Why SPJ?

My submission for a photo contest at SPJ’s JournCamp. The assignment was to take a mobile photo inspired by the word “work.”

My submission for a photo contest at SPJ’s JournCamp. The assignment was to take a mobile photo inspired by the word “work.”

This testimonial is reprinted with permission from carlajeanwhitley.com.

One of my biggest goals as a teacher is to prepare my students for jobs. Without fail, every semester someone asks whether he or she should join the professional organization affiliated with their future career. And every time, I’ve said yes. There’s great benefit in these organizations, whether it’s beefing up your resume (one of the top priorities of college students!), networking opportunities or educational elements.

Last semester, I finally heard the hypocrisy in my answer. Although I repeatedly urged my class to join the Public Relations Student Society of America, as most of them were interested in PR careers, I had yet to join the Society of Professional Journalists.


When I was in grad school, I used the same excuse my students employ now: I’m broke. I can’t afford it. That probably wasn’t true a decade ago (student membership is only $37.50!), and it certainly isn’t true now. So I spent time looking through the benefits listed on spj.org, emailed with Alabama Pro chapter folks and finally plunked down my $75 for a professional membership in October.

And it’s already paid off. The weekly emails are genuinely informative. I haven’t yet received any assignments based on the organization’s freelance directory, but I quickly submitted my information. I dogeared page after page of my first issue of the quarterly magazine, Quill.

Then I received an email announcing SPJ JournCamp in Nashville. The one-day workshop ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., included two meals and three sessions–and was only $35 for members. I deliberated for about half an hour before I realized I was being silly. I needed to go to this.

So Friday morning, I drove to Nashville. I’ve recently realized the value of bumping brains with other writers without having an agenda in place–a lesson I spoke of during a creative-writing class at Mountain Brook Junior High School that very morning. And so I was nearly as eager to spend time with my friend Trisha, managing editor of BookPage, and Nashville Lifestyle’s managing editor Erin Byers Murray as I was to attend the conference itself. That evening, I texted my boyfriend to tell him I was having a very, very good day and had lots to tell him. I went to be energized by conversations with writers and editors whose passions overlap with mine.

That adrenaline level spiked during Lane DeGregory’s two-hour narrative storytelling session on Saturday morning. Within minutes of the session’s start, I wrote “I love her” on a notepad and slid it to my friend Marty. Unlike some of the other folks in the room, I wasn’t previously familiar with Lane’s work. She won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, and her work is apparently now taught in journalism classes. (In my defense, I graduated well before she won!) But I was quickly bowled over by her insight. Lane’s talk was both affirming and inspiring; it was filled with “me too” moments, as well as practical advice for building my storytelling skills. I was nearly brought to tears as she told stories that reinforced the tips she offered.

Afterward, I joined a line of conference attendees waiting to speak to Lane. When I reached the front, I said, “At the risk of being too human, can I give you a hug?” She pulled me in for a bear hug and said, “There’s no such thing as being too human.” (During the session, Lane said she will tell sources anything about herself except her opinion. That was a light bulb moment for me; I’ve always believed I’m a human before I’m a journalist, and therefore I shouldn’t check my personality or conversational ability at the door. But I’ve struggled with where to draw the line between being myself and doing my job.)

So why did I join SPJ? To practice what I preach. I always tell students to ask people they admire for advice or insight into their careers, and one session of a one-day workshop reminded me how encouraging the results can be.