The president’s take

This is SPJ President John Ensslin’s explanation of why Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky was asked to remove a blog post about a University of Georgia student press issue. And this is the letter Ensslin wrote to the student newspaper board expressing SPJ’s concerns.

As I suspected, there was a misunderstanding between Ensslin and Koretzky about the purpose of a fact-finding trip Koretzky arranged to gather information about the University of Georgia dispute. Koretzky said he told Ensslin about the trip as a courtesy. Ensslin said he was counting on Koretzky to report back to him so SPJ could formulate an official statement and didn’t like that Koretzky posted something on his own first.

Both approaches in this case have merit (quick and punchy; deliberate and thorough), but Koretzky is right that it’s strange for SPJ to be silent on a controversy as it’s unfolding, then issue a statement a few days after it was resolved.

I don’t think reaction and commentary needed to be either/or.

I go back to a central point in the dispute: whether Koretzky’s post could be interpreted as representing SPJ as a whole. I didn’t read it that way. But, by all means, add a “This is one person’s opinion” disclaimer, if it would help.

A contrast in styles

A battle over prior review and editorial freedom at The Red & Black, an independent school newspaper at the University of Georgia, apparently has ended.

A separate conflict within SPJ that developed along the way still lingers.

Michael Koretzky, SPJ’s director for Region 3, which includes Georgia, sent Katherine Tippins, a journalist, to the University of Georgia last week to investigate what was happening and report back. Koretzky posted and commented on her findings.

According to Koretzky, SPJ President John Ensslin, who knew about Tippins’ trip, asked him to take the blog post down. Koretzky protested on his Region 3 blog and his personal blog.

I wondered if there had been a misunderstanding between them about whether Tippins was an emissary for SPJ as a whole or for Koretzky as the regional director.

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This is actually my third attempt to comment on this conflict on my blog. My second try was Tuesday morning, but I waited so I could hear Ensslin’s side. I’m glad I did. He emailed it to me Tuesday night; it’s posted below.

As I suspected, Koretzky and Ensslin had different expectations.

Koretzky says he arranged the trip and mentioned it as a courtesy to Ensslin, who seemed to approve.

Ensslin wanted a thorough investigation and a reasoned response from SPJ as a whole. He thought Koretzky agreed on that plan.

Koretzky didn’t. He told me he would have “politely declined” and found someone else to help if the plan was to wait for an SPJ statement at some unknown future date.
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I read Koretzky’s post before he shifted it to his personal blog. It was blunt and lively, as is his style. I interpreted the comments to be his own, and not presented as an official SPJ position. I saw nothing wrong with it, but knew it would make some people bristle.
As a journalist whose career started at an independent college newspaper, I was interested in what unfolded in Georgia. Koretzky’s post, based on Tippins’ research, helped me understand the dynamics, even though it came with a point of view.
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I wondered: What freedoms and boundaries do regional directors have?

They are elected by a small percentage of the members of their region – whoever attends the regional meetings at the national convention. For Region 2, that might mean maybe 30 people deciding an RD on behalf of at least several hundred. (This year’s switch to One Member, One Vote will improve that process.)

As members of the national board, RDs are sometimes placed on committees or assigned tasks. That might mean reporting to the president, as Koretzky quoted Ensslin saying in their exchange.

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It’s worth noting that Koretzky and Tippins acted quickly, something SPJ – anchored by volunteers with busy lives – doesn’t always do. (I include myself in that category).
The need for speed has long been debated in SPJ. I heard that criticism when I was chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee. We were an opinionated, deliberative bunch. Some critics saw us as talking too much among ourselves and not enough to the outside world.
During my time on the committee, an SPJ officer once urged us to get comments out quickly on journalism ethics issues, so SPJ could be part of the “news cycle.”
But, some committee members, including me, were skeptical and didn’t want to make the obvious scold, over and over, just for the sake of it. We hoped to craft something insightful, to further a public discussion.
Sometimes, we did well, shining light and reason on poor ethics. Other times, we’d end up talking among ourselves too much.
Creating an Ethics Committee blog was helpful. It allowed us (frequently me) to post whatever story of the day and add a quick comment. Maybe that was the middle ground we needed.
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Which brings me back to Koretzky and Ensslin. This conflict illustrates different styles. Neither is necessarily wrong. (As an aside, I like and respect both men. I think we all attended the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute together.)
Allowing Koretzky to comment, of course, didn’t preclude SPJ from issuing an official statement, as well.
Ensslin told me that statement will go out today (Wednesday). I suspect that Koretzky will question the point – the Red & Black mess already has been sorted out.
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This is the email Ensslin sent me Tuesday night:

Hi Andy,
Here’s a bit more about what happened:

This is a case where I felt it was important for SPJ to speak with one voice when addressing a troubling incident.

My practice as SPJ president has been to do a fair amount of due diligence and fact gathering before writing a letter that states the Society’s concerns or outrage on any particular issue.

Call me old school, but it’s no different that when I write a story for The Record. I interview as many of the stakeholders as possible and then write the story.

This is not a new practice with me. It’s been a tradition among previous SPJ presidents as well.

Often I rely upon our chapter leaders or regional directors to assist me in this fact-finding process.

So for example, when a Temple University photojournalism student was arrested this spring while taking pictures for a class assignment, I consulted both with Luther Turmelle and the president of the SPJ Philadelphia chapter president before writing a letter of protest to the police commissioner.

In the Georgia case, I turned to Michael as Region 3 director and Neil Ralston, our VP for campus chapter affairs for their guidance.

Unfortunately, either Michael  misunderstood his role or I failed to clearly communicate it to him. Rather than report back to me with his findings, he chose to post both them to his regional director blog.

This presented two problems. First, Michael already has come under criticism for not attempting to at least interview some of the stakeholders in this case before reaching his conclusions.

Second, by posting them to an SPJ hosted blog, it would be easy for readers to mistake Michael’s opinions as a statement of SPJ’s position in the matter.

For those reasons, I asked him to take down the blog post, which he did, albeit under protest.

I don’t necessarily disagree with any of Michael’s findings. But I did feel the need to ask some additional questions before delivering an opinion that will be SPJ’s position in this matter.

I have crafted an SPJ response to this case, which will be going out tomorrow.

John