October 21, 2007

Crusader for SPJ

An interview with...


SPJ South Florida

On weekdays, Darcie Lunsford is the real estate editor at the South Florida Business Journal. The rest of the time, she’s on a personal quest for the Society of Professional Journalists.

When it comes to SPJ, Lunsford is part cheerleader, part saleswoman, and part jihadist. Earlier this month, the longtime president of SPJ’s South Florida chapter was elected as the new Southeast regional director – which means she oversees all chapters in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Listen to her describe her new responsibilities:

“My job is to ignite the flame of idealism and activism in every journalist that I encounter. My job is to empower journalists to defy the future that the capitalists, isolationists, politicians, and pessimists are creating for us. My job is to give journalists the tools to define their own future through professional engagement and personal responsibility. That tool is SPJ, and my mission as a regional leader is to grow membership and seed new chapters in cities and towns across the Southeastern United States.”

Some SPJ chapters are barely breathing because, let’s face it, journalists aren’t really joiners. Many of Florida’s chapters have flickered in and out of existence, but the South Florida pro chapter has been the one constant, largely due to Lunsford’s force of will.

In fact, if you’re not an SPJ member, tread carefully around her, because she’ll give you the hard sell: “Being a member means that you are taking professional and personal responsibility for the legacy of news coverage and journalistic infrastructure that this generation will leave for the next…”

Of course, for $72 and filling out a form, you can temporarily appease the woman – until she hits you up to attend some programs.

Why should journalists join SPJ?

SPJ is the nation’s largest journalism and freedom of the press advocacy group. We do on a national and local level what individual journalists cannot do: lobby and fight for a broad spectrum of First Amendment and open record issues.
SPJ is now engaged in the battle to pass a federal shield law to protect journalists from being forced to give up sources and notes or face jail time, the preservation and expansion of open records laws, and assisting journalists facing unjust legal prosecution for doing their jobs.

What, specifically, will South Florida members get for their money?

In addition to the good night’s sleep, you’ll enjoy knowing that you’re part of saving independent and ethical journalism from collapsing under the weight of political, legal, and business pressures. SPJ also provides unparalleled professional development programs. Oh yeah, we’ll also help you get out of jail if you wind up there in the pursuit of a story.

Why don't more journalists join SPJ?

Journalists tend to avoid activism. It’s not natural or comfortable for us. And let’s face it, we’re often too darn busy to see the big picture beyond our daily grinds. But we need to start paying attention to the blurring journalistic boundaries that big media, powerful political forces, and special interests are redrawing for us. Our collective voice is meaningful and loud. It’s time that we pushed back. And hard.

From your vantage point, one big mistake mainstream newspapers are making?

It’s a big mistake to chase short-term profits at the expense of long-term reader loyalty. Insufficient staffing robs readers of thoughtful, probing, and investigative pieces. In pursuit of the all-mighty profit margin, too many newspapers have shuttered international bureaus, cheating readers of most metro dailies of broad and independent analysis of U.S. foreign action and policy.

One thing they're doing right, even if by accident?

Hmmm, what are mainstream newspapers doing right? Well, most of them get the paper to readers every morning. Just kidding. We’re much more aware of public concerns and responsible storytelling. The corporate consolidation of newspapers and TV stations and the onslaught of competition have made us better listeners, more responsive to what readers and viewers want, and less arrogant as a profession.

Career highlight?

Getting an interview and camera inside the opulent $22.5 million estate of fallen WorldCom CFO Scott Sullivan. I also got inside Sullivan’s WorldCom office in Boca Raton, where all that fuzzy math went down.

Any amusing professional gaffes over the years?

A few years back, a big residential developer swore to me that Rudy Giuliani was buying a house in Lighthouse Point. The developer tried to give me the story off the record but I wouldn’t go for it. I wrote the story for my newspaper, attributing it to this developer, and I broke it on the ABC station I was working for at the time. Of course, the national media picked it up.

The next day, Giuliani’s people filed a cease-and-desist order against the developer. I chased the guy down and finally got him to confess that he lied. What a bad day. I had to do a follow up story that I had been conned for both print and TV. I learned that people, even outwardly respectable ones, lie – and sometimes it makes no sense why.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into the skulls of new grads and young pros?

Stand up and speak up when it’s the right thing to do – even if means putting your job at risk. Our integrity as journalists cannot be for sale at the price of a twice-monthly paycheck. Be an advocate for ethical journalistic practices. Shun mediocrity and demand excellence from yourself and other journalists.