30th Anniversary Prompts Big-Picture Look at SEJ’s Future

September 11, 2019

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President’s Report: 30th Anniversary Prompts Big-Picture Look at SEJ’s Future

The Society of Environmental Journalists is about to turn 30, and when you touch down at Denver International Airport on your way to our annual conference in October, it will mark a homecoming of sorts for SEJ. 

SEJ was incorporated on Valentines Day 1990, and over the decades, we’ve held conferences more than once in Chattanooga, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. But since we held our inaugural annual conference in Boulder in 1991, SEJ has never returned to Colorado. 

Until now. 

This year’s conference at Colorado State University in Fort Collins has been eight years in the making. Former board Future Sites Committee chair Douglas Fischer and I first discussed the possibility of bringing a conference to CSU in 2011 while I was the environment reporter for the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper. 

I hope you’ll find Northern Colorado to be a living laboratory for environmental journalism — an ultimate reporters’ toolbox at 5,000 feet. The region is replete with public lands, federal agency offices and labs, university researchers and a concentration of news sources for nearly all the issues many of us report on daily. 

 

A generational transition

This year’s conference isn’t just happening four months before our 30th birthday, it’s happening amid SEJ’s long transition from one generation to the next. September marks Meaghan Parker’s first anniversary as SEJ’s new executive director, and the end of my third and final year as SEJ president. 

We’re planning to kick off SEJ’s anniversary year thinking deeply about what SEJ will look like in its fourth decade. That means looking deeply at how we need to evolve to best meet the needs of our members and support environmental journalism at a time when local journalism continues its decline and the federal government routinely threatens journalists, press freedoms and government transparency. 

Thanks to Meaghan’s superb fundraising efforts, eager donors, strong membership and many other factors, SEJ will be heading into 2020 on solid financial footing. The Fort Collins conference is poised to be SEJ’s biggest ever and the outlook for potential grant funding for the next year is exceptional. 

Thanks to the generosity of the Hewlett Foundation, SEJ has secured a grant to help cover costs of strategic planning, including hiring Scott Miller, a former SEJ member and former president of Resource Media.

 

Our goal for SEJ’s new strategic plan is

for it to set the agenda for SEJ staff and

for the board for the next several years with

a set of clear, specific organizational goals.

 

Most strategic plans end up being filed away to gather dust without ever again seeing the light of day. Our goal for SEJ’s new strategic plan is for it to set the agenda for SEJ staff and for the board for the next several years with a set of clear, specific organizational goals. The plan will help determine staff and board performance metrics for SEJ and guide the board when we consider new programs or when reconsidering old ones. 

The plan will help us answer the questions: Should SEJ grow beyond its current 1,400 or so members? If so, by how much? To what degree should SEJ focus on services for members vs. expanding our programs supporting environmental journalism more broadly? What are SEJ’s diversity goals, and what steps can we take to be more equitable and inclusive? 

We can answer some of those questions without a plan, but strategizing will help the board focus and set aside issues that distract from SEJ’s mission. 

In December, the board will fly out to SEJ’s 2020 conference site in Boise, Idaho, for a two-day strategic planning retreat with Scott, who will draft the plan with the board. We plan to release it to members by the Boise conference next year. 

A few other important SEJ news items, starting with the less positive one:

 

2019 board election shortfall

The Election Committee’s call for SEJ Board candidates for the 2019 board election yielded fewer candidates than there are open board seats. We have two active member seats up for grabs in the upcoming election, but despite broad board outreach to potential candidates, only one expressed any interest in running by the filing deadline. 

This is both troubling and unprecedented — a radical departure from past years when we’ve had 10 or more candidates vie for open seats. By contrast, the open academic seat has two candidates vying for it this year. 

I’ll take some responsibility for this situation. In my letter to membership in SEJ’s call for candidates, I was pretty straightforward about what it means to serve on the board: It’s work, it requires travel and a fair amount of board members’ attention. I appealed to members’ sense of volunteerism and selfless service, asking them to give as much or possibly more than they might get back. 

Upon reflection, perhaps that wasn’t the best way to promote board service when more and more SEJ members are being asked to work harder for less money and less time. I confess, I have no idea how to reconcile this when SEJ needs attentive oversight and eager engagement from board members. 

SEJ’s bylaws and elections policies do not address this situation. To fill the open seat for which there was no candidate, the board will appoint an active member to fill the seat until 2020, at which time that member will have to run for election to serve the remaining two years of the seat’s term. 

The board is reaching out to potential appointees with SEJ’s equity, diversity and inclusion priorities in mind. We’ll have an announcement to make at the general membership meeting during the Fort Collins conference. We are also planning to draft a policy, which could require a possible bylaws change, that will address how to handle this situation in the future. 

 

Transition for new board officers

Second, this year’s board officer elections will be held during our December strategic planning retreat in Boise, during which we’ll hold a new board member orientation. As I’ve written previously, SEJ board officer elections have long been a by-the-seat-of-the-pants experience, occurring with little forethought or board member understanding of what officer positions entail. 

I’ve been the beneficiary of the old process — twice. When I was first elected to the board, the first board meeting I attended was at the Norman, Okla., conference, only hours after I was notified I’d won the election. At that meeting, I was nominated to run for board secretary with zero understanding of what the secretary does. Eager to participate, I said, “Sure, why not?” And I was elected board secretary, serving on the executive committee.

This gave me an opportunity to serve as SEJ president the following year, after board members whom I thought would be next in line for president announced during the Sacramento conference board meeting that they didn’t want to run for the job. So I was elected president. 

This process is fantastic if you think SEJ is best run by spontaneously choosing its leaders. But the board executive committee has been critically important to handling the weekly and daily tasks of managing three separate executive director transitions: Beth Parke to Melissa Klem; Klem to interim co-EDs Beth Parke and Chris Bruggers; and finally, Beth and Chris to Meaghan Parker. 

The ExCom has a pivotal role to play in dealing with new policy and governance questions that staff raise between board meetings. Officers need to be willing to carve out the time to focus on this during their busy work weeks. Most importantly, new and long-serving board members all need to be familiar with the board’s mission, responsibilities and officer roles before tossing their names into the hat as a candidate. These choices shouldn’t be haphazard and uninformed. 

This year, we’re giving new board members two months to get up to speed on board responsibilities and then participate in a Board Service 101 training session in Boise before we hold officer elections. (We’d do this in Fort Collins, but there’s no time or energy for this after the elections at the conference.) 

I’m hoping this process will create an even more thoughtful and prepared board that can help Meaghan update policies and procedures, provide needed financial and management oversight and prepare SEJ for its fourth decade. 

 

A thank you

And speaking of Meaghan, I’d like to thank her for her leadership and diligence over the last year. Meaghan’s fundraising, dedication and attention to detail are truly phenomenal. She has exceeded our expectations in every way, and I’m confident that SEJ is in good hands for the foreseeable future. 

 

What’s most exciting about SEJ’s future? 

It’s the growing interest from potential SEJ grantees 

and the ever-greater quality of environmental 

journalism we’re seeing these days.

 

Finally, I’d like to thank SEJ members and the board for allowing me to serve as SEJ president for three years — longer than anyone else but SEJ founder Jim Detjen. I’ll be stepping aside as president in December at the Boise retreat, but I plan to continue serving on the board at least through the end of my current term ending in 2021. 

The last three years have been an education for me, and it’s hard to express my excitement about SEJ’s current trajectory. I’ve had the privilege of working with Beth, Chris and Meaghan, and some of the most engaged and energetic board members I could hope for. All have been brimming with ideas and passion for SEJ and environmental journalism. 

What’s most exciting about SEJ’s future? It’s the growing interest from potential SEJ grantees and the ever-greater quality of environmental journalism we’re seeing these days as journalists rise to the challenge of uncovering government corruption and exposing the myriad threats we face amid the climate crisis. 

Here’s to another successful 30 years for SEJ. When I’m 72 and SEJ turns 60, I can’t wait to see what this organization has become. 

Bobby Magill is SEJ president. He covers public lands and energy for Bloomberg Environment, part of Bloomberg Industry Group, in the Washington, D.C., area. 


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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