Joe Skeel is a self-described sports junkie. Outgoing and quick to laugh and create laughter, the high school “jock” followed his love for sports into a newsroom as a young reporter. Among the deadlines, editors and job responsibilities, Skeel discovered his undeniable ability to lead.
Now, Skeel is the 19th executive director to lead the Society of Professional Journalists. He will also direct the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, SPJ’s educational arm. His understanding of and dedication to SPJ, its members and the future of the organization set him apart from the candidates who applied for the position this year. In the current unstable climate of the media industry, Skeel rose above the din of those who question the future with his confident vision to make SPJ indispensible to journalists.
Five years ago, Skeel arrived at the non-profit organization with a solid journalism foundation that helps him understand what’s happening at the frontlines of the business and to empathize with journalists’ struggles. Furthermore, the dedication with which he applied himself to SPJ made him a versatile staff member who knows both the big picture of the Society and the tiny details. And it all started with sports.
The idea of combining sports and writing into a career hung in his mind as he enrolled at Ball State University. Skeel intended to major in biology, but the pull of sports led him to print journalism and public relations classes with hopes of a career in sports journalism.
“The news and editorial classes laid the foundation for my journalism career, and the PR classes helped me cement a strong sense of news value very early on,” Skeel said. “As a journalist and
working with SPJ, I constantly ask ‘What’s the news value? What is the message we need to send?’”
Skeel dove into journalism, deciding not to join the school newspaper but to work as a sports correspondent for his hometown newspaper year round.
“Even though I went home and worked almost every weekend, it was worth it,” Skeel said. “I felt that I was completely immersed in a true newspaper atmosphere.”
After graduating, Skeel moved into a page designer position at Topics Newspapers in his home state of Indiana. He joined the newsroom as the staff was transitioning from paste-up production to pagination, and the sports junkie thrived as a leader in an area he hadn’t anticipated. Skeel helped the staff learn and apply the new pagination skills he had learned at Ball State. From then on, he made moves in print, building his journalism career on the copy desk, as a reporter, as managing editor of weekly newspapers, as presentation editor, as assistant sports editor and then, finally, as editor of SPJ’s Quill magazine and The Journalist. All the while, Skeel strove for opportunities to lead.
“I loved having a voice in the decision-making process, which was more enriching than just filling a slot,” Skeel said. “And I knew I had more to contribute.”
When Skeel joined the SPJ staff in 2004, he eagerly reached out to co-workers, including his predecessor Terry Harper, to learn about each section of SPJ, whether it was fundraising, budgets, communications or billing.
“I threw myself into SPJ because I was here,” Skeel said, staunchly asserting that he was no “yes-man.”
“I was nosey; I had ideas, and I wanted people to listen to them. I took the initiative to become more involved, to better my contribution to SPJ, to offer my ideas and not be worried I’d fail.”
Skeel never intentionally set out to lead a non-profit association, but when the opportunity opened, he stepped up to the challenge. Facing the volatile industry, he is armed with goals of providing unparalleled services to SPJ members and making SPJ a guiding force in the media industry. He believes SPJ is a guidepost and that the organization will continue to lead the way in the face of an unstable economy, new technology or any other trial journalists and the free press will face.
“SPJ will continue to strengthen and serve its members and be an industry leader,” Skeel said. “As executive director, I will work hard, be flexible and always ask, ‘What can we be doing better?’ We won’t rest on our laurels. We will always strive to do better.”