The National Association of Black Journalists’ decision to dissolve its 17-year partnership with Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. not only surprised many of the organization’s longtime members but also caused concern among alliance partners and other news media organizations. Many questioned the decision’s long-term impact on newsroom diversity, the ideal upon which Unity was founded by NABJ and its three other core groups: the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
NABJ officials said the decision was based on a financial formula approved by Unity’s board that would be more beneficial to Unity’s administrative arm than to NABJ, which is the largest organization for journalists of color with its 3,300 membership. The explanation failed to satisfy NABJ’s board members, who voted April 10 to withdraw from Unity.
Sam Ford, a Washington, D.C.-based reporter and NABJ cofounder, registered his disagreement on NABJ’s website comments section, noting that NABJ is Unity.
“I just don’t know how you can dethrone Unity,” he said in an interview. “With the dwindling number of minorities in newsrooms, I was thinking, ‘of all times to do this.’”
Denise Bridges, another longtime NABJ member and diversity recruiter, expressed understanding and disappointment.
“I am really unhappy that NABJ has pulled out of Unity. I understand all the reasons why … I get the revenue split … I get the governance issue, but that doesn’t stop me from being disappointed about it,” she said. “I just feel like we didn’t try hard enough to figure out a solution and that it’s going to come back later to bite us in the butt.”
While NABJ’s decision was criticized by industry leaders such as Glenn Proctor, the retiring executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, pragmatism also prevailed. Proctor, who received NABJ’s Legacy Award in 2007, said that although NABJ’s decision was “a bad idea,” each association must make decisions on behalf of its membership.
“I don’t think it will affect diversity at all because hiring is done on an individual basis and not according to the specific goals from any organization,” he said in an April 15 interview on the Poynter Institute’s website.
Joe Grimm, the Detroit Free Press’ former diversity recruiter, said Unity helped push journalism to where it is today.
“Journalism — all of journalism — is struggling to thrive in a changed world,” Grimm said in a Freedom Forum column. “A merger of four associations, each with its own traditions and styles, provided an example of partnering. Combining these groups under one umbrella set an example for collaboration.”
Grimm added that he plans to support Unity’s 2012 convention in Las Vegas. (NABJ remains undecided about where its convention will take place.)
NABJ President Kathy Y. Times cited several factors that led to the April 10 announcement. In addition to the financial concerns, NABJ board members believed that Unity had strayed from its mission, she said during an interview. Unity’s creation in 1994 was based on the premise that the four minority journalism groups would present a united front in seeking greater newsroom diversity.
Unity conventions, grand gatherings that occurred every four years in major cities, appeared to satisfy such goals, attracting up to 8,000 journalists from all racial backgrounds, along with major journalism organizations such as SPJ and the Radio Television Digital News Association. NABJ, whose membership rolls have long surpassed those of other Unity groups, said its members made up 52 percent of registrants at Unity’s 2004 and 2008 conventions. Those figures, along with the declining economy and other accounting measures, led NABJ to seek a greater share of funding from Unity.
“We negotiated for four months, not only for NABJ, but also to help our alliance partners,” Times said. “I worked extremely hard to work out an arrangement.”
Regarding her belief that Unity strayed from its mission, Times noted, “The alliance (board) met twice a year, but I can’t recall a recent meeting with industry leaders. There were occasional meetings with the FCC.” She acknowledged that the umbrella organization did gain traction with the issue of Net neutrality. Yet, it was NABJ alone that pushed for more diversity at NPR, CNN and CBS, she said.
Times further dismissed accusations of personality differences among NABJ members and Unity’s alliance organization, saying that “if this were based on personality, we could work them out.”
Barbara Ciara, former NABJ president, became Unity’s president in 2009 after Rafael Olmeda, an NAHJ member, resigned for personal reasons. Ciara ran for Unity president after her fill-in term but lost to Joanna Hernandez. In December 2010, Ciara submitted a proposal that NABJ split revenues from future Unity conventions. A series of counterproposals were submitted, none meeting NABJ’s satisfaction, thus resulting in NABJ’s withdrawal.
Hernandez declined to be interviewed for this article and referred questions to Unity’s executive director, Onica Makwakwa. However, in an April 15 column posted on Unity’s website, Hernandez compared the fallout to her childhood in New York City’s Amsterdam Projects. “People pushed. People shoved. People got into everyone’s business and into each other’s faces. I know what it’s like to pull your own weight. And I know that situations sometimes get ugly before the smoke clears,” she wrote.
Hernandez further stated that Unity is committed to a new strategic plan, wants to explore NABJ’s concerns and wants NABJ to help shape Unity’s future.
“The industry needs us,” she added. “And it’s time to put our focus back on diversity.”
Journalists and industry observers note the irony in NABJ’s action in the wake of the American Society of News Editors April 2011 report on newsroom diversity. The annual report notes that, while American newspapers showed a slight increase in newsroom employees last year, the percentage of minorities in newsrooms totaled 12.79 percent, a decline of 0.47 percentage points from a year ago. The report further notes that this is the third consecutive year that the percentage of African-American, Asian, Latino and Native American journalists has declined in U.S. newsrooms.
The survey shows that employment for journalists of color declined from 5,500 to 5,300. (Note, though, that the survey does not include TV and radio newsrooms.)
“At a time when the U.S. census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction. This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms,” said Milton Coleman, ASNE president.
Meanwhile, other journalism organizations, such as RTDNA, said the NABJ-Unity rupture will not disrupt its relationship with either organization.
“RTDNA will continue its healthy relationship with each of our partner organizations,” RTDNA Chairman Mark Kraham said in an April 13 news release. “Unity, NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, NAJA and (the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association) are all vital in helping our organization bring a stronger awareness of diversity coverage and newsroom diversity to our audiences and beyond. RTDNA has always valued partnerships with other journalism organizations and see them as beneficial to our profession.”
Pueng Vongs, former chairwoman of SPJ’s Diversity Committee, said that while she “understands the reasons behind NABJ’s decision, I think it is unfortunate that the two sides could not reach a compromise. NABJ’s involvement in Unity will be sorely missed.”
Asked whether she expects the decision to negatively affect diversity, NABJ’s president was reflective.
“You never know what the repercussions are,” Times said. “We are not withdrawing our support for advocacy, but remaining (in Unity) was not in the interests of our members. Only when we did not get a consensus did we discuss not being part of the convention.
“(Unity board members) continually said they wanted to sustain Unity, but there was little support for changing the financial split,” Times added. “For the most part, the alliance presidents were pretty silent. Once we met face to face, the alliance presidents were more engaged.”
Unity conventions allowed all sides to come together, and some honest dialogues did occur, Times said. Yet she remains unconvinced that much progress was made in diversifying newsrooms once Unity’s participants left Atlanta, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the most recent four convention sites.
“When you look at the results, what did Unity do? We came, were excited to see one another, but when we left, what happened to diversity? When people say this is devastating, they need to ask, ‘What did we do?’”
Bonnie Newman Davis is a member of SPJ’s Diversity Committee and professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is an NABJ member and in April was named the organization’s Journalism Educator of the Year.
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