Here's the Pitch: Help Guide SEJ and Its Mission To Serve the Search for Facts

July 15, 2010

President's Report

By CHRISTY GEORGE

It's been a tremendous privilege to serve as SEJ president during this time of professional change and churn, but it's been a bit scary, too.

We weathered the first year after the stock market collapsed in 2008, with help from our own earned income and underwriters who believe in SEJ. But this year, the economy caught up with donors — and us. Our longtime funders' stock holdings lost value. This year, some of the most stalwart cut back on how much they give, and others have stopped giving altogether.

Now we need to raise money from new sources, to keep all of SEJ's terrific programs going. If you can donate to SEJ's operating budget, great. If you can't, maybe you know of a foundation — or a person who shares SEJ's values — who can.

That search for new funding is Job One for SEJ board members, perhaps for years to come. There's no telling how long the bad economy will last, how many more bubbles will burst in the months and years ahead.

This is also a time of transition for SEJ's leadership. You elected four new board members last October, and there are likely to be more seats on the board opening up this coming October.

I encourage anyone interested to seriously consider running for the board.

Why should you run? Because you think it would be fun to meet up with like-minded folks every three or four months and explore different places. Because it would look good on your resumé. Because you know that serving on the board is a good way to learn new skills — God forbid, even management skills! Because you care about SEJ, and want to help guide this group into the future. Because you've gotten a lot from SEJ, and now you want to give something back.

What can you really expect from being on the board? I'm not saying it's not rewarding, but I'd be lying if I didn't also say it's a lot of work. For instance, if you become a board member, you'll:

  • Look at budget spreadsheets and comprehend the nittygritty details;
  • Read the bylaws and election rules, and membership policies and awards contest rules and financial policies and partnership guidelines;
  • Get comfortable with Robert's Rules of Order;
  • Serve on not one but two committees — at a minimum;
  • Do SEJ work between board meetings;
  • Spend time during the annual conference presiding over the membership table, answering questions, accepting donations and guiding people to the next event (which you'll be missing);
  • Research, call or visit foundations which might give to SEJ; edit or even write up SEJ proposals to funders;
  • Ask potential donors for money directly;
  • Write out your own check to SEJ (the SEJ board has sought, and achieved 100% participation by board members ever since we created the 21st Century Fund. It's how any organization's board of directors starts the process of fundraising);
  • And yes, you get to play a little too — create exciting new content for sej.org, scout future conference sites, launch new programs like the Fund for Environmental Journalism, and best of all — forge new friendships with SEJ's wonderful board and staff.

There's more here and you should feel free to contact me, or any current or former board member, if you have questions about the experience.

New blood is always good to keep the cobwebs away, but it's also important to keep gut-checking ourselves, to make sure we're sticking to SEJ's founding values. And if we want to go somewhere new, to be sure it's somewhere the majority of members want to go.

More and more often these days, there are calls on the list-serv for SEJ to take a stand on environmental issues, to cudgel British Petroleum for despoiling the Gulf of Mexico, to protest Massey Energy Company's record of unsafe mining conditions, to bash government agencies for their failure to stop any and all of the above.

It's one thing to call for better access and more transparency for journalists, but it's quite another to speak out on behalf of our 1500 members, to see if SEJ has enough political capital to change the causes of environmental degradation. That would be a mistake.

SEJ painstakingly earned that clout, over the past 20 years of our existence, precisely because we are politically neutral operating as a non-partisan, non-advocacy, public service journalism organization. John Palen wrote a wonderful paper more than ten years ago about SEJ's commitment to objectivity and independence, which still rings true today — www.sej.org/sejshistory — well worth a read for any prospective boardie.

I'm a great believer in providing context to news stories — the history of an issue, the background of the personalities involved in an issue, the connection to economics or politics. But in the end, journalism is about following facts, wherever they take us, even when they take us places we didn't expect.

SEJ's mission is to serve that search for facts. We do it a lot of different ways: by helping each other understand the complexities of science, by providing story ideas through conferences and tip sheets, by protecting openness and transparency in government, and by maintaining a richly knowledgeable and experienced network of people on the beat, especially in this transitional period for the news business.

That bottom line is not going to change.

We welcome students and teachers, and people who meet our guidelines and share our mission. We welcome journalists whether you're part-time or full-time, print or broadcast, rural or national, American or a citizen of another country.

We are a journalists' group, run by journalists, for journalists.

You've been enjoying the "for journalists" part. Maybe it's time to consider the "by journalists" part?

Watch your inbox for the "call for candidates" — due about 90 days before the election, which will be held at SEJ's annual conference in Missoula, Montana. You'll have about 45 days to declare your candidacy in whatever membership category you belong. Read all the fine-print here.

You'll also need to write a ONE-PAGE candidate's statement outlining your qualifications and goals — in other words, your platform. Think about it.

Christy George, SEJ president, is special projects producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

*From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue. 

CHRISTY GEORGE