Minutes from the Nov. 11 Board Meeting

The Arkansas Pro Chapter board of directors met on Monday, Nov. 11, at Mugs Cafe in North Little Rock. Attending were President Eric Francis, Vice President John Lyon, John Thompson, Sonny Rhodes, and Sonny Alborado. Here’s what we talked about.

1) Board Vacancy: As previously announced, Andrew DeMillo has departed the board after years of exceptional service. We now have at least two places to fill; the bylaws call for the board to be made up of four officers (president, VP, secretary, treasurer), plus seven non-officer board members. We have five non-officer members currently, and the board wants to find at least two new members, one of them a journalism student. If you would like to join the board, or to learn more about the board’s responsibilities, contact President Eric Francis by e-mail, Eric.Francis@yahoo.com, with “Arkansas Pro Board” in the subject line.

Francis also asked the sitting board members to each identify someone they think would make a good successor for their seat in the event they had to suddenly leave the board, so there would be a pool of potential members if the need arose. All board vacancies will be advertised to the membership in general before a selection is made. Any dues-paying SPJ member in Arkansas can serve on the board.

2) Programming Suggestions: There is a recognized need to offer more programming to our members, both for educational and recreational purposes. Secretary Sarah Morris had previously presented some suggestions, based on ideas discussed during the national convention earlier this year.

Scrabble on Speed – A Scrabble tournament with teams of two (randomly assigned), where each time has only 30 seconds to select and play a word and the game is limited to 5 minutes. Winning team gets a prize and covers themselves in glory. This will be held at a bar or restaurant where players can have some drinks and visit as they get eliminated.

Monthly Constitutional – Since quite a few journos seem to walk, jog, or run for exercise, Morris proposed getting together once a month for a group outing. We’ll meet at a starting point with plenty of parking, a good trail, and proximity to coffee and breakfast after we’re done.

Mock Trial Coverage – Stage a trial, complete with plaintiff, defendant, witnesses, lawyers, and a judge. Journalists watch the trial, then after the verdict have a limited amount of time to get interviews and produce a story. Veteran editors will read and critique the stories.

Board member Sonny Alborado also suggested a libel training program in conjunction with the Arkansas Press Association. We would bring in experts in the field of libel and educate journalists on the law, the most common causes of libel suits, and how to avoid them. 

The board found favor with all of these ideas and will be making plans for implementing some of them in the near future.

3) Joint Training with the Legal Profession: Francis reported on a meeting he had with Stephanie Harris, communications counsel for the Arkansas Supreme Court. Harris had proposed organizing a joint training event with members of the journalism and legal communities to cover areas of interest to both. For example, the Freedom of Information Act and Administrative Order 19 – the latter of which is a Supreme Court rule that dictates what information can and cannot be disclosed and which supersedes the FOIA in some cases. Harris felt like the two groups, which so often work in an adversarial relationship, would benefit from a better understanding of how each other work and she hoped this would lead to a better working relationship between the legal community and the media. She also proposed having a purely social event where journalists and lawyers could get together and discuss issues in an environment that was “off the record.”

The board liked the idea of the joint educational venture, but some concerns were voiced in terms of holding an “off the record” social event. Alborado worried about a blanket promise not to say anything because it could compromise a lot of people and also ran counter to the idea of transparency. Vice President Lyon suggested that the participating journalists could simply agree not to interview anyone or ask about ongoing cases, a suggestion that met with general approval from other board members. John Thompson suggested that under such conditions, it might encourage judges and lawyers to bring up specific instances where they felt poor journalism had been done, allowing both groups to work out differences. The board directed Francis to continue discussing the ideas with Harris.

4) Francis reported that the SPJ Ethics Committee has asked pro chapters to review the Code of Ethics and get back with comments and suggestions – what works or doesn’t; what’s missing; what needs to be changed or removed – by December. He will send any comments to the Ethics Committee chair.

5) Contest Changes: The board discussed changes to the annual journalism contest that had been proposed previously by Francis. Currently, the contest covers a calendar year, and in the spring entries are received, judges are located, entires are distributed, results are tabulated, and the awards banquet is held. However, this has proven unwieldy in recent years, in part because almost every SPJ chapter (and a number of other journalism organizations) hold their contests on the same calendar, meaning everyone else is also looking for judges and trying to meet deadlines; in addition, it conflicts with the Arkansas General Assembly session and, in alternating years, primary election season, which makes it difficult for some board members to assist with the contest. Francis suggested shifting the eligibility period for the contest to the fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30; then entries would be collected in mid-summer, judging would happen in late summer, and the banquet held late summer or early fall. The idea met with general approval of the board, with the observation that if it didn’t work out the contest could be changed back. The board voted unanimously to make the change.

Another issue discussed was the need for an online system for submitting entries, making payments, and judging. Francis said he was determined to have a system in place well before it was time to judge the 2014 contest. The board agreed to the necessity and Francis said he would report back on options after visiting with the SPJ’s national contest advisor, Michael Koretzky.

Sonny Rhodes pointed out that the Arkansas Pro Chapter’s annual college scholarships had traditionally been presented during the awards banquet in the spring for students to use the following fall. The board agreed that awards could still be made in the spring and that recognition could be given at a fall banquet, or at a separate event in the spring.

6) Other Business: Thompson, reflecting on the suggestion that we hold training for journalists to learn about the courts and libel, noted that there are other areas where he feels like such training is needed, such as coverage of business and finance. He said he’d seen some articles where the subject matter appeared to be “thinly understood” by those doing the reporting, and suggested that the chapter look into setting up a training session with the UALR School of Business. The board concurred and the issue will be further looked into and a report made at a later meeting. He also suggested the board see if the Central Arkansas Library System had a video of the presentation by Harvard professor John Patterson on “Knowledge-Based Journalism,” made at this year’s Arkansas Literary Festival, and make it available to the membership. Francis said he’d check with some librarians he knows to see if it was available.

Alborado noted that at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13, the SPJ will hold an online chat about the proposal to change the name of the organization from the Society of Professional Journalists to the Society for Professional Journalism, an item raised at the national conference earlier this year and currently under study. Anyone interested in listening to, or taking part in, the discussion can log onto the chat from SPJ.org; look for the blog page about the name change proposal and the link will be at the top. All SPJ members will also receive a survey in the future about the proposed name change.

There being no further business, the board adjourned.

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