In her last hours as the Society of Professional Journalists’ president-elect, Rebecca Baker discussed her plans for the organization with the EIJ News Team.
Tell us about your background with SPJ?
I joined the Connecticut chapter in the year 2000 first as a member, then as a board member. Then I became board secretary, and then I got a job in New York, so I joined the New York Deadline Club as secretary, and then I rose up to be awards contest chair, events chair, first vice president and then president of the deadline club. From there, I was encouraged to join the national board, and I became regional director for Region 1, which is the Northeast U.S. One out of six SPJ members do live in Region 1. From there I went, what it’s called, on the ladder: secretary-treasurer, president-elect and, tonight, president.
Tell us about the platform you ran on?
I ran unopposed for president-elect. My goal was then as it is now: outreach. The current president had a focus to improve communications, and that was something I very much supported … and that was very much needed.
Expand a little bit more on “community outreach.”
The question is how can the media gain and regain and retain the trust of the people we have and regain the trust of the people we lost. I think part of it is doing our job: going out and being an ethical reporter every day, reporting the news, reporting the facts, doing this passionately. But I also think there’s more that journalists can do, and more that SPJ as an organization can do.
I’ve started three initiatives. The one that I have created is an outreach committee, and it is chaired by a former academic. The members are representative of each of the six major committees in SPJ: FOIA, diversity, awards, journalism education, so on and so forth. One member of each committee is going to be on there, and it is essentially a coordinating committee … to identify ways SPJ can start an outreach effort — a community effort.
For example, is there something that our diversity committee and education committee can do together as an outreach project? For too long, those committees have worked in silos. Some things those committees still have to do individually. … But there are many, many ways these committees can work together. The outreach committee is going to help them with outreach.
The other part is that I’m going to challenge every chapter in SPJ to hold a town hall — a community forum — and to partner with a good government group like League of Women Voters or Common Cause, whatever good government group is in their area, and to make it a public forum, a public meeting to talk about the news.
Where do people get their news? What do they like, and what don’t they like? Was there something that caused them to mistrust the news? What do they think news can do to regain its footing if they think they’ve lost it at all? I think if each chapter takes it as a project, we’re going to have tremendous outreach, and it’ll show that SPJ is working to help strengthen the public’s perception of journalism.
The third thing is that our education committee is starting a project called Press for Education, and the Press for Education Project is a project where we are going to work with schools all over the country and have journalists — SPJ members — go into high schools and middle schools and maybe even elementary schools, some of the older kids, and talk about being a reporter or being an editor or being a photographer or being a web designer…
Maybe we’ll inspire some kid in the class to be a journalist, or, at the very least, maybe we’ll give them a little bit of understanding about how news is produced, written, broadcast, created. I think that, as a public education aspect, we already have several teachers who are opening up their classrooms who have some forward through our social media campaign, Press for Education, that are saying, ‘Yes, we really want you in our classroom.’ As we are taking off on this, we’re hoping it’ll be sort of a snowball effect and more and more will come. Our goal is to go into 100 schools throughout the next year, so here’s hoping.
Last night at the RTDNA ceremony, Jake Tapper said that this is the “golden age of journalism.” What are your thoughts on that?
I think journalism is seeing a golden age, especially in political reporting. This White House is unlike any other in our history. I think this White House is one of the “leakiest” that we’ve seen in a very, very long time, and reporters are uncovering more and more stories every single day.
I think journalism throughout the country continues to struggle financially. There are amazing, dedicated, hard-working reporters, editors, photographers, creators of words and images all over the place, and they’re working hard because there’s fewer of them. The great thing about SPJ is that, as hard as journalism can be, SPJ can make it easier. We’re offering the training, the networking, to help you get a job and keep the job. We’re championing ethics that will help foster and underpin the public’s trust in what our members and what all journalists do. I think this organization can play a significant part in that…
With all that being said, there are still young people becoming journalists and joining SPJ. What would you say to people just starting out in this field?
Keep at it — don’t lose faith. This is a hard job; it’s going to be long hours, especially early in your career. Your pay isn’t going to be great, but if you keep at it, it’s one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. Even if you don’t spend your career as a journalist — even if you do journalism for five years or longer or shorter than that, I think that you are contributing to a public service by being a journalist, and that’s something to always keep in mind.
Journalists are public servants who aren’t on the public payroll but are performing a public service every single day. Many times, we are also first responders, and we are seeing that with the incredibly brave and dedicated journalists in Texas and soon in Florida, and in all over the country when there’s disaster, natural or otherwise, happening. Journalists are putting their lives on the line, putting themselves in physical danger on a routine basis to report the stories. I think if the public realizes that and sees that, respect for the profession will grow.
Is there anything else that your organization should know about you?
I’m a career newspaperwoman, which is a rare commodity these days. I’ve put my entire life into newspapers, but of course, it’s a newspaper website or digital-first like every other organization today. We’re basically a website with a newspaper that goes along with it, and it’s a very exciting time. I’ve seen journalism change so much in my 20-odd years, some very odd years at times, and the times that we are in are just tremendous. Journalists have more access to information through the internet. Technology has improved phenomenally since I started as a reporter many, many years ago.
I think, as many other businesses, journalists definitely have to do more with less: less resources, less colleagues to help them. But I think the opportunities, especially for the young journalists, are there, and this new generation is so technologically savvy and passionate and dedicated, and I think that journalism is going to be in good hands.