In Depth

SPJ Grapples With Loss of Members at Century Mark

By Elizabeth Jensen

When the Society of Professional Journalists was founded as a journalistic fraternity at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., in 1909, few could have imagined the upheavals that now roil the profession.

But as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the nation’s oldest journalism organization, founded as Sigma Delta Chi, can credit its survival to its ability so far to keep pace.

Although SPJ, which became a professional organization in 1916, weathered a rough patch a decade ago, the next few years may prove far trickier.

Membership has fallen in the past year as the ranks of American journalists have been decimated by the fallout from economic crisis and technological innovation. The organization also finds itself temporarily without a permanent executive director, after the June death of Terry Harper, its much admired leader since 2002.

Now based in Indianapolis, SPJ had about 8,500 members as of mid-June, said Joe Skeel, SPJ’s co-interim executive director with Chris Vachon. That’s down about 1,000 from a year ago, he said, but the organization planned for a drop and has taken cost-cutting steps such as reducing the number of issues of its Quill magazine.

Because of the way that memberships get renewed, SPJ took its biggest membership hit at the end of 2008, and its ranks have remained more or less steady since then, he said, adding that membership in the past five years has varied between 8,500 and 10,000.

Moreover, SPJ has struggled in percentages less than some of the other beat-specific journalism organizations, he said, given its broad-based mission, which includes defense of a free press, fighting for access to public records, promoting ethics and high standards among those who practice journalism and encouraging diversity.

In April its board approved a new branding slogan, “Fighting for your right to know, one story at a time,” to complement the ongoing “Improving and Protecting Journalism.”

The tough journalism climate has had an effect but it is “not taking us down,” said Dave Aeikens, a reporter at the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times and SPJ’s outgoing national president. “Now more than ever is when you need an organization like SPJ to provide some comfort and stabilization and fight on behalf of journalism,” he said.

Although SPJ believes it has more members who work in print than in electronic journalism, it doesn’t break down its members by job, instead classifying them by where they are in their career. Its biggest categories are professional members (4,800) followed by students (1,500.)

Among those who choose to identify their work, the fastest-growing category is free-lance, “which should not be surprising when you take into account all the journalists who are losing their jobs,” Skeel said.

To entice those who are laid off to stick around, SPJ created a special incentive: A six-month dues waiver when it comes time to renew the $72 annual membership, said Aeikens. There is also a members-only free-lancer directory, and Skeel said SPJ is actively looking to add “tools that free-lancers need to run their business,” possibly including libel insurance.

SPJ’s biggest accomplishments in recent years have been an aggressive push to add professional development programs for journalists and its ongoing lobbying for a federal journalism shield law, Aeikens said.

The training programs allow newsrooms, for a nominal fee, to educate their journalists in subjects including multimedia, how to use public records and improving online writing, Skeel said.

Because SPJ trainers go to the news organizations, instead of making journalists come to them, disruption is minimal and the programs can be tailored to newsrooms’ needs. “Our feeling is that the better the journalism that is being delivered, the more credibility our profession gets, which is better for democracy altogether,” Skeel said. Given the economic times, even large newsrooms have been signing up, he said.

SPJ’s longstanding push for a federal shield law has also started to show some results. A version has passed the House of Representatives; the Senate is still hammering out the language, including how to define a journalist. SPJ’s argument in its lobbying trips has been for a definition that is as broad as possible, which “focuses on the act of journalism and not the individual,” Skeel said.

At a late June board meeting, SPJ’s directors set in motion the search for a new permanent executive director to replace Harper. The hope is to have the position filled by late October or early November, Skeel said, with some progress to be reported at the annual convention in Indianapolis Aug. 27-30. “It’s a difficult time but we’re moving forward,” Aeikens said. “We’re going to move with deliberate speed here.

The convention itself is likely to undergo a radical change in 2011: At its April meeting the SPJ board voted to explore holding a joint convention with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, to allow for more participants, lower attendance costs and less competition for speakers and fund-raising. Skeel said planning is in the “very early stages.”