By Ryan Murphy
The Working Press
For Society of Professional Journalists’ members, the annual Excellence in Journalism conference is about change.
There’s a big change in how national board members are selected. There also has been a change in venue, from downtown in a major city to the near seclusion of a beachfront property on the Atlantic Ocean.
One thing that remains, however, is the continued focus on using technology and the Web in reporting.
Separately, 13 of 32 conference seminars are dedicated to digital issues.
Jeff South, a professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, will lead two seminars on Computer-Assisted Reporting. Learning to use these tools can help journalists find information sources can’t or won’t tell them, he said.
“When journalists think of the web, their first thought is using the web as a place to publish, or maybe to do superficial Googling before an interview,” South said. “CAR is way beyond that; it’s not skimming Wikipedia.”
The Poynter Institute’s 2012 State of the News Media survey found major growth in online news in the past year, coupled with a continued decline in print readership.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors has recorded shrinking newsroom staffs for a decade. That means it’s becoming more important for journalists to be fluent in available tools and platforms as the industry continues to evolve.
“To save journalism, we all must become smarter and better journalists,” South said. “We must be better researchers, and CAR is part of that.”
On the organizational side, SPJ will change how elections for national board positions are conducted. In the past, each chapter sent a delegate, who voted on its behalf at the conference.
At last year’s conference, delegates voted to amend the election procedures. Now, voting will be conducted entirely online and every member can vote.
“This is the first time that a member sitting in Iowa is going to have an opportunity to vote on who they want to see represent them in the organization,” said SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel.
The debate over whether to change the election rules has been going on for more than a decade, Skeel said. Organization’s leaders thought it was finally time for a change.
“The leadership …. felt like everyone within the organization should have a voice,” Skeel said
In past years, a major duty for delegates was to vote in the national officer elections. Besides their single vote as members, delegates will now vote exclusively on resolutions and bylaws changes. There are no the bylaws up for debate this year, however.
Online voting for the national offices began Thursday afternoon and ends at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The results will be announced during Saturday afternoon’s business meeting.
Every new system comes with some concerns, and Skeel expressed his.
“I’m very nervous that the technology is going to come through,” he said. “Once you put it in the hands of the tech folks, you cross your fingers and hope it works.”
But this year’s conference won’t be just about rule changes and board business. Plenty of events will give attendees a chance to let loose or reflect on the industry.
CNN sponsored Thursday’s opening reception on the hotel’s terrace, a setting with views of the Atlantic Ocean, tropical landscaping and the music of Caribbean steel drums.
Saturday’s schedule features another “super session,” a special edition of TV and radio’s “The Kalb Report.” The discussion will focus on the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and how journalists can apply Murrow’s teachings to their work.
The Legal Defense Fund auctions return again this year.
Last year, the silent auction and a separate live auction together raised more than $7,500 for the SPJ Legal Defense Fund.
Items offered at this year’s silent auction include signed photos of Indiana Pacers players Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson. The Washington Post’s commemorative Obama inauguration press plate is up for bid during Saturday’s live auction.
The venue is another major change for this year’s conference, said Chris Vachon, SPJ’s associate executive director and this year’s convention’s principal organizer.
Recent conferences were held in major metropolitan areas like New Orleans, Las Vegas and Indianapolis. This year, everything is happening within the confines of Fort Lauderdale’s Harbor Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, which boasts a private beach, pool, tennis and basketball courts, among other amenities.
“When you are walking through the lobby and you look out the windows of the hotel you immediately see the ocean,” Vachon said. “We are used to being in an urban setting so you really didn’t have windows to look out, and if you did, all you saw was more cement.”
This year’s hotel adds a more relaxed feeling, she said.
“You’ve created just more of a trip for yourself, not just going to a conference,” Vachon said.
Skeel echoed that sentiment.
“We’ll own the hotel for the most part because we’re such a large group, there won’t be room for anyone else,” he said. “I think this conference, more so than any others we’ve had recently, had the opportunity to really be just a gigantic meeting of journalists with no outsiders.
“For me, the marquee event is 1,000 journalists getting together to talk about journalism,” Skeel said.