SEJ President’s Report: The Path Ahead — New ED Hire Should Draw on Honest Reflections of Lessons Past
By Bobby Magill
SEJ is about to begin a search for a new executive director for the second time in about two years. We’re going to be conducting the search at a time when both the press and the environment are under attack and are undergoing radical changes.
As environmental journalists, we’ve got a lot to cover and a lot of challenges facing us in terms of an ever-shifting industry at a time when the work we do is more critical than ever.
I want SEJ’s next executive director to understand that, draw energy from our place in history and parlay the challenges we face into funder support based on the idea that SEJ’s mission to support environmental journalism and educate the public is an antidote to threats to the climate, public health, air quality, water quality and a free press.
But before I talk more about how we’ll find our new ED, let’s look at how we got here.
Looking back at last search
At SEJ’s 2015 conference in Norman, Okla., our 25-year executive director, Beth Parke, informed the SEJ Board of Directors of her decision to retire. The board had discussed possible succession plans for Beth, and her announcement kicked off a nearly year-long process of conducting an extensive search for a new ED.
SEJ’s personnel policies, which date from the 1990s, stipulate that only the board’s executive committee — president, two vice presidents, treasurer and secretary — is to search and screen applicants for ED and then make a recommendation to the board. But the board overlooked that requirement — wisely, I think — and opened the hiring process to SEJ members at large. When the board met in Dallas in April 2016, we created a seven-member search committee, which included four board members and three non-board members.
When the committee launched its ED search, it faced some unusual deadlines. Beth wanted to retire by the end of 2016. The lease on SEJ’s headquarters in Jenkintown, Penn., was set to expire in mid-2017, and the board wanted to bring ED finalists to our 2016 annual conference in Sacramento so we could interview them and give them a chance to experience our biggest event of the year.
The board saw the expiring Jenkintown lease as an opportunity to consider moving SEJ’s headquarters to a more strategic location and possibly consider a university partnership that might allow SEJ to benefit from being housed on a university campus. So, we sent out partnership proposal requests to universities, and by the end of 2016, the response was overwhelming.
All of this meant several things: The committee had about six months from April 2016 to conduct its search and narrow down candidates before Sacramento. But because we didn’t know where our headquarters would have to be or if we’d be hooking up with a university, prospective ED candidates didn’t know where or if they’d have to move to take the position or how any partnership would affect the role of ED. There was a strong preference on the board for relocating SEJ’s headquarters to D.C., but the board considered offering the right candidate the option to work from home. The job ad announced that the SEJ headquarters may move soon to an undecided location.
In the end, the committee received 64 applications for the job, and after months of discussion and negotiation, it narrowed the pool to four candidates whom the board interviewed on the Wednesday of the Sacramento conference.
Hiring a journalist, or a fundraiser?
I was elected SEJ president the following Saturday in Sacramento, and it seemed the board was nearing a decision. We still had to engage in additional information gathering and discussion concerning the finalists’ individual qualifications and visions for SEJ.
In October 2016, I asked the board to consider the final two candidates in addition to the possibility of starting the search from scratch. Given the deadlines looming and the strength of the finalists, there was little support for beginning a new search, so we pressed ahead with our finalists.
Among the points of contention all throughout the process was whether SEJ should hire a journalist or a fundraiser as ED. A journalist would “get” our jobs, SEJ’s mission, our values and the challenges we face. A fundraiser would learn all of that while using their connections and deep understanding of the philanthropic landscape to lure in the millions SEJ needs to survive and grow.
We chose to hire a fundraiser — Melisa Klem. To ensure Melisa would “get” SEJ, late board member Lizzie Grossman led an effort to create an SEJ “Brain Trust” for her — a committee of longtime SEJ members and those with a lifetime of experience in our profession who could help Melisa read members’ best reporting and relate a lifetime of SEJ history and journalism values to Melisa over a series of meetings.
We allowed Melisa to work from home, and after she began work for us in January, Beth stayed on to help with the transition, initially for three months. At Melisa’s request, the board extended Beth’s work agreement with SEJ so she could work part-time to help Melisa with fundraising, first until July and then until the end of 2017.
Headquarters move to DC saves budget
The board temporarily settled the SEJ headquarters question at Melisa’s first board meeting last January in Washington, D.C. In part because the board couldn’t fully agree on university partnerships, we agreed to shut down the Jenkintown office and open a virtual headquarters in a K Street “hotel” space in D.C. — a decision we required the board to revisit in early 2018 and one that will appear on our upcoming board meeting agenda.
Any strategic advantage of having
an office in D.C. remains unclear,
and we’ll be restarting that discussion in January.
The “hotel” space is a legal address for SEJ with offices staff can reserve as needed. No SEJ staff actually have a permanent office there.
The decision to use “hotel” space saved SEJ a lot of money. Our monthly rent for the Jenkintown office, which finally shut its doors in July, totaled just under $3,000 per month, including utilities. The K Street space and home-based employees cost SEJ about $300, including a separate storage unit. You can see the savings.
Regardless, any strategic advantage of having an office in D.C. remains unclear, and we’ll be restarting that discussion in January.
With Melisa on board this year working with Beth and our tireless staff, SEJ held a successful workshop in Dallas thanks to funding from Trammell Crow, the board met in Seattle for a strategic planning retreat and our Pittsburgh conference was among our very best. We solidified the University of Michigan-Flint as the host of Environmental Journalism 2018, which is shaping up to be one of the most unique and newsworthy conferences in SEJ history.
Thanks to our growing relationships with major funders and partners, including the Walton Family Foundation and Colorado State University, we’ve made headway on bringing SEJ back to our roots in Colorado in 2019 — an effort Susan Moran and I helped to spearhead as far back as 2012. Those relationships are also helping us to support greater coverage of public lands in the West and to hold training workshops for journalists, possibly focused on climate resilience, environmental health in low-income communities and public lands.
Observations on how to proceed with new hire
Melisa resigned in November — a critical moment for us to reflect on lessons learned and how to proceed from here. The board faced an extraordinarily complex puzzle over the last two years. We had to make all of these major decisions in the right order at the right time, and the path through that isn't perfectly clear when you’re in the middle of it.
Though the first search process was challenging, each of us on the board put forth our best, most earnest effort to get all of the decisions we had to make right the first time. I think all of us worked together as a collegial team, bringing a high level of integrity to the decision-making process. In hindsight, of course, we could have done some things differently.
This is my take on how to proceed based on the experience of the last two years — observations more than criticisms:
First, the board needs to ensure that the finalists are right for SEJ and be willing to start a search from scratch if necessary, regardless of an upcoming conference and an expiring lease.
A committee composed of three board members
and four non-board SEJ members is more apt
to represent the interests and ideas of the membership.
Second, the board needs to more effectively prioritize its decision-making. Decisions about partnering with a university and the location of SEJ’s headquarters should be entirely separate from the hiring of a new ED. Both decisions are huge, each with separate and possibly seismic implications for SEJ. The board allowed these decisions to be somewhat intertwined, each affecting the other to some degree. We shouldn’t repeat that mistake.
Third, the board needs to be firm on where the new ED will have to live. In my view, uncertain geography severely hamstrung the search and reduced SEJ’s pool of candidates. This time, we should either agree that the ED will work from home or have to move to D.C., where we’ve set up our official office.
Fourth, the board should listen carefully to its instincts. Every board member’s passion for SEJ came through in the first search process, and it’s critical that in the second search — and, indeed, in all our actions — the board should bend over backward to be as thoughtful as possible and listen to each other about the direction of our decision-making.
Finally, I think we got it right the first time with the makeup of the seven-member search committee. They really did their best, and they were the strongest part of the first search process. I think the three at-large SEJ members serving on the committee did a superb job representing the membership and the insights, experience and dedication they brought together to fulfill an imperfect mandate illustrates SEJ at its very best. The weaknesses in the first search rest with the board, not the search committee.
On Dec. 11, the board decided to take a different path with the new search committee.
Depending on board approval early next year of a major personnel policy change that officially allows for this, the new committee will be dominated by SEJ members who do not sit on the board. The thinking is that a committee composed of three board members and four non-board SEJ members is more apt to represent the interests and ideas of the membership than a committee composed mostly of elected board members. The board also made this move to engender greater trust in the executive director hiring process, even though to do so the board will be required to make significant changes to decades-old personnel policies and alter the role of the executive committee in the operation of SEJ.
Each board member has a unique perspective on the lessons we’ve learned over the last two years, and I encourage you to ask them for their take on how we arrived here and where to go next.
I’m confident that the final shape of the SEJ ED Search Committee will send the board a stellar slate of finalists to choose from, and I’m just as confident that the board will use our experience over the last two years to hire an ED who will bring in the funding SEJ needs to grow amid an uncertain future for journalism.
I’m confident that if the person we hire is not a journalist, he or she will be someone whose keen interest in open government, the environment and our profession will inspire a willingness to learn about SEJ’s history and culture, and become as much a part of it as they are an agent of positive, respectful change.
SEJ President Bobby Magill will begin covering energy for Bloomberg BNA in January in Washington, D.C. Until August, he was a senior science writer for Climate Central in New York.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 47. 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.