By Sommer Ingram
Joe Skeel had big plans when he took over as executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2009.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done in just 12 months,” Skeel said. “But there’s just so much more.”
In his first year, Skeel and his team laid the groundwork for member engagement through more progressive media methods, including launching the BlogTalk Radio show and eCampus, an online program that breaks curriculum down into video vignettes.
“These are just more ways we can reach out and engage our members and let them know ‘We’re walking with you as you move through your career,’ ” Skeel said. “Our goal is to continue to expand on these things so we are continually meeting the needs of members.”
Skeel, 39, has big shoes to fill as the successor to longtime executive director Terry Harper, who died last June after a two-year fight with brain cancer. Harper served from 2002 to 2009 and promoted professional development training at the local level.
Skeel served as interim co-executive director with Chris Vachon, associate executive director, and had been managing the organization for five to six months before his official appointment. Working closely with the board for so long in this capacity made the transition to executive director nearly seamless.
“With the passing of Terry Harper, who was an excellent asset to SPJ, I had the unfortunate opportunity to take on this role,” Skeel said. “I knew our initiatives, I knew the direction the board wanted to go.”
Hagit Limor, SPJ president-elect, said Skeel made the transition from staff member to leading the staff effortlessly and in a way that left his 11 colleagues pleased.
“I think Joe showed leadership, creativity and a fun spirit, and mixed them in a way that not only stabilized, but grew SPJ,” Limor said. “Anytime you make a transition in any organization, there is a possibility that some people won’t be able to adjust but it seems like the staff has adjusted more than well. I think he is poised to grow SPJ even further next year.”
Skeel, who spent eight years working at small Indiana community newspapers, has been a part of SPJ for five years. He left the traditional newspaper industry in 2005 to become the editor of SPJ’s national magazine, The Quill — a change Skeel welcomed as an opportunity to spend more time with his two sons, Isaac and Noah. Skeel and his family live in Franklin, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis.
As a community newspaper journalist, Skeel had the chance to work in a variety of roles, from reporting to designing to online production.
The ability to be involved in every area is something Skeel valued about smaller newsrooms, and an aspect he found that carries over into his current job as executive director.
“I want to be involved in all of the aspects, so that’s probably why I like my current job so much,” he said.
Skeel spent much of his first year as executive director digging in at the ground level to ensure that his staff understood his initiatives. He described his role as that of a manager responsible for implementation of goals, but said he has a place in the big picture visions as well.
“My job is to make sure the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted,” Skeel said. “But one thing I like most about this job is that I get the opportunity to get away from hashing out the budget and actually think about where journalism will be in the future, and what SPJ’s role in that will be.”
For the coming year, Skeel hopes to develop partnerships with other journalism organizations, such as the Native American Journalists Association, build on social media efforts and poise SPJ for possible international collaborations.
After the opening of SPJ’s first international chapter in Qatar just weeks ago, Skeel said the organization needs to prepare for the time where more international expansion is unavoidable. However, SPJ’s code of ethics may come into conflict with traditions of other countries.
“At that point we have to ask ourselves if we cater to different cultures, or do we say, ‘Here’s who we are and what we stand for,’ and if they disagree, maybe we aren’t a good fit,” Skeel said.
From his arrival on Friday, two days before the convention began, Skeel has been going nonstop with meetings and events starting as early as 8 a.m. and going as late as 9:30 p.m. Though he calls it the most physically and mentally demanding week of the year, the SPJ convention is still his favorite time of the year.
“Since our headquarters are in Indiana, the staff doesn’t get to see members very often,” Skeel said. “This is sometimes the only opportunity we have to engage our members and talk with them.”
Skeel said none of what has been done so far could have happened without the help of his staff.
“There is no way I could have had as successful of a first year without the staff I had,” he said. “At a time when money is tight, SPJ never had to take a line of credit and could weather this storm without raising membership dues. And that’s a credit to the leadership and staff of this organization who all hold a similar vision of what SPJ is and where we need to go.”
Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ president, worked closely with Skeel for the past year and said Skeel has become someone he counts on for his level of professionalism and his advice.
“I think he’s very knowledgeable about SPJ and about journalism,” Smith said. “It is very evident to me and has become clear to the board that we made the right decision in hiring Joe as our executive director.”