by St. Louis Pro President Elizabeth Donald
Never let me be accused of burying the lead:
I received this honor at the opening business meeting for the Society of Professional Journalists national conference here in Las Vegas today. In addition to this recognition of our advocacy for the First Amendment, we were also finalist for Small Chapter of the Year. We haven’t been finalists for the big award since 2019, and I don’t believe we’ve won that particular award since 2011. It is indeed an honor to be nominated, and I am grateful at the national organization’s recognition of the work we do.
What exactly did we do this year?
• Our 2022 Student Boot Camp was one of our best ever. Students attended from at least seven universities in three states for lively panels with working journalists from St. Louis Public Radio, NPR Midwest Newsroom, the Belleville News-Democrat and more. The highlight of the event is a mock press conference where a real police chief (this year it was Highland Chief Carole Presson) briefs the press on a major incident, and they have the opportunity to ask questions and then write a story based on that press conference. Sponsored by a chapter grant, we were able to offer the program free of charge for cash-strapped students.
• We worked with the students of SIUE Sigma Tau Delta and the Alestle for a Banned Books roundtable discussion and book fair addressing the rise of book banning in the U.S. and specifically in the St. Louis region. The roundtable included representatives from ACLU of Missouri, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, SIUE and the local library district. Representatives from Wentzville (Mo.) school district were invited for debate but declined. As chapter president and president of Sigma Tau Delta, I moderated the event, and discussion centered on our mutual concerns as writers, educators and journalists regarding the First Amendment and social justice. It received news coverage in advance and of the event itself, and was preceded by a Banned Book Fair offering challenged books for sale. The SPJ table at the fair was manned by our newest members from the staff of the Alestle.
• Board member and academic liaison Jennifer Brown has been hard at work reviving the student chapter of SPJ at Lindenwood University, which is due to be voted on by the national organization shortly. As mentioned above, the entire staff of the SIUE Alestle joined our chapter as student members, and we are enjoying our mentorship and partnership with these future journalists.
• Jennifer also represented St. Louis SPJ at a summit at the University of Missouri to encourage participation in SPJ, and outgoing board member Kae Petrin gave a presentation on issues relating to trans coverage as representative both SPJ and as co-founder of the Trans Journalist Association.
• As part of our advocacy for the profession and for the SPJ Code of Ethics, I spoke at Mass Comm Week to discuss the potential ramifications of A.I. for journalism and ethics. We also worked with other organizations to promote their events, such as a seminar in storytelling with free economic data aggregators and others.
• We co-sponsored the 10th Annual First Amendment Free* Food Festival, in which 80 people signed away their First Amendment rights in return for a free meal and got a demonstration of life without free speech. A few SPJ board members participated as volunteers, sneaking into the Republic of Mass Communica to proselytize on behalf of journalism and free speech.
Internally, in the last year or two we have bid farewell to retiring board members Neil Ralston and David Nicklaus, and to Kae Petrin, who has moved out of the region. But we happily welcome new board members Alex Aultman and Kari Williams, and look forward to their ideas and energy as part of our board.
In the meantime, the national conference is going forward. Many of you are probably aware that SPJ as a national organization is facing serious economic issues, and those will likely be central to the votes we will take at our closing meeting on Saturday. In many ways these issues relate directly to the state of the industry, and we’ve seen it here in St. Louis: once we had three times as many members in our chapter as we have now, largely newspaper reporters from larger publications in the region. A decade or two of layoffs and early retirements and so on has seriously reduced our numbers, and thus our funding, and National is no different.
Creative solutions are needed, locally and nationally, to keep the valuable resources, advocacy and networking of SPJ alive for another century. Some feel we need to seek corporate sponsorship; others feel we should shift from a trade organization into one open to non-journalists. If you have strong feelings about those issues, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I represent you here, and I would welcome input from our members.
Of course, the most direct way you can influence which way we go is TO VOTE. By now, all current members of SPJ should have received the ballot in the email address with which you registered for membership. Odds are you don’t know the people running, so click through to SPJ Election Central and click “Meet the Candidates” to see the background, experience and priorities of each candidate running for office. These are the people who will have to come up with a solution to the immediate problems and form long-term strategies, and your vote matters. I think last year there were a grand seven votes or so from all of Region 7, which covers five states. We can do better than that, folks. You must vote by 5 p.m. CST on Saturday for your vote to be counted.
A quick note for the Illinois residents: As members of St. Louis Pro you should receive a Region 7 ballot even though Illinois is in Region 5. However, this year it doesn’t matter much, since the Region 7 director is unopposed and Region 5 isn’t up for election. Problems or concerns (including “where the hell is my ballot?”) should be directed to email@example.com, and if you are still having problems, message me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your continued support and membership in SPJ. It is truly my honor to serve as your president and your delegate.