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SPJer Says Scholarship Program Was Fixed

The South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists covers all of Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. It's the largest local SPJ organization geographically speaking, covers a population of about 5.5 million people, and includes three daily newspapers -- the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, and Palm Beach Post -- with circulations of 150,000 or more. It also has one of the largest journalism scholarship programs in the country.

And that's where the trouble lies, says one board member.

Michael Koretzky, a veteran South Florida journalist who know works as the advisor for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, wrote the national SPJ office on May 18 alleging that the scholarship program is playing favorites. Specifically, he claimed that the program administrator, Sun-Sentinel copy editor and mystery book reviewer Oline Cogdill, is doling them out almost exclusively to kids who apply for Sun-Sentinel programs. He said the matter was brought to his attention by an FAU student and scholarship recipient.

"In high school, she had worked on the Sun-Sentinel's teen section, and she said her fellow students all knew that Oline — a Sun-Sentinel employee who works with some of the kids — always chose Sun-Sentinel students for the scholarship," he wrote. "A simple Internet search showed that 10 of the 12 winners from 2005 were Sun-Sentinel teen staffers. In 2004, it was 6 out of 11, and in 2003, 5 out of 9. These were just preliminary figures, because some names were spelled wrong in SPJ documents, and others could not be found on the Internet at all. There may be more."

No one disputes those numbers. I asked Cogdill about it.

"Do we have a lot of applicants from the Sun-Sentinel high school students? Yes," she wrote the Pulp in an e-mail. "Are they the only ones we get and award? Of course not. The reality is that many of the Sun-Sentinel students are showing themselves above and beyond the other applicants. But to turn that around, this year's applicants mostly come from Miami-Dade County; not that many from the Sun-Sentinel's programs."

The problem seems clear: SPJ put the scholarships solely in the hands of Cogdill, who is undoubtedly a well-meaning and hard-working volunteer, and because she's the only person who handles them, they've been given largely to students in her sphere of influence, namely those connected to the Sun-Sentinel.

Thanks to Koretzky, the problem is getting some attention. The SPJ recently created a larger committee and board members say they are committed to expanding the program more into Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. But Koretzky doesn't feel that's enough. He wants an investigation and full accouting of the program. He asked that Cogdill be suspended from the scholarship program. And he wrote the national chapter:

If, as journalists, we learned that the Miami-Dade School Board had a scholarship program administered solely by the principal at Miami Central High School, and 10 of 12 winners last year were from that school, what would we think? What would we write?

I'm not trying to get Oline Cogdill removed as chairman. She's been approved for another year. But I hope someone with SPJ national will read this and call on Darcie and Oline. I certainly don't expect anyone to take my word for any of this, because that's not good journalism, either. But unless they tell you something they didn't tell the board, there's not yet been a sufficient explanation for what happened.

One board member asked me, "Why are you so concerned with this? It's ancient history. We're making changes to the program." My concern is that I advise students who know about SPJ's scholarship program and have a dim view of it. I preach ethics at each week's staff meeting, yet here's an example of when ethics don't seem to be aggressively pursued.

You might be getting a feeling for what a hard-hitting journalist Koretzky has been over the years. And you have to admire that. My feeling: He has done a service, and, in the idiom of journalism, has had an impact. Now it's time to wait and see if the changes he's spurred do some good. Give Cogdill and others the opportunity to improve the program over the next year.

If that doesn't happen (and the numbers will tell the tale) then a full investigation -- and complete overhaul of the program -- will be warranted.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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