I’ve done a lot of listening in my year as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists. The best membership organizations are built around listening.
I think back now to the first moments of my term, when I gave an inaugural speech in shorts and a jacket from my bedroom, my youngest daughter lying on the floor outside my closed door, listening. It was not how I imagined being sworn in as the 104th president of our 112-year-old institution.
“Journalism is righteous work,” I said that day. “And SPJ is a righteous institution. If you have pain, we’ll acknowledge it. If you have problems, we’ll solve them. If you have passion, we’ll tap into it.”
Pain? Problems? Passion? The best organizations are built around those, too. Organizations that acknowledge pain, solve problems and tap into passion are groups that will grow, groups that people will want to join.
The anguish in our industry — tied to the pandemic and systemic racism at our own outlets, and the ongoing economic pain that has caused our workforce to shrink — is what prompted me to do what, as far as I know, no SPJ president had ever done: Meet with all 51 SPJ pro chapters.
The meetings, calls and emails signaled SPJ’s commitment to our chapter system and to listening to our members. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and SPJ’s incredible chapter leaders made that listening tour possible. Whether I was meeting with one person or dozens, those conversations were real and invigorating, and I think they were instrumental in shoring up the connections that the best membership organizations are also built around.
Thank you to the hundreds of journalists who took the time to share their screens and their opinions. I heard your complaints, and tried to address them. I heard your ideas, and tried to implement some of those, too. It was a pleasure of a lifetime to be your president.
As I write this, we have added about 400 members since September 2020, taking us above 6,000 — a giant accomplishment. Among the initiatives underway to keep growing: We have reduced and streamlined requirements to form campus chapters; we have identified many schools where we might start campus chapters, with a focus on helping students of color; we have created a nine-member national Student Trustee Council and a 24-member Student Leadership Institute to guide SPJ into the future; and we have partnered with the Associated Collegiate Press and the College Media Association to hold a joint conference at our 2022 annual convention, in Washington, D.C.
This past year was an incredible year for SPJ. Between SPJ20 and SPJ21, we held a record 11 national board meetings, and were there for journalists every day. But there is still work to do, starting with diversifying our newsrooms. Our strategic plan now encourages news organizations to build diverse, equitable and inclusive newsrooms and to make their staff and management demographic data public on a regular basis. Such efforts make great moral and business sense. We must include more voices and listen to them. Other journalism organizations have been advocating for this for decades. We must support them. It’s crucial.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission wrote that, “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting Negroes. Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”
In 1978, the American Society of News Editors supported a goal for journalism of having industrywide “minority employment by the year 2000 equivalent to the percentage of minority persons within the national population.” When it became clear that goal wouldn’t be met, the group, now known as the News Leaders Association, set a new target: 2025.
Newsrooms aren’t even close.
That must change. Too few newsrooms share their demographic data with the public to even measure it well. I’m fortunate to work at one — The San Diego Union-Tribune — that does share such data for both its newsroom and its management. More should. More must. I’m glad that SPJ will join other associations in pushing for it. If you work in a newsroom that isn’t public about it, ask your managers to release it. Build support among your colleagues and in your community for it. I hope your managers listen.
I hope we all listen to each other. I will no longer be your president after SPJ21, but I’m around, and you know how to reach me. Please do. I’ll always listen to you.