UNITY: Perception or Reality?
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Posted by: Aprill Turner
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:
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.
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
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
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.