David Cuillier began his journalism career in a somewhat non-traditional fashion: fad diets. That was the topic of the first article he wrote for his high school newspaper, anyway. He’s come a long way since.
On Aug. 26, Cuillier was installed as SPJ’s 97th president. In his speech at the President’s Installation Banquet at the Excellence in Journalism conference, he outlined six goals he wants the organization to pursue in the upcoming year: continuing special projects on committees; updating the Code of Ethics; advocating for the First Amendment; and considering changing the organization’s name to the Society for Professional Journalism. He also wants to improve SPJ’s communication and training as well as modify the structure to include communities of members with the same interests.
Ever since the moment Cuillier first saw his byline as a teenager, he couldn’t get enough of journalism.
“From then on, it became more meaningful than just an ego trip,” he said. “It came to be about making the world a better place.”
Cuillier began his career working as a reporter and editor at community daily newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, including at The Columbian, the Idaho Statesman and the Tri-City Herald.
Often covering government, he became especially interested in freedom of information issues. “I would kind of twerk when a public agency would deny public access to information I was entitled to,” Cuillier said. “It just wasn’t right, and I’d get frustrated.”
So he decided to obtain his Ph.D. in 2006, focusing his studies at Washington State University on freedom of information. He joined the ranks of academia as a professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and was named the school’s director in 2012.
His research on FOI eventually led to co-authoring “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” He continues to teach classes that cover topics such as computer-assisted reporting, public affairs reporting and public records access.
“He brought a real enthusiasm and spirited innovation to teaching,” said Jacqueline Sharkey, his predecessor at the School of Journalism.
Michael Schwartz, a former student, agrees. He said Cuillier went out of his way to help him beyond the classroom when Schwartz had difficulty reporting on a high-profile coach’s mysterious leave of absence.
“He was the perfect professor to have in my corner if something happened,” Schwartz said. “He was always pushing the envelope and trying to make me do what was uncomfortable at the time.”
Cuillier was drawn to SPJ as a college student in the 1980s and served as president of the Western Washington University chapter. But after he received his degree, he became busy in the working world, and SPJ became a low priority. He didn’t rejoin until 2003.
He did so in a big way. Cuillier chaired the Freedom of Information Committee from 2007 to 2011 and has served as an SPJ newsroom trainer since 2005. In 2010 he conducted SPJ’s 45-day “Access Across America” road tour training more than 1,000 journalists in 35 states.
When Cuillier visited the Cincinnati Pro chapter during the tour, former SPJ president Hagit Limor realized he needed to be an even greater player in the organization and encouraged him to join the executive board. Limor believes Cuillier will be an effective leader for the Society.
“I know that he will handle any challenge that comes his way with grace,” Limor said. “I think time management is initially the biggest challenge, but it’s also such a great reward that I know he will shine.”
This year, when Cuillier isn’t busy with his work or SPJ responsibilities, he’ll do what he enjoys most: hiking, kayaking or mountain biking.
“Being outdoors puts things in perspective,” Cuillier said. “In the big scheme of things, the mountains really don’t care. Life goes on for them.”