In recruiting members and leaders, staging programs and recognizing outstanding work, most SPJ chapters may look a good deal alike. But some stand out.
What’s the key?
“Programming,” said Patricia Gallagher Newberry, SPJ National President and the journalism program area director at Miami University in Ohio. “What can you do beyond the usual to excite your members?”
Developing outstanding programs, though, first requires some due diligence. Her take: “First you need to know who your members are and know what platforms they work for,” she said. “What’s the age breakdown and the gender breakdown? What’s the breakdown on the kinds of things they cover?”
SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky, who has a long and active history with the Florida Pro chapter, stressed “doing instead of just talking.”
His chapter applied for and received a grant from SPJ national to teach interview skills by having participants interview the living dead.
“We paid to get people made up as zombies and interviewed them,” explained Koretzky. “If you asked a dumb question you got splashed with fake blood and you were out of the contest. If you asked a good question the makeup artist would make you up like a zombie — which is the best Facebook profile photo ever.”
His chapter also focused on training both journalists and non-journalists, including a “fake news” game show. Participants viewed two stories on a screen and had to name the true story. In another case, a program taught obituary writing by staging a mock funeral service complete with eulogies.
The Arkansas Pro chapter followed suit, inviting high school journalism hopefuls to “cover” the mock funeral of a local TV news anchor. A judge then weighed their work for factuality, clarity and style.
Sometimes, good things happen when programming leaves the conference room behind: Newberry noted that the Connecticut Pro Chapter took to a firing range to learn more about how to report on firearms.
Even such drier, but vital topics, such as the Freedom of Information Act can be given a jolt of creativity, indicated Arkansas Chapter President Sarah DeClerk, whose recent program featured an ethics and FOIA trivia night at a local pub. “I look at it as not just supporting journalism,” she said, “but promoting journalism to people who might not identify as journalists.”
The Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter took that approach last year, setting up a session on how whistleblowers and journalists can better communicate. The chapter made use of an ongoing relationship with a liaison between the National Whistleblower Center and a coalition of open-government groups.
Freedom of information issues also receives a glossier treatment from the Chicago Headline Club. President Robert K. Elder said their annual FOIA Fest includes not only panels and hands-on training but a keynote address with some heft.
“This year our keynote speaker was Cheryl W. Thompson, an investigative correspondent for NPR and the president of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors),” Elder said. In 2019, one of the real-life Boston journalists portrayed in the movie “Spotlight” held forth.
Creative programs also help attract a new generation of journalists. “If you don’t address the culture that they are growing up in,” Elder added, “you do so at your peril.” For his chapter, targeting emerging professionals included programming addressing data security.
DeClerk, with the Arkansas Pro Chapter, said programming is its primary recruitment tool. Another focus, though, emerged from a board member’s Master’s program study on why people join professional organizations.
”One of her findings was that most people join for mentoring and networking opportunities,“ she said. “In response, our chapter launched a mentor match program designed to connect students/up-and-coming professionals with seasoned pros. We made SPJ membership a requirement of the program to provide an incentive for joining, since our programs are typically open to nonmembers.”
It’s also important to maintain and expand a core group of leaders and members who are in it for the long haul. “The most productive chapters,” said Newberry, “are those that are dedicated to regular communication with each other.”
DeClerk concurs, adding that efforts to build a diverse and involved leadership structure paid off. Her board includes two college educators, an AP reporter and newspaper scribes to electronic and new media folks. Touring local broadcast outlets to stimulate interest resulted in more engagement as well as a board member from a local TV station.
Then there’s the time-honored tradition of wrapping a membership pitch in a freebie.
“We send our members out to high school and college journalism programs,” said Elder. “We also try to make it to every single newsroom. Our members come in with a box of donuts and mugs.” To beef up the connection, he said, senior members of the journalism group bring the goodies to their own newsrooms meaning that the inducement to join is coming from a familiar source.
Addressing member needs for recognition is also getting some innovative attention.
Washington, D.C., Pro chapter President Randy Showstack recalled how the year former CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer was inducted into the chapter‘s hall of fame, he literally brought the music. Schieffer and his Honky Tonk Confidential bandmates serenaded attendees at the dinner for the Dateline Awards and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
The chapter’s Hall of Fame Nominations Committee chair Steve Taylor said it was a smash hit.
“Well-dressed dancers leapt to their feet. The anchorman began to warble. The event ran late that night,” he recalled.
Awards outreach can prove challenging though. D.C. chapter board member Kathryn Foxhall says her team makes extensive use of Meltwater, a subscription-based and continuously updated list of journalists all over the U.S. Working with SPJ national, her chapter acquired the names of some 4,000 journalists in D.C. and the surrounding area, which proved key in reaching out to potential awards entrants.
Jumpstarting awards competition participation was also much on Newberry’s mind at Miami University. Newberry noted that nine journalism students there won first place honors in 2020’s SPJ Region 4 Mark of Excellence awards competition. Persuading the administration to pay for student entry fees substantially increased the buy-in.
Other awards best practices center on a more tailored approach to entry categories.
As part of the Arkansas chapter’s annual Diamond Journalism Awards, a “Diamond in the Rough” award was created for a high school or elementary student showing journalistic promise. The inaugural honoree was an elementary school student who started his own newspaper, said DeClerk.
Chicago’s chapter also thought beyond the typical in honoring reportorial prowess, creating a lifetime achievement award as well as the Ann Keegan Award for Service Journalism, which spotlights stories that “give a voice to the voiceless.”
And recognition doesn’t get more timely than this: SPJ, the Associated College Press, an others created a weekly awards program for college students covering the COVID-19 pandemic and whose work appeared in student-run media, professional publications and publicly-shared classroom projects. Winners scored a year of SPJ membership and had their standout work touted on both groups’ social media.
Students and the college SPJ chapters they join utilize such opportunities to stand out, said Nerissa Young, a journalism instructor who advises the chapter at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication.
She notes the college chapters can have an easier time than pro when it comes to getting together.
“We’re fortunate as a campus chapter to have a captive audience,” she said. “You don’t have to get into a car to come to a meeting; you can walk 15 or 20 minutes across campus.” She said their setting in a smaller college town creates a family feel that helps build chapter cohesiveness.
And as with many pro chapters, providing compelling, regular programming is an overarching focus.
She said chapter leaders and members stage a minimum of 25 to 30 events in an academic year. These have run the gamut from a self-care workshop on dealing with stress to a grammar smackdown game. An aggressive social media communications effort is key, said Young.
They must be doing something right: The group was named Outstanding Campus Chapter for the fourth year in a row at 2019’s Excellence in Journalism conference in San Antonio.
All of the above requires a desire to do the work.
“Chapters are as successful as they want to be quite honestly,” said Caroline Escobar, who manages memberships and chapters for SPJ and has worked with a wide range of non-profits. “What you get out of it is what you put into it. The more successful chapters build relationships and work on matters like job opportunities and professional development. They have a passion for what they do professionally and want to be engaged with like-minded individuals.”
And with all those practices comes some balancing advice from Region 3’s Koretzky. Innovative programming, awards programs and the like may command the spotlight, he said, but the back-office mechanics of running a chapter shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Sometimes the boring stuff is the most important,” he said, ticking off examples such as making sure your chapter is adapting to changing technology, keeping a close eye on finances and carrying out such unsexy chores as arranging program speakers/venues and handling audio/visual needs.
“All that makes it easier to do the fun stuff later.”
Mark Woolsey is a native Illinoisan who got hooked on radio as a youngster, leading him into a 45-year career as a radio news anchor/reporter and meteorologist. Now semi-retired, he does freelance writing and volunteers with professional and community groups including the SPJ Georgia Pro chapter.