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Saturday, August 11, 2007

SPJ withdraws support of amicus

I'd like to declare unequivocal victory on this front, but unfortunately irreparable damage was done to SPJ's reputation.

Here's how this whole issue began, between four people (president, secretary-treasurer/LDF chair, freelance committee chair and myself) on July 24:
Hello folks,
I was searching for advocacy news to share with some members when I came across the following news brief, which I found disturbing: http://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=681#681

I would respectively ask that you consider the large and growing number of independent writers in this organization and their position, which may stand in stark contrast to that of a news organization. Please discuss any future issues of this nature with Kerri and members of the freelance committee to get a balanced view and to fairly represent ALL SPJ members.

Thank you,
Wendy Hoke

In response I got this:


I am happy to consult with freelancers anytime -- and I also urge freelancers to take the helm of national leadership so that they are an active part of the discussions and decisions that must be made for SPJ often in very short order. (Bold is mine.)

[And then...]

Any journalist must be careful to protect his or her rights. If people sign contracts, they must be adult enough to accept their terms. If they can't abide by a contract, they shouldn't sign it -- and they should certainly not contribute to that news organization. (Bold is mine.)

[And finally...]
If anyone raises any questions about this, please let me know. I would be happy to speak with them.

C

Kerri and I got this thing rolling, but it was the scores of other freelancers who carried the ball into the end zone. Thank you to all of you who weren't afraid to speak up and take a stand publicly.

To the headquarters staff I would say that I'm deeply sorry for starting this major distraction at such a critical time. You all work so hard on behalf of the organization and it's a shame more members don't have the pleasure of knowing you as I do. But please try to understand that this was something that could not be left unchallenged. It drifted far, far away from SPJ's mission. Once this decision was discovered, it was impossible for me to remove my journalist/member hat and look the other way.

To the other members of the national board, specifically those who fought and challenged and tried to reason on this one — I applaud your efforts and I certainly hope you don't think they were in vain. Damage has been done and it will be a long time—perhaps never—before freelancers will feel welcome again in SPJ. But I hope that doesn't mean you'll give up trying. I hope you are never hesitant to challenge when you feel something is amiss.

To the leadership ladder: Early in this discussion, Kerri and I warned of the potential damage this one decision could do. SPJ was one place where freelancers from all across the country (the world, actually) found common purpose and a voice. I'm sure you never counted on hearing from them so vociferously. But SPJ promised them something and then delivered them to the wolves. They were ready to fight because the stakes were so high--it was about their ability to get paid fairly for the work they do.

I learned very early on as a chapter and national leader that one of the most important skills a good leader should cultivate is the ability to listen. What I found most distressing was the choice to listen to legal counsel over your own members. That was your first and biggest mistake. And it was perpetuated for days on end by non-answers and promises that specifics would come. We are journalists and we would never accept such pat responses from people we cover. More importantly, neither would you.

Membership organizations only succeed when they have equal measures of inclusiveness, diplomacy, advocacy and support. Leadership is informed by guidance of people who have expertise in specific areas. That's what the SPJ committee structure provides—ready access to people who spend their volunteer time focused on one aspect of journalism. Their exclusion in this process was a failure of leadership.

While SPJ's initial decision on this amicus failed due to lack of inclusiveness, the attempt at a rationale failed in diplomacy.

I included the start of this conversation above because it was at this point that all of this could have been avoided. An acknowledgment that due process was not given this issue, that the impacted parties were not consulted and a pledge to review and do better next time was all it would have taken to stop this train wreck.

Instead, leadership took a high-handed, "we-know-best-you-couldn't-possibly-know-all-the-legal-ramifications" approach that disenfranchised an entire segment of membership and permanently tarnished the organization's image.

To date, I am aware of the following collateral damage: loss of one part-time staff member and longtime volunteer; loss of one national committee chair, longtime volunteer and former national board member; loss of one convention panel; loss of one contributor to The Journalist; years of hard work and goodwill on the part of many expended in one badly dealt hand.

For those freelancers who choose to stay and mend fences and find a way forward, I applaud your optimism. Some had suggested to me that this was a plot all along to rid the organization of independents so that it could focus on saving staff jobs.

That may be, but if it is then it would have been nice to know before freelancers started paying dues and paying their way to conventions that our presence was not appreciated nor welcome.

I take leave now of this matter that has so consumed me and many others these past few weeks. I hope we are all wiser and more informed about the repercussions of decisions we make. I know that I am. I continue to believe in the ideals of SPJ, but I cannot expend anymore energy in an organization so concerned with preserving one group that it's willing to sacrifice another.

3 comments:

Kay Day said...

Nicely written--what might have saved a great deal of fuss: Tatum et al sitting down together and READING the court decision.

I've read all the postings at the SPJ blog by the current president. How anyone could actually read that decision and proclaim it good for freelancers and claim it still has merit, well, that's pretty much saying something subliminal to us ('get out.')

best, Kay

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell said...

As Dick Van Dyke said in "Night at the Museum,"
'Moving on.' Time for us to let go of the old homestead, Wendy.
I'm sure we'll be in touch.
Good luck to you with your new focus.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, Kay and Kerri.

Good luck to you both!