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News & Press: President's Corner

UNITY: Perception or Reality?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Aprill Turner
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By Kathy Times

In the wake of the NABJ Board of Directors’ decision to pull out of Unity: Journalists of Color, our office and officers have received e-mails, tweets, and other communications from members and the media whose common question is:

Why did the NABJ Board of Directors vote to leave UNITY in light of devastating job losses by journalists of color?

While we acknowledge that money factored in the pullout, there were other factors that began surfacing years ago that also led to this action. Our failure to communicate the depth and scope of the challenges we faced is due to NABJ’s valiant attempt to keep UNITY intact.

The "build-up to the break-up” was years in the making as UNITY operated like a fifth entity instead of a solid support system for the four minority journalism organizations that make up the alliance. During its 17-year history, UNITY produced memorable conventions every four years but lost sight of its mission:

"…advocating fair and accurate news coverage about people of color, and aggressively challenging the industry to staff its organizations at all levels to reflect the nation’s diversity.”

While the mission that brought us together was noble, we now concede that trying to make UNITY something that it was not equipped to be or meant to be — an umbrella organization and spokesman for all journalists of color — was more fantasy than reality.

In the end, we no longer could ignore the underlying reasons that culminated in this very agonizing decision made by the NABJ board. At the heart of what was really a difficult choice is one word:

Change.

NABJ Makes Changes

The recession forced everyone to make changes. We could not have imagined that the industry would be upended to the extent that it was. Its response was to make wholesale cuts in staff in every sector, with our members disproportionately targeted. Our budget also felt the impact of the failing economy, forcing NABJ to review — and ultimately overhaul and restructure — our business model. When it became clear that this trend would continue unabated, NABJ made adjustments: We cut our staff, instituted furloughs, and still ended 2009 with a deficit.

Despite these challenges, NABJ remained focused on our mission to monitor diversity and evoke change in newsrooms. We still held news organizations accountable. We took on NPR, CNN, CBS, and Politico, just to name a few.

Our vigilance yielded change.

Change came at NPR because NABJ had a consistent message during the past three years.

Change came at CBS News in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

We increased professional development programs, and they have netted more than $100,000 since last fall. We have consistently awarded $60,000 in scholarships to college students. NABJ provided training at college boot camps, created a fund for entrepreneurial fellowships for journalists and upgraded our website. NABJ pulled off a memorable West Coast convention, and proceeds helped us end 2010 in the black.

To maintain the high level of accountability from news outlets, NABJ uses volunteer resources to conduct three censuses every year. We use those data when working with media outlets across the country to advocate on your behalf and to help companies find qualified candidates.

UNITY’s Impact  

Even when the industry was undergoing a dramatic overhaul, UNITY was slow to respond and to realign its operations. Its board was forced to re-examine its mission, leadership practices, and advocacy record when a consultant met with the board of directors on March 25.

The board also addressed a myriad of concerns raised by NABJ. A recurring issue was governance and the UNITY convention revenue sharing formula. Our membership is proportionately higher among the alliance partners — NABJ brought more members to the 2008 UNITY convention than the other three associations combined — yet we have the same voting rights as those with a fraction of the membership.

As we looked ahead at the possible revenues NABJ would net from the 2012 UNITY convention, NABJ’s leadership pointed out some realities: We left the March UNITY board meeting unsure of how we would receive sufficient proceeds from the 2012 UNITY convention to sustain our programs, staffing levels, and other services. 

The UNITY board also learned that while UNITY conducted research, there was no strategy in place to ensure the alliance partners used it to derive direct benefits.

NABJ wanted change.

NABJ’s Quest for Change

Beginning with NABJ’s past President Barbara Ciara’s administration, we began raising questions in 2008. She became UNITY president in 2009, elected to fill the last year of the previous president’s term after he stepped down for personal reasons. During her short tenure, she worked on public policy and orchestrated meetings between the FCC and the alliance partners. Before Barbara left office in December 2010, NABJ created a revenue-sharing plan designed to boost the alliance partners’ convention proceeds.

The situation began to build to the ultimate decision to split from UNITY. At that time, we engaged in a series of high-level meetings aimed at achieving parity. Consistently, the partners voted as a bloc, and it became an "us-versus-them” situation with NABJ always in the minority. Eventually there were concessions, but only after NABJ mentioned boycotting the 2012 UNITY convention. Click here for timeline of negotiations and outcome.  

UNITY: Perception or Reality

While we savor the concept of Native American, Asian American, Black and Hispanic journalists gathering under the same roof every four years, even NABJ members who urged me to support UNITY wondered why there were not more joint sessions. We usually come together for a joint meeting during the opening ceremony and for a forum with a presidential candidate.

UNITY arranged some meetings with media executives — one in Chicago at the 2008 UNITY convention and another in 2009 in Boston at the Asian American Journalists Association convention.  But today, the results of those meetings are not clear or measurable.

UNITY did not call out executives who run news departments with meager representation by people of color. When I visited the Houston Chronicle’s afternoon news meeting in February, there was one editor of color in a room of 16 editors. Houston’s population is 23.1 percent black and 43.8 percent Hispanic, according to the latest Census numbers. I pointed this out to the editor, Jeff Cohen, and challenged him to make changes and offered NABJ’s help to find qualified candidates.

NABJ will not change its commitment to the mission that initially united the alliance partners. We will continue to work with them to further our common goals of achieving authentic diversity within newsrooms. There are journalists on UNITY’s board who are committed to the cause, and they should be commended for their willingness to serve and make a difference. At the end of the day, valuable lessons emerged from that "intervention” board meeting in Virginia.

The timeline that lays out NABJ’s quest for change is on our website. It gives a true sense of the efforts NABJ expended to keep this union intact. There is also a Q&A on the site that answers the questions that have most resonated with our membership.  

While you are on the site, review our history, our programs, and our triumphs. Remember to register for our convention in Philadelphia in August.  Bookmark our website. In the days, months and years ahead, we will continue to advocate for true diversity, and we will sponsor programs that reflect that mission.

In the end, this is not a valedictory but rather an affirmation of NABJ’s resolve to pursue a direction that promotes change.

 

 

 


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