If you watched Dave Aeikens campaign for a spot on the national board two years ago in Chicago, you know just how passionate he is about SPJ.
Everywhere he went, Aeikens carried a check-list of names. By the time the voting began, he’d met 90 percent of the delegates at the convention that year.
“If nothing else, if they were undecided, they could say, ‘Hey, I remember meeting that guy,’” Aeikens said.
Though he ran against two others for the national secretary-treasurer slot, he won 58 percent of the vote.
“He was inexhaustible in his efforts to talk to people and win them over with his ideas about where the organization should be going,” said immediate past-president Clint Brewer.
Aeikens took the helm as SPJ’s national president on the final night of the national convention in Atlanta in early September. Aeikens made his acceptance speech before a crowd of about 200 that included the two top editors of his paper and his parents.
It’s fitting, Brewer said, that Aeikens would step into the president’s spot now. In April, the organization will celebrate its 100th year.
“He’s the perfect person for this,” Brewer said. “His passion for the organization is unprecedented.”
Aeikens graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in the mid-1980s. After college, he worked for two years at the Albert Lea Tribune in southern Minnesota and at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn. for about seven months. He’s spent most of his professional career with the St. Cloud Times, a newspaper in Minnesota with a daily circulation of about 27,000 and 37,000 on Sunday.
An aficionado of Minnesota open records law, Aeikens and a colleague at the St. Cloud Times produced a series showing how some government agencies in the state were charging more than state law allowed for paper copies of government data. The Legislature subsequently changed state law to limit copy fees to 25 cents per page.
A one-time student chapter president of SPJ, Aeikens didn’t become heavily involved with the organization until the 1990s. He joined the Minnesota Pro Chapter board in 1996 and served as president during the 1998-99 term. He stayed on the board until 2006.
Aeikens also served as Region 6 director for several years.
Though he continued to rise in the ranks of the organization, the idea of becoming president didn’t occur to him for quite some time.
“You sit there in meetings and watching people and think, ‘Wow, that looks hard, I’m not sure I could do that,’” Aeikens said. “Then after a few years, you start to develop confidence … you build relationships with people. Then you look around and say, ‘Why can’t I do that and use some of the leadership skills I have?’”
During his acceptance speech in Atlanta, Aeikens highlighted a few of the things leadership will be doing to celebrate the chapter’s centennial. But he also acknowledged that SPJ and the journalism industry have tough battles to fight this year.
“We still have work to do,” he said. “Journalists have gone through difficult layoffs or buyouts. News organizations are still transitioning to a new era, battling changing markets and still hustling to cover the news and provide people with the information they need to make informed decisions.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge, Aeikens said, is the trend of government officials subpoenaing journalists for their notes and sources. As leadership did last year, Aeikens and the board will push hard for adoption of a national shield law, he said.
“Journalists should never be put in jail for doing their job,” he said. “Not in this country, not on our watch, not ever.”
Passing the law won’t be easy. Even among SPJ membership, there is disagreement about what it should look like.
Aeikens says he respects the concerns of those opposed to the current language of the bill but is still convinced SPJ must press forward.
“Right now we don’t have anything stopping federal justice officials from subpoenaing journalists and forcing them to give up their notes, their sources and unpublished material,” he said. “This shield law would provide some obstacle, some hoops that the government would have to jump through.”
If there’s anyone who can handle the differing opinions and still get something accomplished, it’s Aeikens, Brewer said.
“He’s a real down-to-earth, reasonable guy,” he said. “He doesn’t get rattled.”