SPJ board endorses revised sponsorship policy on task force’s recommendation

"Chicago" by Nick Moulds is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

To Chicago Headline Club members and our sister chapters across the US :

I’ve been asked to provide an update on the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) sponsorship task force and our unanimous recommendation to update the organization’s policy.

In short, the SPJ board endorsed this recommendation on April 18, which is a significant step forward. 

The revised policy can be read here (see Pages 72-74 of the Feb 1. agenda) or at the bottom of this post.

At the heart of the matter is:
Through its annual, co-hosted Excellence in Journalism convention, SPJ has taken money and allowed programming from sources that have attacked journalists, spread misinformation and worked to undermine public trust in journalism. The lack of transparency and shadowy funding of some of these groups is even more distressing. Taking money from these sources is inconsistent with our core values and makes us look bad. 

Click here for a history of past sponsorship conflicts.

Chapters that signed on to support the new policy are:
Deadline Club of New York
Los Angeles Pro Chapter
Washington DC Pro Chapter
The Chicago Headline Club
Northern California (SPJ NorCal or San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento)
Detroit Pro Chapter
Bluegrass Pro Chapter (Kentucky)
Indiana Pro Chapter
Oregon Pro Chapter
East Tennessee SPJ
Northwest Arkansas Pro 
San Diego Pro Chapter
SPJ Virginia Pro 
SPJ Florida Pro
Louisville Pro Chapter

The sponsorship task force—composed of people with vastly different views—unanimously voted to approve a new sponsorship policy tied to SPJ’s core values and mission statement. It is content neutral and doesn’t consider political ideology, but instead focuses on the behavior of potential sponsors. It is (heavily) based on the Online News Association’s (ONA’s) own existing sponsorship policy (which also credited SPJ’s past policies as an influence). 

The revised policy has broad support from chapters across the nation and members are angry that this is still an issue. It will go before the membership for a vote at the next convention, whatever form that takes.

On April 18, the SPJ board endorsed this recommendation after a brief debate. Watch below to see SPJ President-elect Matt Hall and task force chair Nerissa Young speak passionately and articulately about the process and the new proposed policy.

This positive step forward and a show of leadership from the board, which previously did not welcome the new policy in its Feb. 1 meeting (see below).

This is a significant change because past boards have opposed or been indifferent to calls for action from the SPJ membership on this issue.

As I wrote above, the revised policy will go before the membership for a vote at the next convention—that vote matters most. While the task force’s recommendation didn’t require an endorsement from the board, it was important that the SPJ board recognized the outrage of its members and aligned itself with the membership’s views on this matter.

Below, read the revised policy and the task force’s memo to the SPJ board.

SPJ Sponsorship Policy
Submitted by SPJ Sponsorship Task Force on Jan. 27, 2020
Vote: 9-0

The Society of Professional Journalists — at conventions and other events — will seek sponsors, partners, exhibitors and advertisers that are consistent with its mission to encourage the free practice of journalism, foster diversity and stimulate high standards of ethical behavior.                                                                                                            

The goal of such arrangements will be to enhance, and not to tarnish, SPJ’s credibility and image. As the nation’s premier professional journalism organization, SPJ seeks to protect the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the news media.

Sponsorships, partnerships, exhibitors and advertisers from both media and non-media entities will generally be accepted from individuals, corporations, foundations or other entities, with the following limitations:

  • Any funds that violate federal, state or local laws, statutes or ordinances.
  • Any funder and/or closely affiliated entity that promotes or supports acts against journalism, journalists or freedom of expression.
  • Any funder and/or closely affiliated entity that does not properly investigate claims of discrimination or harassment involving the entity.
  • Any funder and/or closely affiliated entity that actively and intentionally engages in disinformation or propaganda campaigns against journalism or journalists.

Sponsors, exhibitors and advertisers may propose program ideas but not panelists or speakers. No sponsor, exhibitor or advertiser shall provide speaking fees or cover expenses for participants. SPJ may choose, in certain circumstances, to fund in part or whole speaker fees or expenses. Ultimately, the SPJ board will assume responsibility for participants and topics. 

SPJ’s executive director will review each contract before it is accepted. 

SPJ reserves the right to refuse any proposed sponsor, partner, exhibitor or advertiser for any reason.

This policy applies to national SPJ events, whether SPJ is a sole sponsor or a co-sponsor. Local and regional SPJ leaders will be encouraged but not required to apply it to their programs and conferences.

Note: This policy is adapted from the Online News Association Sponsorship, Donor and Gift policy, Elevated Effect and Society of Professional Journalists previous sponsorship policy.


To: SPJ Board of Directors
From: SPJ Sponsorship Task Force
Date: Jan. 27, 2020

Re: Proposed SPJ Sponsorship Policy

This task force was formed from a resolution approved at the 2019 EIJ Conference in San Antonio to consider concerns raised in the business session about the impact on SPJ’s membership and reputation regarding sponsors.

This proposal is adapted from the Online News Association and Elevated Effect, and we see value in being consistent with other like-minded organizations. It is worth noting the ONA policy credits a previous SPJ policy.

To inform its discussion and proposal, the task force wrote and distributed — with assistance from SPJ HQ staff — two surveys that were active Dec. 9 to Dec. 22. The first was sent to those whose membership had lapsed within the previous 14 months. The second was sent to members. Both surveys sought opinions about all collaborations. While neither survey yielded enough responses to be statistically viable, responses did point to some themes: concerns about collaboration with entities that are not like-minded and a desire that conferences include collaboration with other professional journalism organizations, among others.

The raw data from both surveys is attached to this report. Other themes emerged including membership renewal processes that may indicate a better data management system is needed to help HQ staff track memberships, among others. While those are not the purview of this task force, the SPJ board is encouraged to review all the responses and consider what was shared so as to aid the Society in its work.

The task force considered and debated these concerns and determined that any proposed policy should incorporate SPJ’s missions of the free practice of journalism, fostering diversity, stimulating high standards of ethical behavior and vigilance in protecting the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free news media. Therefore, those with whom SPJ affiliates itself should demonstrate values that align with SPJ’s.

The task force also debated the merits of having one standard that applies to the national convention and other standards or no standards that apply to other SPJ events or branding: long-term training partnerships such as Google or Facebook, single events organized from the national level, positions on matters of importance to the Society, etc. The task force voted 4-3 that Kant’s Categorical Imperative be applied as ethical guidance in dealing with sponsors, partners, exhibitors and advertisers: what is right for one is right for all. SPJ should be mindful of any act that could undermine its mission or reputation.

The task force included partnerships in the policy — conferences and events conducted with other professional journalism organizations. Members who responded to the survey indicated that programming is stronger when two or more professional organizations present the conference. We also noted that data provided by SPJ HQ proved that attendance is higher when SPJ joins with other professional organizations at EIJ. Some members of the task force said such collaboration would decrease the likelihood that they would have to choose attending the SPJ conference over a second organization to which they belong or vice versa. This is the time to pursue other partnerships since we do not have a partner after EIJ 2020. 

Survey respondents listed many such partner organizations, so the board has a long list from which to start.

Finally, task force members engaged in passionate debate during this process. Although members came in with very specific ideas, all members ultimately put the good of the Society before themselves. For this reason, the task force requests that the board allow it to remain engaged in the process should the board decide to make substantive changes to the proposed policy.

Respectfully submitted by:

  • Nerissa Young, task force chairwoman
  • Joel Bellman, Los Angeles chapter board member
  • Rebecca David, former Diversity Fellow
  • Colin DeVries, Membership Committee chairman and vice president of the Deadline Club
  • Robert K. Elder, Chicago Headline Club president & Chief Digital Officer, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
  • Matthew T. Hall, SPJ president-elect
  • Larry Messing, ex officio, SPJ HQ
  • Maria Ortiz-Briones, Membership Committee member, Ted Scripps Leadership Institute alum and former Diversity Fellow
  • Andy Schotz, Awards and Honors Committee vice chairman, Ethics Committee member
  • Rebecca Tallent, Wells Key recipient, former Diversity Fellow, former Journalism Education Committee chairwoman and former Ethics Committee member