EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted on September 2, 2020.
The Society of Professional Journalists is hosting its annual Excellence in Journalism conference on a virtual platform for the first time in its history due to the effects of the coronavirus.
The transition to virtual has led to a lower number of conference registrations this year-400 compared to a typical year, which sees over 1000 attendees. Sponsors have continued their support and high profile speakers have been able to participate due to the virtual format.
“We had a goal of 400, and we’re already at that goal a week and a half before the conference,” John Shertzer, the executive director of SPJ, said. “We’re expecting to break our own expectations.”
Shertzer, who was hired less than a year ago, has organized other industry conferences in his previous experience as a nonprofit leader which helped him navigate through the coronavirus.
“Collaboration is one of the most important things you can do in a moment of uncertainty, Shertzer said.”I brought the entire staff team together from the very beginning. We started brainstorming, trying to figure this out together, and be problem solvers.”
During a typical SPJ conference, registration rates can vary hundreds of dollars based on membership level. This year, the rate was reduced to $45 for professionals and $25 for students.
“The thinking behind that was we want more people to attend this year”, Shertzer said.”We did need to create revenue to help the SPJ bottom line, so it couldn’t be a free event, but we did decide to keep it very low.”
Last year EIJ was hosted over three days. It has been shortened to two with the new virtual format.
Shertzer talked with EIJ News about the coronavirus, EIJ 2020, and his first year on the job:
EIJ News: What are some of the challenges that SPJ faced while preparing for this conference?
Shertzer: We had to learn new technology. We’re using Zoom primarily, but we’ve had to learn how to make zoom work for an event like this. We’ve also had to reconfigure how we handle some of our business sessions. Normally at the in-person conference, we would have a session where we’d vote on the business of the organization, elect officers, and do things like that. We’ve had to rethink how we do that. It’s caused us to have to be very creative.
EIJ News: Since SPJ brings in revenue from the conference, how has moving online affected the financials this year compared to last year?
Shertzer: We’re going to see quite a bit of financial revenue from this event simply from sponsorships. It actually won’t be as much of an impact as I thought it might be in transitioning into this new format. The other thing that we were helped by was with the contracts that we had for this year‘s in-person event. We were able to get out of all those pretty much without any issues because of COVID. Generally, we’re gonna be okay at the end and in the long run.
EIJ News: How has SPJ supported its members and chapters during the pandemic?
Shertzer: What we tried to do is a lot of virtual education. We’ve done a lot of webinars. We’ve just tried to keep open lines of communication with our chapters to try to figure out how we can be supportive of them. We definitely will create some new resources for our college chapters once we get through SPJ 2020 so that we can help any of their activities during the fall semester.
EIJ News: With America re-examining systemic racism in the wake of various social justice movements, what Has SPJ done to address diversity in the newsroom?
Shertzer: We do have lots of sessions at SPJ 2020 that are focused around that topic. We’ve done some educational sessions around diversity and those issues. We are trying to think about the organization and what we will do to address this issue proactively into the future. Our strategic plan has diversity threaded throughout our main objectives going forward as an organization.
We do see it as a real primary focus of what we’re going to do as a society. Hopefully from that will come a lot of new ideas and approaches to how to support newsrooms, how to support journalists of color, and how to support our greater society in terms of dealing with these issues.
EIJ News: Are there any workshops at the SPJ Conference that addresses fake news and the scrutiny that journalists are going through?
Shertzer: We have a session on ethics in journalism that influences the issue because the more trustworthy we can make ourselves as a journalism industry, the more we’re able to fight against that charge of fake news or bias in news. One of the key things that we’re featuring this weekend is our Fellows of the Society. These are our Hall of Famers in the journalism world that we every year induct into our Fellows of the Society. One of the things that we’re going to talk with them about is that very issue.
EIJ News: What pushes you to help journalists or students that are striving to be successful in the field?
Shertzer: I believe in our mission, I really do. I think our mission is to protect our first amendment and to support journalists in the work that they do. It’s to help the general public understand the role and value of journalists. Also, the unique challenges of the industry of journalism right now. Journalism is going to look very different in five to ten years and trying to figure out how we adapt is exciting to me.
EIJ News: What do you hope SPJ takes away from the new challenges that they’ve had to experience this year?
Shertzer: SPJ is an organization that needs to change and be open to change. In terms of diversity, our organization needs to look and figure out how do we diversify our memberships. How do we diversify our board, staff? How do we fight for diversity within the industry and the way communities are covered and reported on? Those are things that we also need to address and we’re on our way to doing that. This organization is 111 years old and with that comes a lot of history. It has a strong and solid foundation, but organizations that old sometimes are hesitant to change. Sometimes you have to be pushed a bit, and we have been in 2020.
EIJ News: Where do you see SPJ a year from now?
Shertzer: Our hope is that our conference is an in-person event again in September 2021. We already have the date and location of New Orleans figured out. That’s been under contract and we hope things are clear enough where people are able to travel and attend. If we can’t do it, then we’ll have learned a lot from this year’s experience and try to replicate another virtual conference.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.