New SPJ director: ‘A huge priority is to stem the attacks on journalists’

Alison Bethel McKenzie has been a reporter and editor for big-city papers like the Boston Globe and the Detroit News, has directed Legal Times and the Nassau Guardian, and, for five years, was executive director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. On Monday, she was named executive director for the Society of Professional Journalists. In a Q&A, she talked about the evolving mission of SPJ and about her move to SPJ’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

When did you first encounter SPJ? As a young reporter?

I first learned of SPJ, which I called Sigma Delta Chi, when I was in high school. I began working as an intern during the school year at my hometown newspaper, The Miami Herald, in the Neighbors community section. I soaked up everything that I could. I would hear my editors and reporters talking around me about Northwestern's journalism program, about SPJ. Whatever they were a part of, I wanted to be a part of. (Laughs.)

What do you see as the primary mission of SPJ these days?

While I see the organization has continuing to lead in the area of journalistic best practices and media ethics, I think a huge priority is to stem the attacks — both physical and verbal — on journalists around the country, as well as throughout The Americas and neighboring regions. Since the formation of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker six months ago, the organizations behind it have reported over 125 press freedom violations against journalists in the United States.

How does SPJ differentiate itself from ONA or other communication groups?

SPJ has been at the forefront of fighting for press freedom for many years, including in college newsrooms around the country. SPJ's approach to journalism is holistic. It's broad-based.

Do you see new types of communications professionals, say library outreach specialists, who will become SPJ members?

(Laughs) Dave, give me time to settle in! I think that is an issue that is best left to the board of directors. They are a group of really smart people who are passionate about journalism and the free flow of information. They, as I do, believe in the First Amendment and a free press. So, they have the organization's best interest at heart, including how membership should work.

What do you think SPJ will look like in five years?

More diverse, involved in more advocacy, more global. But I don’t think it will take five years for that to happen.

If you were interviewing Alison Bethel McKenzie, what important question should you ask — and hear answered?

I would ask: How are you going to stand the winters in Indianapolis? And she would answer: I'm going to have to get a fireplace.

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