The time is right for us to take a hard look at who we want to be and adapt to the changing journalism environment. We’ve done it before, which is why we remain the largest journalism organization in the United States. We can do it again.
Today SPJ has about 7,600 members, less than half the 16,000 members we had 50 years ago. Our professional members, about 4,000, continue to decline by several hundred per year. In contrast, students and post-graduate members, totaling about 2,500, are joining in greater numbers, but not enough to make up for the dwindling pros.
To be honest, it’s really difficult to tell if we even have 4,000 pros in our ranks. I’m designated as a professional member, even though I’m a college professor. Our membership form says, “You spend more than half your working time as a journalist or journalism educator.” Does that adequately define a professional journalist today?
It’s no wonder we are losing pro members, given the decline of the legacy media since the 1980s, accelerating during the recession with most newsrooms cut by at least a third. Fewer pro members means less power in fighting for press rights, and fewer resources for bettering journalism.
From the beginning, SPJ has adapted while remaining committed to its core values. Ten college journalists started Sigma Delta Chi in 1909 as a fraternity at DePauw University, complete with a joining ritual, secret handshake and official colors of black and white.
The fraternity emerged at the dawn of journalism professionalism, the year after the first school of journalism opened in Missouri. Other college journalism organizations formed as well, including Pi Delta Epsilon at Syracuse, the Dana Press Club at Missouri, Kappa Tau Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa.
What made SDX unique was its focus on improving all forms of journalism. In the SDX history book “Fifty Years of Freedom” by Charles Clayton, the initial leaders “longed dimly for ‘better journalism,’ both amateur and professional. They talked of a truthful, honorable press, one not dominated by commercialism, and they believed that by planting journalistic ideals in student newspapermen they would make great strides toward their goal.”
As the students graduated and got jobs, SDX changed from an honorary group to a professional membership organization. Eventually editors and publishers dominated, then it gravitated back toward college students and line workers, and today we embrace a growing cadre of freelance journalists, an estimated 20 percent of members. We are changing by the month.
SOCIETY FOR PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM
It is time to evolve again, and this time we need to open our tent to the multitudes who support good journalism — a Society for Professional Journalism. Maybe there’s a better name – some have suggested simply the Society for Journalism. Whatever we call ourselves, I suggest we become a strong force for bettering journalism.
We should welcome anyone who wants to improve the craft, fight for press rights, and bolster diversity and ethics in the media. You name it: reporters, students, professors, politicians, your neighbors, grandma or anyone else.
Currently SPJ has a membership category for “associates,” but the dues are $94 a year, and they have no voting rights, can’t hold office and don’t count on chapter rolls. No wonder we have only 87 of them.
We wouldn’t be the first group to welcome anyone who supports the cause. The American Library Association, 60,000 members strong, isn’t called the American Professional Librarian Association. The National Organization for Women doesn’t require any of its 500,000 members to be professional women, or even spend more than half their time being women.
We are poised to be THE group advocating for and bettering journalism. Unlike most other journalism organizations, SPJ is a 501(c)6, which means we can lobby. We have the support of the SDX Foundation and its $12.5 million endowment to improve journalism. We employ staff so capable that other groups pay SPJ for administration. We benefit from dedicated volunteers, name recognition and the largest journalism membership in the country.
This doesn’t mean we ignore working journalists, or our excellent training and education. As a “Society for Professional Journalism,” we should work harder to support professional journalists, as well as “amateur” journalists, just as our founding college students intended. That helps journalism as a whole.
So during the next year, as we discuss our name and mission, I encourage you to express your opinions and think big. Whatever we call ourselves, let’s focus on what we should aspire to be next year, in 20 years, and a century from now.
Debate is healthy, and always has been a strength for SPJ. Before his death in 1949, SDX’s first president, Laurence Sloan, wrote that he was proud of how the organization adapted, in the past and in the future:
“I attribute this to the freedom that governs Sigma Delta Chi — a freedom of thought, expression, action that is fundamental with all true newspapermen. As we go along ‘the brethren’ will seek to improve our fraternity as the need for betterment arises.”
David Cuillier, 2013-14 SPJ president and former SPJ FOI Committee chairman, is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he teaches and researches access to public records and data. He is co-author with Charles Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Reach him at email@example.com.
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