 1-year-old daughter giggled in the background, happily munching on goldfish crackers, her mother chatted about journalism and business. It’s indicative of the past year as a whole: Tatum had successfully juggled her duties as first-time mom and president-elect and is ready to get down to business.
From ardently defending the First Amendment to mentoring young professionals, Tatum is as committed to good journalism as she is to daughter Tatum Elizabeth and husband Dr. Christian Thurstone.
“She’s a ball of fire,” said immediate Past President David Carlson. “She’s very tenacious. She is dogged in pursuit of the things she thinks are important, just like journalists need to be dogged in pursuit of a story.”
Tatum was installed as president Aug. 26 during the 2006 SPJ Convention and National Journalism Conference in Chicago. Speaking at the presidential banquet, Tatum joked with the crowd before thanking them.
“I am incredibly excited to lead this amazing organization — one of the nation’s oldest and largest journalism advocacy groups — at a time when our industry and our colleagues desperately need us,” said Tatum, her native North Carolina still in her voice. “I do promise to serve you to the best of my ability.”
She’s geared up to make some changes during her one-year term as president, including improving internal communication and innovating ways to generate new revenue, such as an updated media ethics book. She’s already working on a national ethics campaign.
“I promise you this campaign will make some serious noise once it unfurls,” she said at the banquet. “Walter Cronkite, for example, is ready to help with a series of public service announcements.”
Writing came early and easily for Tatum. She fondly recounts how a fourth-grade teacher praised her writing in front of the entire classroom. It was that defining moment — and maybe her schoolgirl crush on Jennings — that propelled Tatum into journalism as a young girl.
Her journey through the craft is linear, with her first job naturally leading to the next until she landed at her current position, assistant business editor at the Denver Post.
Her path to SPJ, however, was more roundabout. She had been active with SPJ as a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but soon after graduating, the society was “out of sight, out of mind,” she said.
It wasn’t until years later as a young professional supervising journalism students that Tatum returned to SPJ for its resources and connections.
“That’s when the giant sucking sound started,” she said. “I saw how much I was able to teach them because SPJ was teaching me. I was sucked in.”
Before running for the national board, Tatum was Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, and since then she has continued in her unwavering defense of First Amendment rights.
One of Tatum’s goals as president is to raise awareness about the changing face of journalism and, specifically, the newspaper industry.
It’s an exciting time in journalism with tools such as the Internet and interactive media, and newspapers need to reflect that shift, she said.
“Those newsrooms (that don’t change) are going to quickly find all they are, are journalists sitting in one room talking to themselves,” she said. “They need flexibility and creativity.”
Tatum embraces new technology in her personal life. She keeps a blog for herself and her daughter and recently started an SPJ president’s blog last month.
“I invite people to contact me,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers, and our members may not agree with everything I think and say on behalf of SPJ. But my heart and intentions are in the right place and I hope that they’ll be patient with me.”
Kristin Longley was a member of The Working Press. She is a senior at Michigan State University. Her e-mail address is email@example.com