By Diana Elbasha
The Working Press
Due to rising travel costs and an unstable job market, stipends funded by the Society of Professional Journalists are becoming increasingly vital for national officers to perform their required duties.
National presidents must attend two annual board meetings around the country as well as, at their discretion, several local chapter meetings. Immediate Past President Hagit Limor last year went on 22 trips – some international – for her duties, using more than half of a $10,000 stipend to offset the costs.
“There are various funding methods that you can work with to do this, so it’s not onerous,” Limor said.
Past President Gordon “Mac” McKerral said, “It would be really difficult to get people to climb up the ladder” without such funding.
He understands that better than most: Weeks into his 2003-04 presidency, McKerral was laid off from his job at the Tampa Business Journal, causing him to question how he would pay the travel costs associated with his new leadership role.
McKerral was able to serve his term after fellow SPJ members donated money to help him travel.
Experiences like McKerral’s impressed upon the board the financial burdens facing journalists interested in national office. The board, recognizing the discouraging potential of rising costs, increased the stipend to $10,000 in 2005.
“The stipend allows presidents the opportunity to travel the U.S., visit chapters, and really be ambassadors for SPJ,” Executive Director Joe Skeel said. He said the previous stipend, around $5,000, became insufficient. “I think it would be much more difficult to recruit national officers if there wasn’t a stipend available.”
Dave Aeikens, the 2008-09 president, said the financial support was instrumental in his decision to serve and said he wouldn’t have been able to afford it.
“It was a great comfort to have that stipend there,” he said.
SPJ’s new president, John Ensslin, said time is also a factor. He said his long history of involvement with other organizations has given him good training in balancing his responsibilities.
“I’ve used my spare time throughout the course of my career to do things that mattered to me. Saving the (Denver) Press Club mattered to me. Introducing visiting foreign journalists to American newsrooms mattered to me … Working for SPJ is maybe the best of all of those outside assignments,” he said.
Aware of the required commitments, Ensslin said he has “no hesitation” about throwing himself into his new position.
“It can be done. It means sacrificing things that I was already in the habit of sacrificing,” he said.
Before climbing the ladder from secretary-treasurer to president-elect and finally president, Ensslin and Limor made sure their employers were onboard with the plan. The obligation of traveling for meetings and chapter visits can cut deep into work time, they said.
Sigma Delta Chi Foundation President Steve Geimann, who was SPJ’s president in 1996-97, said financial support from employers was imperative years before stipends were offered.
“The obligation to travel to chapter events, to attend regional meeti and represent the society is really too much for an individual to pay on their own,” he said.
Geimann’s then-employer, Warren Publishing, provided him with $10,000 for his responsibilities as SPJ president.
“If you have a progressive, forward-looking employer, then it becomes easier,” Geimann said. “It benefitted them, because their name was associated with my presidency.”
Skeel said the stipend would be of particular help to those who aren’t lucky enough to have employer support.
Region No. 5 Director Liz Hansen, who works for a public university, said she might not receive the same financial backing as an employee of a major media company. She said she never seriously considered national office, mostly because of the heavy work commitment.
“I admire those who are able to do it,” said Hansen, who heads the journalism department at Eastern Kentucky University.
She said her current SPJ role allows her a comfortable balance between career and society duties.
“For me, working at the regional level is rewarding. I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t committed to SPJ.”
Wyoming chapter President Stephanie Thompson echoed that notion. She said her small-town employer, the Green River Star, wouldn’t be able to provide financial support due to its own hardships.
“They can’t help us with money if they don’t have it,” she said.
McKerral said increasing the stipend was an important move for the society.
“If you’re going to invest money in something,” he said, “where would you want to more invest it than in leadership?”