Ever since the National Association of Black Journalists announced it was withdrawing from Unity last year, tensions between the groups and its members have intensified. The two groups, once unified, are now separated by a great divide.
An NABJ commission designed to assess the withdrawal recommended last week that the two groups remain apart. President Greg Lee said NABJ has no intention of rejoining Unity and that the recommendation is “final” unless Unity makes changes to address NABJ’s concerns.
“We would never say we won’t talk to Unity again, but the ball’s in their court. There’s no interest in going back now,” Lee said by phone. “I heard from the membership at the convention, and they were pleased that we took a stand.”
Unity President Joanna Hernandez, Executive Director Onica Makwakwa, and several Unity board members I spoke with said it seemed premature to share their reaction to NABJ’s announcement.
“It was a recommendation, and I don’t know yet whether it’s official,” Hernandez said by phone. “Everything’s been kind of hearsay. Nobody said to us that NABJ was not going to be coming back. We don’t want this separation to be permanent.” She learned the news when a writer for the student publication NABJ Monitor called to get her reaction to it.
Five Unity board members — David Steinberg, Michele Salcedo, Doris Truong, Susan Green and Michaela Saunders — all said in interviews that they hoped NABJ would rejoin Unity. Makwakwa said that bringing NABJ back to Unity is “the number one priority.”
“I think that NABJ is part of Unity’s legacy. Coming together is not just about the numbers; it’s also about making a statement about diversity in news media,” she said by phone. “NABJ is a legacy member of unity, and they’ll always be tied to Unity’s legacy and history. It’s really important that we find a way to get them back. It would be unfortunate for us to lose NABJ at this stage.”
But Unity has already lost NABJ. And if Unity wanted NABJ to rejoin so badly, why didn’t the alliance do more to address NABJ’s concerns?
Waiting for NABJ to reach out
Hernandez, who created a Unity reunification commission to address NABJ’s initial decision to withdraw, met with Lee for lunch earlier this year and then sent him an email highlighting what she believed NABJ wanted Unity to address.
The topics in the email (which she sent me) included revenue split, governance, board structure, election of executive officers, and election of the Unity president. Unity’s commission didn’t address the issues in the email, she said, because they were waiting for NABJ’s commission to reach out to them.
“We never got contacted by their commission so we could start, so we were waiting,” Hernandez said. “We want to meet with them so we can hammer out some of the issues.”
NABJ’s commission was created last October and had six conference calls. It never consulted Unity — and didn’t make promises to do so either.
“Unity created their commission after I created ours. They thought the two commissions would negotiate,” Lee said. “That was never our intention. Our group was formed to provide counsel for the NABJ president and board of directors. The commission examined Unity while we were working on other things to move our association further.”
Saunders, who’s on the Unity board, said she was hopeful that communication could help both sides resolve differences.
“The goal of Unity’s reunification commission was that we would get to the point where the two groups could sit down together and see what could be done. I thought that was NABJ’s goal, too,” said Saunders, a member of the Native American Journalists Association.
“Who knows if the result ultimately would be different, but it was extremely sad to learn we wouldn’t have the chance to talk through anything because a recommendation already had been made. … I wish we could have had the chance to try.”
But Unity did have a chance and instead of reaching out to NABJ commission members, they waited.
To complicate matters, the relationship between the two commissions was not clear to all board members. “I had thought the commissions appointed by Joanna and Greg were working toward a compromise to propose to our respective boards later this year,” said Truong, president of the Asian American Journalists Association. “We were supposed to get an update during our April board meeting, but other things on the agenda prevented us from getting to that item.”
Widening the separation between Unity and NABJ
NABJ said last year that it was no longer financially prudent to be part of Unity. The group proposed three options for new revenue-sharing models, but Unity voted against them.
The proposals stirred mixed reactions from minority journalism association members. Jeff Harjo, executive director of NAJA, told me at the time that “their first two proposals were basically hurting the little guy.” A third proposal would have yielded less money for Unity but not for the member organizations.
If Unity were to reconsider the proposals, Lee said, then NABJ would be willing to talk about reunification. “They have our three proposals; they can reconsider them and come back to us,” he said. Until then, “there’s nothing else to talk about.”
Steinberg, president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, acknowledged that Unity could be more proactive about reaching out to NABJ. “It’s probably incumbent upon those of us involved in Unity to reach out and make them realize why it would be in their best interest to rejoin,” he said by phone.
Many of the decisions that Unity has made since NABJ initially withdrew have created an even greater separation between the two groups.
Unity made NLGJA part of the alliance last fall, causing some NABJ members to think the mission of Unity had changed. Others think the change has made Unity more inclusive. Unity also dropped “journalists of color” from its name in April. At the time, Hernandez said she was “immensely sad” by the decision.
The decision led NABJ commission member Herbert Sample — who was originally against NABJ’s decision to split from Unity — to change his mind.
“Unity is supposed to be journalists of color,” he told NABJ Monitor’s Kelcie C. McCrae. “By dropping its name it de-emphasizes what its mission is.” Similarly, past NABJ president and commission member Sidmel Estes told McCrae: “The change of its name was the deal breaker. They are moving away from its original vision.”
Some NLGJA members had said they might not attend Unity’s convention if the alliance didn’t remove “journalists of color” from its name. Lee said that Unity’s decision to remove it was unsettling.
“NLGJA was part of Unity for six months and they got their first request. We’ve been a member of Unity for 20 years, and we made three requests last year and got rejected,” Lee said. “NABJ was not a priority of Unity.”
Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, acknowledged that changes need to be made.
“The concerns NABJ leaders had regarding Unity still exist, so it would have been difficult for them to return this year. I was always under the impression that if NABJ did return it wouldn’t be for several years anyway,” she said via email.
“I think the four alliance organization presidents and NABJ’s president have the talent, intelligence and dedication to their respective organizations and to the crying need for diversity in news organizations to address Unity’s shortcomings and build on its strengths. Under those circumstances, I could see NABJ returning and Unity becoming the force it was always intended to be.”
Looking ahead to Unity’s convention
NABJ’s announcement comes just weeks before Unity’s convention, which will be held in Las Vegas Aug. 1-4.
I went to Unity’s last convention in 2008 and was inspired by the people I met and the work they were doing to increase diversity in newsrooms. But I’ve been disheartened by recent tensions I’ve read about and reported on within the minority journalism associations. Disagreements are to be expected; but I find it ironic that there are so many divisions within associations that are intended to unify journalists.
Most recently, there were the “attack ads” in the presidential contest for NAHJ. Last year, frustrations with NAJA’s Board of Directors caused Darla Leslie to resign as president. And then there were disagreements over how NABJ handled the decision to withdraw from Unity last year.
NABJ members will no doubt be at this year’s conference, although there will likely be fewer in attendance compared to years past. At Unity’s 2008 convention, NABJ brought in 38 percent of the estimated 7,500 attendees and 53 percent of paid member registrants — amounting to $574,407.
Unity is charging NABJ members who attend the convention $480 instead of the standard $600 non-member rate.
“We had been getting a lot of inquiries as to whether NABJ members would be offered a special rate to attend Unity’s convention. Being that NABJ is one of the organizations that founded Unity, we felt it was the right thing to do,” said Hernandez, who recently took a buyout from The Washington Post and now works in career services at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Hernandez and Makwakwa said they still expect Unity to turn a profit at this year’s convention.
“It’s not a matter of losing money,” Hernandez said. “It’s just a matter of making less.”
Makwakwa said that in recent years, Unity has benefited from grant money.
“If we hadn’t had any grants in between the two conventions, we definitely would be potentially looking at some challenges,” Makwakwa said. “Our goal has always been to remain profitable and show that our expenses remain below our revenue. The convention at a deficit is not an option for us.”
Some of the minority journalism association members I talked with said the Unity and NABJ conventions have been top of mind, and think this could explain the lack of communication between the two groups. “While Unity is more than just a once-every-four-year convention, the most public display of the alliance is the convention,” Steinberg said. “For that reason, I think maybe there’s a more relaxed time frame to continue or resume discussions among the different groups.”
The alliance partners continue working with NABJ in various capacities, and they came together at NABJ’s convention last week. NABJ welcomed AAJA’s J Camp for high-schoolers, Truong said: “Our students had a valuable opportunity to hear from speakers at NABJ’s opening session and to network with NABJ journalists. This all happened because we recognize a common goal: ensuring that a pipeline of diverse young journalists enters the profession.”
Unity is in a unique position to bring minority journalists together to reach this common goal. If it truly wants NABJ to be part of the alliance, it will have to be much more proactive moving forward. NABJ has made its decision, it’s now up to Unity to respond.
Correction: This name originally misspelled Jeff Harjo’s name.