Sep. 17, 2012  

SPJ and Social Media: An Open Letter

By Brandon Ballenger (p.p. SPJ South Florida’s board of directors)

Social media offer SPJ an enormous and largely free opportunity to better recruit, engage, and serve its membership and the journalism community.

It’s a chance to increase SPJ’s relevance through timely discussion and response to events concerning professional and student journalists, and to demonstrate our commitment to SPJ’s core mission to promote the flow of information “in an accurate, comprehensive, timely and understandable manner.” But we are not taking full advantage of that opportunity.

To be sure, SPJ has a presence on many platforms. Our official national Twitter account, @spj_tweets, is probably the most active and successful example. The account has grown steadily over the past year and now has nearly 13,000 followers. (Followers are not a comprehensive measure of success, particularly because many could be automated, inactive, or spam accounts. But this problem is universal, so it’s a reasonable and simple measure.) To put our number in perspective, here are 10 other j-groups’ rough follower counts:

@spj_tweets stats from Twitter as of Sept. 17.

Our follower count tops these, we think, because @spj_tweets is vigorously maintained by a joint staff effort, interacting with our members, answering questions, sharing journalism news with a wider audience, and in general making an effort to be social rather than strictly broadcasting. It’s human, and it’s active.

SPJ’s @journtoolbox, managed by member Mike Reilley, is even more successful: over 14,500 followers. The excellent #spjchat he and SPJ DePaul began (and which we hope will return from hiatus) is probably a factor in that success.

The Generation J committee is also active in social media, with its own accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and LinkedIn. Its users regularly share relevant news stories and tips through Twitter hashtags, and recently it has partnered with other journalism groups such as @MuckRack for Twitter chats.

Outgoing national president John Ensslin has also made laudable efforts in this area of outreach, launching a series of training webinars and personally holding Google+ video chats with each region. These things should be the role models for our social media presence.

But there are many neglected areas, and seemingly little guidance or discussion of potential improvement. SPJ has, according to a Sept. 7 staff report memo circulated in advance of the national board meeting in Fort Lauderdale, an average email open rate of about 20 percent for its weekly member newsletter.

Who reads Leads? On average, 80 percent of SPJ newsletter emails go unopened.

That memo also says SPJ has sent out 38 news releases this year, of which 31 announce awards, even though the memo admits “much of the news coverage mentioning SPJ results from these [other seven] news releases.”

It also features Quill editor Scott Leadingham saying the membership magazine is a good resource but has limited reach, and that it needs to overcome “financial and technological hurdles that have hindered progress in these areas [delivering content faster and more widely]” to reach wider audiences.

A separate, Sept. 1 memo regarding international chapters shows that expansion abroad is an area of concern for the board. It includes anonymous comments from international members, including one that reads:

I haven’t found a forum for discussion on the website in order to interact more with both members in the US and abroad, so I’d certainly like to see that. Basically, I’d like to be able to interact more with SPJ members even though I’m abroad.

Social media could provide that forum in multiple forms: Twitter, Google+ video chats, or perhaps an international member blog.

Speaking of blogs, SPJ has 15 national ones plus blogs for most regions. (There seems to be no Region 2 or 8 blog.) Below is a breakdown of how often they’re updated, with one point allocated for each month this year an entry appeared. That seems like a reasonably low threshold to judge by, rather than counting entries…

Code Words. Written with invisible ink? Last updated 11/08/11.



Of these 25 blogs, just four have been updated at least once a month this year. Four, including the blog for SPJ’s core mission of ethics, have not been updated at all in 2012. Of course, posts for these (save SPJ Works, the staff blog) are written by volunteers, and we’re all busy with day jobs. But it does raise questions: What are most of these blogs for? How should they be used, if they should exist at all? How can a blog gain and maintain readership if its readers can’t predict or expect updates for months?

SPJ staff have also begun experimenting on many newer social media platforms, including Instagram, Storify, Pinterest, and most recently Tumblr. This experimentation is good – each platform could provide a unique opportunity to engage different audiences, or in different ways – but in some cases the purpose and practicality of using the platform is somewhat unclear.

Whoa, a 103-year-old Tumblr user. Cool.

For instance, the newly created SPJ Tumblr (the oldest entry is two weeks old) does not introduce its purpose or its author, yet some posts are written in the first-person and the focus seems to be general news briefs and link sharing. This could be interesting, but needs clarification. Who runs it, or should? How is it different from @spj_tweets? Is it duplicating effort? Do people know it exists? (Networked just announced it. Did you hear about it there?)

Last year, one of the first things President John Ensslin did was create The Blue Sky Committee – one of those whose blogs have seen no updates this year – to think about what SPJ could do if it dedicated money and energy to improve membership. (“Imagine you have $10,000. What would you do with that money to improve SPJ? What if you had $50,000? What if that was $100,000?” Ensslin reportedly told chair Michael Koretzky.)

Our suggestion, whether money is involved or not: make social media a priority. Provide more guidance to staff, and tangibly support their suggestions to improve SPJ’s level of engagement. Make a stronger commitment to stay in the loop with what chapters are doing and keep members informed about what’s going on in SPJ. In short, aim to generate daily the social media buzz SPJ will have during its annual conference this week.

SPJ’s committee blogs in various stages of abandonment might lend the impression that some are doing almost nothing. That is far from the truth: Our volunteer organization is constantly undertaking an enormous number of interesting advocacy and training initiatives, from vetting insurance options for freelancers to joining amicus briefs to helping develop fair use guidelines for the Web.

But very little of this effort is member- or public-facing. Members and non-members alike need to see what’s happening to take an interest in it. Social media can help drive that interest, add ideas and increase participation. It can make membership more rewarding, and more fruitful for everyone. It’s no panacea, and we don’t mean to make it sound like one – but it does have great potential that SPJ is not yet tapping.

To be clear, none of this is intended as criticism of staff efforts. It is staff who are largely dragging SPJ further into the digital age. But SPJ should be leaping into it, and that requires the national board (or a committee) to solicit input from members, think about and discuss the subject, and issue some guidance to move things forward. In that spirit, we’d like to end with a few ideas, and solicit yours. Some of these are more abstract and off-the-wall than others…

  1. We should use social media platforms as an immediate, official response and support system for embattled journalists, in addition to slower traditional advocacy efforts such as letter-writing which may take a week or more. This allows the organization to show immediate concern and responsiveness, reach out to the affected parties, and still take time to gather facts and make a firm statement on the matter.
  2. SPJ National should develop, designate – or if one already exists, better publicize – an official channel for regions, chapters and individuals to notify HQ and members of their social media efforts. This would allow for more and better cross-promotion, and, we think, look really cool.
  3. For instance, imagine an SPJ Tumblr or Pinterest as a digital scrapbook, full of photos from chapter events across the country.
  4. Musical (meeting) minutes in three-and-a half (temporal) minutes.

    Or if, in the vein of the Columbia chapter singing its meeting minutes on video, we crowdsourced a video of various members each reading a line from the SPJ Code of Ethics using Tout (sort of a Twitter for video)? Or we could record a few Google+ Hangouts and edit it all together. (SPJ South Florida has a great video guy. Just saying.)

  5. Staff have had some fun contests with Instagram (desk photos) Facebook (caption contests) and Twitter. Let’s do more, or make them ongoing features. How about using Instagram to snap photos of humor in print: funny/bad headlines and cutlines, hilarious corrections, police blotters and classifieds, unintentionally funny ad placement and design, stuff like that? (We could call it The Funny Pages.)
  6. @spj_tweets has (and maintains?) lists of SPJ chapters and other journalists to follow. We should expand on them and do the same across all our social platforms. Let’s make it easier for members and chapters to connect, and for potential members to find local SPJ folks.
  7. Social media-savvy members could contribute some how-to or best practice tips to help other members and chapters improve their own efforts. This could also possibly be professional training.

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