Throughout its 111 years of history, SPJ has created innumerable cherished traditions. Among them is the Fellows of the Society program, launched in 1948.
In those 72 years the Society has named 214 fellows. Last year, at our annual fall convention, we honored Maria Ressa of Rappler, and retired Associated Press staffers Terry Anderson and Nick Ut, plus Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post
posthumously. The year before, we added Chuck Todd of NBC, Robert J. Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting and Judy Woodruff of PBS.
Those seven joined a list of legends that define American journalism: Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, giants of CBS News; Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post for nearly three decades, and Bob Woodward, a Post writer and editor since the Watergate era; Ellen Goodman, the much-loved Boston Globe columnist; Ted Koppel, who came to fame on NBC’s “Nightline” and dozens and dozens more.
When I first learned about the Fellows, I wondered why I’d heard so little about them over time. The answer: They get the stage during the closing dinner of the convention, an affair with a high price tag and modest attendance.
We tried to address that in 2018 and 2019, adding a panel called Fine Fellows to the daytime lineup. The conversations were rich, but a bit unfocused and scheduled at the wrong time. Attendance was embarrassingly small.
Seems we were tackling a long-recognized challenge to elevate the Fellows.
As far back as 1965, SPJ leaders lamented that the Society “made little use of honoring [Fellows] beyond recognizing them at annual conventions,” according to “Truth, Talent and Energy,” an account of SPJ’s history from 1959 to 1985.
In response, they launched a lecture series for Fellows, with expenses covered by what was then the three-year-old SDX Foundation. The lectures continued through the mid-1980s on college campuses.
Fast forward to 2020. At the end of June we announced five fabulous Fellows, featured elsewhere in this issue of Quill:
Marty Baron has led newsrooms across the country, piling up Pulitzer Prizes along the way. At The Washington Post since 2013, he’s expanded the staff in amazing directions.
Nikole Hannah-Jones brought her investigative reporting skill to The New York Times in 2015 and won a Pulitzer earlier this year related to The 1619 Project on the legacy of Black Americans beginning with the arrival of the first slave ship.
Jorge Ramos has been the face and voice of Univision since 1986, picking up 10 Emmys, 13 book titles and plentiful praise as the “star newscaster of Hispanic TV.”
Les Zaitz runs two community news organizations in Oregon, after 27 years as a hard-charging reporter and editor at The Oregonian in Portland.
Gwen Ifill, this year’s posthumous honoree, was co-anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour” when she died in 2016. A trailblazer in the industry, she was among the first Black women at many of the newsrooms on her resume.
I was thrilled to join SPJ Executive Director John Shertzer in calls to Baron, Hannah-Jones, Ramos and Zaitz with news of their selection. They, in turn, were delighted to add Fellow of SPJ to their list of honors – and happy to promise us an appearance (now virtual) at the fall convention. Wonderful to reach Bert Ifill, too – and secure his agreement to help produce a tribute to his famous sister.
And so once again, SPJ is working to elevate our Fellows to their rightful place of prominence. Each will be scheduled as the lone guest during his or her timeslot. Each session will be fully promoted. Each of their remarks will be archived, after the fact, on the convention website. Members will not have to pay a premium to engage with them. And the page at spj.org that celebrates them and every Fellow of the past will soon feature an interactive timeline and general overhaul, thanks to the efforts of dedicated SPJers Sue Kopen Katcef and Mike Reilley.
Deciding against staging our usual in-person Excellence in Journalism gathering in Washington, D.C., Sept. 10-13, and pivoting to a virtual event for that date was a long and arduous process. But it provided, at long last, the platform to give our Fellows their due.
I hope you’ll join all of SPJ in signing up for what promises to be THE journalism event of the fall – and properly celebrating the 2020 Fellows of the Society.
NOTE: Visit spj.org/convention to register for this year’s big show. We’ve priced it right to make it affordable to all – and lined up stellar speakers for Super Sessions, breakout panels and workshops. Like at in-person conventions, you’ll have options of what to “attend” during certain hours of the weekend. But you’ll also have the option of circling back to catch whatever you miss, since your registration price includes a full year of access to programs.