SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference • Sept. 12-13, 2020



Watchdog option dropped, surprising advocates, leaders

By Billy O'Keefe

By Josephine Varnier
SPJ struck Project Watchdog from the activities chapters can conduct to earn star ratings.
This is because the committee has been inactive for two years and no longer exists.
Surprised?
You’re not alone.
Rachel Haugo, Iowa Pro Chapter president, said her chapter hadn’t done a Project Watchdog in a couple of years, but had no idea that it had been dropped.
Michael Koretzky, director at-large on the SPJ Board of Directors, also had no idea the project had been eliminated.
Frank Gibson, chairman of the committee in 1989, also was uninformed.
“I don’t think that there’s been a time in recent history when a program like that is more needed,” Gibson said.
Project Watchdog began as a $1 million campaign to educate the public about the importance of the free press in America and media credibility, said Gibson.
The program has not existed since September 2008, when then-President Dave Aeikens disbanded it.
Funds left over from the campaign for Project Watchdog were used to create Project Sunshine, which focuses on Freedom of Information issues at state and local levels.
“It is what we need, but we don’t need it as ‘Project Watchdog,’” said Stephenie Overman, the last chairperson for the committee. “Why do we need to keep calling it ‘Project Watchdog’ when it’s being done elsewhere?”
Overman, as well as Aeikens and President-Elect Kevin Z. Smith, said that with the existence of the Freedom of Information and Public Outreach committees, Project Watchdog was redundant.
“The wording in the chapter reports wasn’t corrected,” said Smith. The project “was morphed into the Public Outreach program.”
Then-SPJ President Christine Tatum launched Public Outreach in 2007 to focus on the Society’s marketing and promotions.
But what does the end of Project Watchdog mean for chapters that continued to participate, uninformed of the change?
“If anyone did the Project Watchdog program, or will, in the future, they would still get credit for it,” said Jeremy Steele, Region 4 director on the SPJ Board of Directors. “It fits in with the SPJ philosophy … if chapters want to continue in Watchdog activities, they can — and I would encourage them to.”
Overman said, “It had run its course … but it’s not that we didn’t care about being a watchdog.”




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