Farewell, and Thank You
Jeff Ballou | January 16, 2018
Fellow members of the National Press Club,
To say that we had a crazy year is an incredible understatement. When you signed election petitions for the 110th administration to run for office, I am pretty sure that no one counted on such a virulently anti-press year.
We launched 2017 with the theme “A Club of Champions.” As your retiring coach, let me start by thanking our leadership team board: Andrea Edney, Alison Kodjak, Derek Wallbank, Ferdous “Danny” Al-Faruque, Jen Judson, Ed Barks, Tom McMahon, Lindsay Law Murphy, Celia Wexler, Patrick Host, Ken Mellgren, Michael Freedman, Past President Tommy Burr and NPCJI board president Barbara Cochran. Many thanks to the large army of team leaders and teammates who worked with them. I send my gratitude also to the staff led by Bill McCarren. This extends to every porter, housekeeper, carpenter, chef, waiter, bartender, electrician, banquet staff, Reliable Source, Fourth Estate, Broadcast Center, Library, NPCJI, administration, security, business development and membership staff member. It takes a team to run this club. Last, but not least, I thank my company, Al Jazeera Media Network, for being understanding and generous. Juggling a full-
time day job alongside the club presidency is an intense responsibility that I am grateful for experience-wise, but you only want to do it once.
January of 2017 began with your president having a very bad cold, but he somehow got through an amazing inaugural led by member Nyree Wright with honorary co-chairs Jason Rezaian and Maureen Bunyan going toe to toe with the White House on day one in a fight we did not start. Club operations started off with a bang, honoring long-standing traditions of objectivity by renting our space to the Trump-supporting, self-titled ‘Deploraball,’ which required a massive security operation. Then, barely a day later, renting the same ballroom to women’s march supporters.
At my inauguration, Rezaian, a fellow member and journalism hero, challenged our team to not underestimate the National Press Club’s power to affect change and speak truth to power. We took up his charge and rallied for press freedom from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and stops in between. From elementary school kids to Ivy League universities. From historically African-American newspaper gatherings to testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Because whether it was fellow journalists or members of Congress, The National Press Club was called upon repeatedly to be a leading voice in defense of the profession.
We built stronger partnerships with the White House Correspondents Association, Reporters Without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and Society of Professional Journalists. With the National Press Club Journalism Institute, we held numerous training and analysis sessions, released a flood of statements, conducted countless interviews and yes, held our own in social media. We have had some great team players in this press freedom effort. John Donnelly quite literally took one for the team when an FCC contract security guard body-slammed him as he tried to cover a story. Kathy Kiely became the driving engine behind countless statements and program organizing as our first press freedom fellow. Alison Kodjak led a great forum on press freedom and managed to pack the ballroom out on a Saturday with a program featuring a member of Pussy Riot. Our executive director used his time off to get on a plane and deliver tens of thousands of petitions to ICE and the Bureau of Immigration Appeals officials in an effort to free Emilio Gutierrez Soto, our 2017 Aubuchon award winner who, along with his son Oscar await asylum and freedom. An overarching challenge that remains in the arena of press freedom is combatting the Trump White House’s weaponized attacks on journalists. This insidious propaganda technique of old has been elevated to such sophistication in the modern era that many leaders at all levels of government globally use it to spread lies where truth is so desperately needed. Poll after poll tells us that consumers of news are increasingly confused as to what constitutes a sound source of information. We must be relentless to combat this flood of falsehood because citizens everywhere count on the truth to vet even the very basics of life and governance.
We also kept our own house in order. We entered with zero debt. We leave with zero debt. We inherited a profit. We leave with an 11th year straight of profit. Investments and cash reserves are up over 2016, thanks to the smart auction of the Norman Rockwell painting, a process that started in the 108th administration under John Hughes and continued with the auction and investment of the proceeds in the 109th administration under Burr. Our administration built on this success by expanding the client field, bringing in diverse groups who never spent a dime in the National Press Club before and, at least in one case, came back twice in the same year.
The breathing room created by our predecessors’ forward-fiscal thinking allowed us to implement a bold culture change: the team concept. The goal was to get more members who normally did not work or play together to do so. We sought to build a better “club of champions.” We are well on our way. President-elect Edney, incoming Vice President Kodjak, Board Chair Wallbank and former Gov. Tom McMahon all helped reshape our volunteer system. Govs. Murphy and Judson helped shepherd it throughout the year. We sought to bridge generational and other demographic membership gaps, strengthen programming, be more attentive to membership needs, strengthen membership standards and have more fun. No part of the experiment had more focus than reshaping how we bring those in the news before our members. Members Betsy Fischer Martin and Lisa Matthews as co-chairs brought together Jamie Horowitz, Heather Forsgren Weaver, the former leaders of Newsmakers and our Book and Author committee, and added Lori Russo. The several dozen Headliners we hosted made news every single time.
We spruced up the clubhouse. Thanks to team members Paul Merrion, Peter Urban and Wallbank, working closely with executive director McCarren, we have new furniture, a club bathroom renovation, higher quality adult beverages, an improved 14th members’ floor workspace, a new large screen in the ballroom and more. Promises made. Promises kept. We still have a way to go in overhauling our food and beverage as members demand healthier and broader choices. We also must find a more comprehensive way to more aggressively market our restaurants to members and non-members alike so they show a healthier per capita use profit margin.
We had some tremendous club programming in 2017. We kicked off wine dinner season with Marcus Samuelsson, well-coordinated as always by Past President Donna Leinwand Leger and Chef Susan Delbert. Thanks to the events team led by Deanna McCray James and Jackie Kasuya, we visited regional wineries in Virginia, and attended arts programs at Arena Stage, The National Theater, The Library of Congress, The Kennedy Center and The Warner Theater. We hosted a couple of movies and even a round of karaoke or two. The softball team, led by Ken Giglio, once again took to the diamond last spring and summer for good fellowship and fun. Member Todd Gilman bested Congressman Don Beyer in our annual Press vs. Politicians Spelling Bee.
Thanks to our photo team led by Al Teich, we hosted another successful members’ photo exhibit and also covered countless club events. Thanks to our International Correspondents team co-led by Antonella Ciancio and Monique McSween, we hosted diplomats from 78 countries in one setting and later co-hosting whiskey tastings from both the Embassy of Ireland and Wigle Whiskey of Pittsburgh.
All told, the true story of how the National Press Club works best is due to the efforts of its members. Dozens of members earned volunteer awards named after my distinguished predecessor Vivian Vahlberg.
Under Membership Secretary Michele Salcedo, we improved the process for vetting new members to make it more efficient. We also worked with Membership Chair Yasmine El-Sabawi and staff membership director Suzanne Struglinski to host members at the club with specialty beat happy hours and other member maintenance activities. We have both made our membership more diverse and are drawing from non-traditional sources for new members -- and they are getting involved with the club. As of December 2017, we are north of 2,900 members. We are, however, challenged to recruit and retain both more journalist and non-resident members. This speaks to the need for an aggressive comprehensive retention strategy for all categories.
We sadly lost several members in 2017 including Past President Drew Von Bergen, Past President David Hess, Past President Don Larrabee, Fourth Estate Award winner Simeon Booker, Rachael Bail, Peter Hickman, Louise Hutchinson, Kenneth Eskey, Arthur Garrison, Bill Hickman, Bill Murphy, William Royce, Richard Thompson and Kaky Turpin. We also lost one beloved staff member in Karen Deem.
The president’s office typically gets many visitors throughout the year. This year, they have come not only from reciprocal clubs in the United States, but from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Cuba, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Each time we get visitors, they always wish to return because of the wonderful hospitality that we show them.
We end the year with me once again, just getting over another bad cold, with a bonus hiatal hernia and ulcer after a year of speaking truth to power, standing up for the National Press Club and for the profession.
As your coach, I am ready to put the whistle down, pass the gavel, join the Long Gray Line as a man from Pittsburgh who, as a much younger person actually wanted to be an astronaut. But the Almighty put my life’s trajectory on a decidedly different course to this honored post. I never imagined that my life would lead me to this club in 1992 by members Reginald Stuart who introduced me to David Anderson, Gil Klein, Clayton Boyce and so many others. I still have the original membership cards.
With all that we have done together and witnessed, I remain an ordinary man with extraordinary blessings. I am thankful for your support. Recognizing my role in club history as your first African-American male President, and hopeful that one day, the National Press Club will hopefully no longer have to any more ‘firsts’ to hold the chair.
As I pass the gavel of leadership to President-elect Edney, our 111th president, know that this club peacefully transitions to very capable hands. Edney, an able tactician in the 110th administration, has previously led well in several areas for this club, such as the scholarship committee, the secretary’s post and as a solid treasurer who played an active and key role in our Rockwell negotiations.
For President-elect Edney and by extension her team, my wish is simply this—preside with strength, govern with wisdom and along the way, appreciate the beauty and possibilities with both our membership and our gentle craft.