Note: This is the final column by 2012-13 SPJ President Sonny Albarado, whose term ended in late August. The president’s column for 2013-14 President Dave Cuiller will begin with the September/October issue.
I almost quit SPJ about 18 years ago. I had noticed with disappointment that few journalists in the Society were with big news organizations, had names recognizable from bylines in major newspapers or on network television, or were in higher management positions. I thought this lack of visible national support weakened SPJ, and I began to wonder why those folks weren’t playing a bigger role in SPJ and SPJ leadership.
Also, I’d been to too many national conventions where delegates haggled more over parliamentary procedure than substantive issues and where the Ethics Scolds, as I thought of them, seemed intent on making the Code of Ethics a sort of Ten Commandments that would force violators into Puritan stocks.
SPJ spent too much time on internal squabbles and not enough on helping journalists improve their skills or on being the most recognizable advocate for journalists in the country. So I thought.
I also had the beginnings of burnout that I’ve since learned affects many SPJ chapter leaders. Despite hosting a successful regional conference the year I became president of my local chapter, I hadn’t been successful in making the chapter grow by the time I was in my fifth year as president. Despite sponsoring a successful journalism contest, the chapter couldn’t translate the endeavor into other successful programs.
As you can guess from the length of time I was president, participation on the chapter board dwindled, as did active involvement of members. I didn’t know that someone at the national office could have helped with guidance and ideas. I didn’t even know who our regional director was because the RD hadn’t been in contact with our chapter.
What changed? How did I go from a burned-out, clueless chapter officer, disdainful of SPJ insiders and activists, and become involved enough to become national president? Well, it’s been a long, strange trip.
At first inertia kept me involved. I continued to help others prop up my local chapter. My employer continued, for a while, to help pay for trips to the national conventions. But my heart wasn’t in it. Like a lot of folks — then and now — I couldn’t see that SPJ did anything for me except send me the next issue of Quill.
But gradually I realized that SPJ did a lot for me; it just wasn’t as tangible as a magazine I could hold in my hand.
Most importantly, I began paying attention to SPJ’s role in keeping the fires of press freedom burning. On a personal level, my involvement helped open doors for me to pursue a passion: keeping state open records and open meetings laws strong.
And when the employer support for trips to SPJ events dried up, I realized that I needed to be invested in my own career, invested in my own continuing education. By this time, SPJ had begun offering more training opportunities and changing the focus of the annual convention from internal issues and networking to improving journalists’ skills and marketability.
Then came an event that gave me an avenue toward greater national involvement with SPJ. I was asked as an officer of my local chapter to help SPJ’s Executive Committee find a place to hold its winter meeting. I did, and I sat in on the meeting even though SPJ’s executive director and national officers assured me I’d be bored out of my skull.
But I wasn’t bored. I became intrigued by the issues discussed by the committee and wanted to know more about how the national organization operated. I began to think I might have something to contribute to SPJ’s future.
As a result, when I was asked if I’d be willing to fill out the unexpired term of my regional director, I was ready to say yes. Six years later, I was asked to consider running for secretary-treasurer, and I answered yes. It meant running against another board member and someone I considered a friend, but the competition was healthy and respectful, and I was encouraged to run again. By a fluke of fate, I ended up running for president-elect the next year — unopposed — and thus became president.
As I prepare to wind down my presidential year and move into the twilight of immediate past president, I’ve reflected on my accidental and purposeful participation in SPJ.
I’m not going to recite the number of letters I’ve written or interviews I’ve done or efforts I’ve made to stop or support actions that weaken or strengthen government openness and press freedoms. All of that was expected of me, of any president.
I’m going to focus on the things that made SPJ better and stronger in the past year: providing chapters with strong guidance on how to handle their finances, creating a set of openness and transparency guidelines, providing chapters with a staff person at HQ dedicated to their health and survival.
But the thought I want to leave you with is this: SPJ needs each of you, more now than ever. And SPJ especially needs leaders, people willing to say yes when asked to give of themselves to expand and nurture the one journalism organization that aggressively fights for a free and independent media.
Thank you for letting me serve you.
2012-13 SPJ President Sonny Albarado is projects editor and acting city editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s been an SPJ member since 1979. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @salbarado