Thank you, Jill, my dear friend and number-one traveling companion. You’ve been an important part of my professional growth. I’m glad to have you beside me.
Thank you to Betty Clapp and Steve FitzGerald and the rest of the Cleveland board for this great honor. I have one question: Didn’t anyone bother to consult Jerry Masek’s travel schedule before setting this date?
I want to congratulate my fellow honoree, David Marburger. Even though I could never afford to have you defend me in a lawsuit, I am grateful to know that you are working on behalf of journalists in Ohio. Well done, David.
And to Melissa Kory, whom I’ve just had the pleasure of meeting. Congratulations on earning your scholarship. Cleveland SPJ is proud of the ranks of young journalists it has supported over the years. As anyone who has ever served on the scholarship committee will tell you, it’s the best work we do. May you find the pursuit of journalism as rich, fulfilling, challenging, frustrating, inspiring and hopeful as I have.
This event marks the first time in my nearly 20 years as a journalist that my family life has crossed paths with my professional life. My parents, Chuck and Nancy Lewis, are here as is my husband, Dan, who frankly bears the brunt of all my professional frustrations. I’m so thankful for their love and support and patience when I am off on my crusades. Even though they are not here, I am profoundly inspired daily and hourly by my three boys—Ryan, Patrick and Michael. They represent the very best part of me.
I once heard someone describe journalists as frustrated idealists. I think that’s a fitting description of me and certainly of my work with SPJ.
I never really paused long enough to reflect on the work I was doing. I was so busy “doing.” My efforts with SPJ and leadership were always centered on inclusion. That’s why I joined in the first place. SPJ gave me a sense of belonging to my chosen profession.
From the very beginning of my professional involvement, however, I was challenging an organization that I felt was not inclusive or lacked strong communication. I counted myself fortunate, because for most of my off and on 22 years in SPJ, leaders listened when I questioned.
In January 1993, I was coming off of my first maternity leave. I was a weekly reporter for The Sun Press and frustrated because I wanted to become a better journalist and there were so few opportunities to learn. I was incensed when I learned that SPJ had held its national convention in Cleveland in the fall of 1992 and I, working at one of the city’s major news organizations, had no knowledge of that event happening.
I went to my first Cleveland chapter board meeting when my now 6’2” son was only eight weeks old with the intent of giving them a piece of my mind. Instead, I found myself volunteering at the tender age of 25 to chair the 1996 regional convention in Cleveland. It was three years away—plenty of time to get my SPJ sea legs.
And so I did, learning from the elder statesmen of the Cleveland chapter, especially Faye Sholiton, Tony Kozlowski, Jerry Masek, Lee Bailey, Stan Bullard, Bob Tayek and so many others who were all important to my development as an SPJ leader.
We join professional organizations out of the belief that it will somehow translate into work, preferably paying work. While that was never my primary motivator, my work with SPJ did lead to a job as assistant editor at a city magazine on the recommendation of Faye Sholiton, who was impressed by my management of the 1996 Regional. Just a few weeks ago I had my first story published in the Christian Science Monitor based on contact I had with the editor through the SPJ National Freelance Committee. A follow-up story will be in next week's Monitor.
No question I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities through SPJ. I’ve traveled to Texas, New York City, Tampa, Chicago and Las Vegas. I was one of the only female speakers at the East Asia Journalist Conference in Seoul, South Korea, where I also gave toasts, sang karaoke and drank boilermakers with journalists from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Vietnam. I’ve fetched coffee for Gay Talese at an SPJ narrative workshop in Alabama (a service only previously rendered for my dad) and conducted an exclusive interview in Las Vegas with New York Times reporter Judith Miller just after her release from prison. I introduced William Zinsser, a journalistic hero of mine before an audience of hundreds in New York City in 2004.
I’ve written columns urging professionalism in freelancing, listening in leadership and caution in legislating press freedoms. I’ve interviewed some of journalism’s greatest practitioners, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest and New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss.
I’ve spoken about my work and encouraged good friends and colleagues to do the same. I’ve planned national conference panels and facilitated at the Ted Scripps Leadership Retreat. In fact, this June marks the first time in five years that I won’t be in Indianapolis for the annual leadership retreat.
And I’ve tried—through my articles, panels, e-mails and conversations—to demonstrate that the way we traditionally view journalism is limiting and that if SPJ was to survive into the future, it needed to broaden its concept of journalists. And that good, timely communication is a key component of that effort.
Just because we don’t work in a newsroom doesn’t mean we are not serious journalists. I’ve talked with freelance investigative journalists exposing medical malpractice on a broad scale, backpack journalists who travel the globe collecting vibrant video images in addition to words and storytellers whose gift for narrative through written and spoken word speaks to the humanity in us all.
This is all very exciting, but it isn’t necessarily happening in newsrooms.
Independent journalists, in order to survive, are naturally more entrepreneurial and experimental, which is why I pushed so hard for the freelance committee. How journalism is done is changing and I felt that for independent journalists offered depth and innovative thinking to SPJ’s ranks that it sorely lacked.
I talk a lot about making connections and bringing people together. That’s how I view leadership—sharing a vision in which people naturally feel a stake and are willing to get involved to make that vision a reality.
A good leader understands that HOW you say something is as important as WHAT you say.
When I questioned SPJ’s national leadership on a decision made last summer, I was told that if freelancers wanted to be involved in the many decisions SPJ leadership must make in short order, they could feel free to run for leadership.
Well, I was encouraged to run for SPJ’s national leadership ladder. But I had three very important reminders named Ryan, Patrick and Michael—of why my involvement with SPJ should rightly be limited.
During their preschool and early elementary years, I stayed away from SPJ, working out of my house to be near my three boys, something I continue to this day. But by 2001, I was getting calls from Jerry Masek to rejoin the board. If you know Jerry, you know how persistent he can be.
After a bit of a leadership shakeup I found myself as president of the chapter a year ahead of my term—and chair of the 2003 regional convention.
I was so grateful to have such terrific partners on the board, especially Jay Miller who was always supportive and helped me to see things that may have been obscured by my enthusiasm or lack of experience. He and the rest of the board tolerated my energy and agreed in 2002 to send me to my first national convention in Fort Worth, Texas.
It was not a good first national experience. I was so turned off by the old-boys-club that upon my return I fired off a series of e-mails to the national leadership challenging them on their openness. I touched a nerve with one who recognized that if the organization were viewed as closed and cliquish, it would not be very successful in attracting new and diverse members.
As a result of our e-mail exchanges, I learned about and accepted an invitation to attend my first Ted Scripps Leadership Retreat. There—while the national leaders stood in front of us one evening giving us a state of the society address—I pointed out the obvious contrast between the existing leadership and the future leaders in the audience. How could we be an organization committed to diversity when there was no one who looked like us or worked like us standing in front of the group?
To their great credit, the leaders of the time listened and recognized what I saying about the society’s public face and its goal to achieve diversity. The conversation that night turned to a frank discussion of the challenges and opportunities of serving nationally.
That would be my role. Nurturer for the ideals of SPJ on the one hand, critic when I felt the Society wasn’t living up to its mission to improve and protect journalism for all.
What makes me most proud as a member of SPJ is the work I did on behalf of freelance journalists. Up until I left last August, I was still pushing the society to get away from its newsroom culture and focus instead on individual journalists, however and wherever they did their work.
At the 2003 national convention in Tampa, I was struck by the number of freelancers in attendance, who had paid their own way hoping to become better journalists. We were milling around the halls of the convention because so much of the programming had little value unless you worked in a newsroom.
We talked over drinks and it was suggested that I attend the committee chairs meeting and inquire about starting a new national committee for freelancers to make sure our views were represented. By January 2004, we were up and running, fielding a number of inquiries from freelancers who had thought they would have to leave SPJ because they no longer worked in a newsroom.
I took the part-time position as membership manager for SPJ a few years later because I thought I could extend my work with freelancers and the Cleveland chapter to the rest of the organization.
It didn’t make sense to me that taking a paid position would suddenly alter the credibility of my input. But a paycheck effectively canceled out my ability to weigh in on matters affecting the national organization, something I had always felt comfortable doing.
My success, if indeed I had any in that position, was in implementing the early work of the freelance committee—a plastic membership card that could function as a press pass, and a searchable database of freelancers to help editors find qualified writers.
A year ago, when the database launched, freelancers were the largest growing segment of SPJ’s membership and their numbers were well over 500. That I was responsible in any way for making that happen made me incredibly proud.
I don’t want to go into the ugly details that caused my rift with SPJ national leadership. I’m sure it’s long forgotten. Suffice it to say that I felt the executive committee did not give due diligence to a legal matter, broke from its longstanding policy of not weighing in on labor/management issues because it has members of both, violated the hard-earned trust and support of a growing portion of its membership and willfully ignored the persistent and legitimate questions of two dedicated, long-time volunteers of the organization.
Under pressure from members, the board eventually reversed its decision. But the damage had been done. I had promised freelancers that SPJ cares about them just as surely as it cares about the many newsroom staffers in its ranks. I had sold members on inclusion.
Aside from reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenges and opportunities of working as an independent journalist, the leadership’s decision drew a line in the sand—the Society’s priority was protecting staffer jobs, even if that decision threw non-staffers under the bus. I had no choice but to resign.
Sometimes you have to rock the boat. Hell, sometimes you have to be willing to tip it over. You can’t be a journalist today and not recognize that it has never been more important to question even in the face of great adversity and accusations. And that demands courage and leadership—two things not always present in journalists.
But if you had 9,000 like-minded journalists, no matter where or how they worked, working equally hard and standing beside you then you could press forward in the face of pressure and subpoenas and threats of prison. THAT was the promise of SPJ.
I’ve tried to live that promise, to create a sense of fellowship—first here in Cleveland and later nationally—that we are united in our common purpose to improve and protect journalism.
My determination toward that end sometimes makes people uncomfortable. My husband says it gives him heartburn and honey, truly, I’m sorry about that. But I like to think that some of that fire is also what makes me a good journalist.
I confess that I was conflicted about receiving this award. I have not renewed my membership because I felt I needed some distance and perspective. My input was no longer valued. It was time to walk away and let others lead.
Aside from that, my achievements seem so micro in a profession that demands change on a macro level. I just wanted to make sure that the nation’s largest organization for journalists included ALL journalists, no matter how or where they work.
But as I stand here today, I realize that maybe change really IS made on the micro level, by bringing people along one by one. People like Jill, whom I first met four and a half years ago in an e-mail correspondence about the value of SPJ.
Or people like Jen Boresz, whom I first got to know in 2002 when she was Cleveland State’s student chapter president.
Or Amy Green, a freelancer in Orlando, Florida, who called a few weeks ago for my advice about becoming the next SPJ freelance chair. And the countless others I have met along the way.
It’s work I continue without my SPJ hat because I still believe you have to send the elevator back down. Countless people have taken the time to help or share information with me along my journey and I wouldn’t be standing here before you if they hadn’t bothered.
Being an SPJ leader for me has always been an ongoing struggle to balance the idealist with the realist. The Society will celebrate its centennial beginning next May. What will SPJ look like in the next 100 years? I will be watching to see which way the pendulum swings.
Thank you SPJ Cleveland for considering me worthy of the chapter’s highest honor.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
UPDATE: My SPJ/DSA speech from today
The Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored me today with the chapter's Distinguished Service Award. I was proud to receive the award today at the City Club along with fellow honoree David Marburger. We also honored this year's SPJ scholarship winner, Melissa Kory, from North Ridgeville High School. I was so happy to have my good friend and fellow writer Jill Miller Zimon as presenter. Here's her speech, which was so incredible in that she sought out the input of so many friends. Thank you, friend.