Although 22-year-old Dan Jacka has been a student at the Walter Cronkite School for four years, he said he’s never heard of the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at ASU.
“I heard about SPJ through my ethics class,” Jacka said. “But I had no idea we had one. Did you?” He turned to the girl sitting next him.
She shook her head no.
SPJ is a professional journalism organization dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and promoting high ethical standards. In what began as a journalistic fraternity known as Sigma Delta Chi in 1909 at DePauw University, SPJ is now one of the most recognized journalism organizations in the country.
With over 10,000 members nationwide, SPJ consists of broadcast, print and online journalists, journalism educators and — perhaps most importantly — journalism students.
SPJ collegiate chapters can be found on college campuses of different sizes throughout the nation, but particularly thrive at schools with strong journalism and communication programs.
Except at Arizona State University.
Despite the Cronkite School being recognized as one of the top undergraduate journalism schools in the country, the SPJ chapter at ASU has a relatively weak presence on the Downtown campus.
In terms of numbers, the SPJ chapter at ASU only has about 25 members. Though it meets every month like other collegiate chapters, only about half regularly attend meetings, said a former member.
On the other hand, the SPJ chapter at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri — the oldest journalism school in the country — has an estimated 130 members. Though some students pay their dues and are never seen again, the majority of members attend meetings and events, said Charles Davis, their chapter adviser.
In fact, Davis said their most popular event, the showing of a photojournalism slideshow titled “Pictures of the Year,” drew in so many people this year that students had to sit on the steps of the auditorium in order to watch.
The opening event of the SPJ chapter at ASU this September, a virtual interview with Mark Luckie, the author of the online journalism resource “10,000 words,” had about 22 attendees.
Though many campus chapters have remained relatively active in recruitment with a strong online presence, the SPJ chapter at ASU has done little to keep up. Prior to its last tweet over a month ago, the SPJ at ASU Twitter feed hadn’t been updated since Oct. 5, 2010. Its last Facebook post was also in October.
Both the SPJ chapter at the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — two schools with award-winning undergraduate journalism programs — have their own websites. The SPJ chapter at Columbia University, the only university in the Ivy League with a school of journalism, has updated its Twitter feed at least once a month since the beginning of this year.
“When a J-school is strong but its SPJ chapter is not, you have to ask yourself: why are students not interested in SPJ?” said Joe Skeel, executive director of SPJ.
Typical collegiate chapters usually have trouble with membership because of competition with other clubs and/or they have a weak adviser, he said.
ASU does offer 10 different journalism student organizations, not to mention the hundreds of other clubs and organizations that are offered on both the Downtown and Tempe campuses.
But noting Mark Scarp — a former member of the SPJ board of directors for six years — as the SPJ chapter at ASU’s adviser, “that doesn’t appear to be the case,” Skeel said.
So what is the problem?
Though Skeel admitted that the turnover rate with collegiate chapters is a lot different than with the professional program, the answer probably lies somewhere in between the chapter and the students, he said.
“The chapter could probably be doing some things better, but the students could probably be more aware of what’s available,” Skeel said.
Scarp, who was a member of the SPJ chapter at ASU in 1978, said the chapter is trying to reach out to more students.
“Anything we do, they’re invited to,” he said.
One of the biggest allures of joining SPJ as a student is the networking, Scarp said.
“There’s a lot of clubs, but SPJ is one of the few that is attached to a professional organization that you can stay in even after graduation,” he said.
The president of the SPJ chapter at ASU, journalism senior Mallory Kydd, was unavailable to be interviewed for this story after the Downtown Devil attempted to contact her through phone calls and emails.
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Clarification: May 20, 2011
An earlier version of this article said the president of the SPJ chapter at ASU, journalism senior Mallory Kydd, refused to comment on this story. The article has since been updated to say Kydd was unavailable to be interviewed for this story after the Downtown Devil attempted to contact her through phone calls and emails.