It was 229 years ago, on Dec. 15, 1791, that this nation adopted the 45 words of the First Amendment. And that set the foundation for everything our free press has done since.
On that same date, in 1971, my parents welcomed me into the world and named me after Henry David Thoreau — and set the foundation for everything I’ve done since.
I’ve used my middle initial — yes, the T. stands for Thoreau — in my byline for years, and I will proudly do so over the next year in this space as I even more proudly serve as the 104th president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Together, we will champion journalism, fight for the First Amendment, steward ethical journalism and produce journalism’s future. Those are the core four elements of SPJ’s new strategic plan, which our board believes in so strongly that we approved it twice — as one of the last acts of the 2019-2020 board and one of the first acts of the 2020-2021 board.
If you saw or read my inaugural speech in September, you know that I’m passionate about journalism and SPJ and that we have big goals for 2021. Here are a few: We will welcome at least 10 new campus chapters, including at least three at historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions. We will restore the annual training program for future SPJ leaders. We will identify and launch three new communities in the vein of our successful freelance and international communities. We will investigate having a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy team. And working with affinity journalism groups, we will try to tackle the problem of newsroom retention of journalists of color. We will develop initiatives to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry, and encourage news organizations to make staff and management demographic data public. We already changed our Diversity Committee to the Diversity and Inclusion Committee with the understanding that we can’t serve our communities if we don’t reflect them.
All of this is crucial for us to reverse a membership slide and appeal to all journalists, especially journalists of color, as the industry faces new challenges amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, disinformation campaigns and the historic racial justice reckoning of 2020 and beyond. Big moments call for bold action, and to build a stronger network of journalists, I am launching SPJ’s latest initiative to coincide with my birthday and the anniversary of the adoption of the First Amendment: I want each of us to try to get one new person to join SPJ.
The idea is so simple, it sounds silly.
But I’m serious.
Together, we can boost SPJ’s membership by thousands of people, with one simple act each: Finding one person to join.
Ahead of my inauguration as president, I wanted to pay it forward. So I wrote on Twitter that I would cover the registration costs of the first 10 students to contact me. Within 48 hours, 10 did. They were mostly women and mostly journalists of color and meeting them was amazing. They were so excited. So inspired. So activated. We owe it to them to make this a stronger society/ Society. Now, I’m not saying that every SPJ member should cover membership costs for one other person this year. (Although it would be great if those among us with the means to sponsor one or more people would consider it.) But if all of us can find just one person who feels compelled to join SPJ — for advocacy, for camaraderie, for ethics and legal defense and award discounts — our membership would double. That’s ambitious. Maybe impossible. But it’s worth trying. Let’s each make it our mission. Let’s dream big.
Let’s also make this a year of personal connections. One of my first acts as president was to reach out to all 50 of our pro chapters for a series of happy hours via Zoom. My first was with the Fort Worth chapter in lieu of the traditional first presidential trip to Texas. Now I’m Zooming with campus chapters, too, and it’s been inspiring to meet such incredible journalists. It’s been a reminder we’re all in this together.
Ultimately, these personal connections are what will make this an organization worth joining, worth staying in, worth fighting for. These are trying times. So let’s try harder to stick together. Let’s all get one person — or more if you’re ambitious and persuasive! — to join SPJ. Keep an eye on the website and SPJ social media for more information about this effort. Thank you in advance.
Journalism is righteous work, and SPJ is a righteous institution. A free press isn’t free. Journalism costs money. Less journalism costs society. Let’s get to work.
Let’s start now.
Matthew T. Hall, 2020-21 national SPJ president, is the editorial and opinion director at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Connect on Twitter: @SDuncovered.
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