As solvency and solidarity collide with NABJ departure, how will UNITY survive?

The National Association of Black Journalists' decision to withdraw from UNITY earlier this week raised important questions not just about the association's own survival, but about what UNITY and the other three minority journalism associations in the coalition need to survive.

NABJ has decided that separation is at times necessary for continued growth, and a more viable option than solidarity.

But now that solidarity and solvency have collided, how will UNITY survive?

Economics of the UNITY convention

In a phone interview, UNITY's Executive Director Onica Makwakwa called NABJ's withdrawal a setback, but said it will only affect UNITY financially during convention years. The coalition, she explained, doesn't otherwise seek revenue from its alliance partners.

Contrary to reports that NABJ's withdrawal would put UNITY in a "financial crisis," Makwakwa said she's hopeful that UNITY can still turn a profit from its next convention in 2012.

In 2010, UNITY generated about $140,000 in revenue and incurred $430,000 in expenses. About $100,000 of that revenue came from a Ford Foundation grant, while the rest mostly came from in-kind donations. Makwakwa said this is a typical year for UNITY, which tends to make enough money from its conventions to carry itself through the off years.

The question, then, isn't whether UNITY can sustain itself this year, but whether it will make enough money from its 2012 convention to support itself in future off years. In the past, there's been talk about having a convention every other year instead of every four years, but that's not currently part of UNITY's plan, Makwakwa said.

At the 2008 convention, NABJ brought in 53 percent of paid member registrants and 38 percent of the estimated 7,500 attendees -- amounting to $574,407. Without NABJ, UNITY will likely draw fewer convention attendees and collect less revenue at its next convention in 2012.

But registration, Makwakwa said, is just part of the overall convention revenue. In 2008, it accounted for $1.8 million of the $6 million in revenue. A substantial chunk of the total money also came from sponsorships ($2.5 million) and the convention career fair ($1.4 million).

Makwakwa said that as UNITY revisits its strategic plan -- something it had already planned to do prior to NABJ's withdrawal -- it will look for new ways to make up for the loss of NABJ.

For starters, fewer participants usually means fewer expenses.

"In terms of things like bags, badge printing, and food and beverage expenses," Makwakwa said, "there will be things we'll scale down based on how many people we're catering to."

Makwakwa explained that there is already a signed hotel agreement with a food and beverage commitment, and that the UNITY board is reassessing both to see what kind of adjustments need to be made. The room block is conservative, she said, and may not need to be adjusted. There is also a clause that alleviates the obligation for unused hotel rooms. (Other journalism associations have lost money in recent years on hotel-related expenses after overestimating conference attendee numbers and having to fulfill room obligations.)

In hopes of generating new revenue, UNITY plans to place a greater emphasis on diversifying its sponsors for the 2012 convention in Las Vegas.

"I won't deny that the media landscape and the economy have changed drastically since 2008, but in 2008 we were able to bring in nearly 40 percent of sponsors who were new to UNITY and the alliance," Makwakwa said. "There's still a need to support minority journalists, so we certainly hope that our sponsors will be committed to the cause."

Revenue from convention sponsorships is split among the partner alliances. UNITY receives the first 20 percent of the net revenue from the convention, as well as all of the non-member and on-site registrations. Non-member registrants accounted for 27 percent of the 2008 convention's overall registration and no doubt help UNITY financially. But the coalition doesn't plan to recruit them for the convention.

"We've never directly recruited non-member registrants," Makwakwa said. "I don't think there's an interest in becoming an individual member organization; we're not structured that way."

Instead, UNITY will focus on recruiting convention-goers from the three alliance partners -- including NABJ. Just because the NABJ board has decided to pull out of the coalition doesn't mean its members have to abandon the convention.

"Certainly we hope we're not closing the door to NABJ members, and we hope that individual NABJ members will want to take advantage of the opportunities there," Makwakwa said, noting that UNITY continues to support NABJ's efforts to diversify newsrooms and advocate for more diversity coverage.

"Our mission hasn't changed," she said. "We're stronger as a collective voice, and we're all fighting for the same cause. Maybe individually we don't win, but maybe the cause wins."

NABJ's financial needs

NABJ has a larger membership and revenue stream than the other UNITY members: the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. As a result, it's better positioned to stand on its own -- at least financially.

The association receives less money from media companies that used to serve as corporate sponsors for NABJ's conventions and would pay to send their journalists to them, said NABJ Treasurer Gregory Lee. In response, it has diversified its sponsors.

NABJ, which saw an increase in revenue last year, decided that it was in the association's best interest to separate from UNITY in order to continue gaining momentum financially.

"The funding we would have received under UNITY’s current business model was not adequate for us to maintain the level of programming and services we provide for our members," NABJ President Kathy Times said via email. "By hosting our own convention we will receive the funds needed to maintain those programs."

Some NABJ board members questioned how UNITY spends its money during the non-convention years, and accused it of straying from its mission. Makwakwa said in an interview that the money goes toward operational expenses, which include paying two full-time staff members year-round (herself included), and conducting research on diversity in U.S. newsrooms. (Click here for UNITY's 2009 financial statements.)

Lee said that instead of bringing the alliance partners together, UNITY's method for disbursing convention revenue is setting them up to compete against one another financially. "We didn't think it was really feasible to subsidize an organization that competes against us," he said by phone.

Finding a new financial formula

NABJ, which has just over 3,000 members, had proposed three options for new revenue-sharing models, but UNITY voted against them.

When applied to 2008 revenue figures, two of NABJ's proposed formulas would have yielded less for both NAJA and UNITY. Under the first proposal, UNITY would have generated 62 percent less, and NAJA would have generated 60 percent less. By contrast, NABJ would have made 51 percent more, followed by NAHJ (34 percent more) and AAJA (31 percent more).

"Their first two proposals were basically hurting the little guy," said Jeff Harjo, executive director of NAJA. "NABJ's first proposal would have devastated our organization. Our net loss would have been about $87,000."

A third proposal would have yielded less for UNITY but not for any of the member organizations.

Makwakwa recognized that NABJ board members intended for all of the partner alliances to benefit from their proposed revenue-sharing plans, but said they didn't collaborate enough with the other minority journalism associations during the process.

"If indeed the proposals were designed to help make the alliance members stronger, then it should not have been difficult to get one or two of the partners to work along with NABJ," she said. "But there wasn't that collaboration."

The coalition recently developed a new revenue-sharing plan, which is intended make the revenue split less competitive, Makwakwa said: "It was designed to send the message that we are all in this as equal partners, and also to defray some of the undue burden on the smaller groups in UNITY."

Under the new formula, convention revenue for any member organization is capped at $750,000. Excess money, which would have previously gone to UNITY, will now be proportionately distributed among the alliance partners.

The financial needs of NAHJ, NAJA, AAJA

Leaders of NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA see a direct benefit from being part of UNITY and don't plan to withdraw. For them, solidarity is financially prudent.

NAJA, which started the year with a $15,000 deficit, received $143,197 from the 2008 convention. That's significantly more than the $25,000 to $30,000 that the association typically makes from its yearly conventions.

"Teaming up with the other alliance members really helps us out, mainly because of the revenue split," Harjo said. "Getting a split of the revenue helps us for two to three years down the road."

It also helps NAHJ, which received $427,259 from 2008's UNITY convention in 2008. NAHJ President Michele Salcedo said the association, which has 1,161 members, is struggling financially and looking for new revenue sources.

So is AAJA, which accumulated a deficit in 2009 but ended 2010 with a net profit. Executive Director Kathy Chow said in a phone interview that the association received $396,011 from 2008's convention and increased its membership that year. It currently has 1,178 members, compared to its peak of about 2,000 members in 2008.

Harjo said he wonders how NABJ's decision will affect the 2012 convention and the partner alliances. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I think we'll definitely come up with less than we did in '08," he said. "I'm just assuming that the attendance will be down."

There's an even greater need, then, for the three remaining associations to get their members to attend the convention. In previous years, this has proven difficult for NAJA, which has about 350 active members.

"UNITY helps out our finances, but while it's good for those reasons, we know it is hard for our NAJA members to attend because usually UNITY is held in areas that are not know for being 'Native American areas' like where we hold our own conferences," NAJA President Rhonda LeValdo-Gayton said via email. "For this reason our turnout was low at Chicago. We are hoping that Las Vegas is more centrally located for our members and we will have a bigger turnout."

Carrying out a unified mission

It's ironic that a group called UNITY has found itself at the center of a story about separation. The separation isn't just about the money; it's about the challenge of fulfilling individual organizational needs while recognizing the value of the collective. When they conflict, something has to give.

Poynter's Kenny Irby, a founding member of the NABJ Visual Task Force, said he feels disheartened by the way everything has played out.

"It's my sentiment that this is more of an economic decision than it is a decision about philosophy and the broader mission of UNITY. It's par for the course for American journalism that the decisions that are being made are fundamentally being made as economic decisions about survival -- not about the broader goal of inclusiveness," Irby said by phone. "The inability to continue to find a way to compromise and make sacrifices for the broader goal is diluted, and it's just unfortunate."

Leaders of NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA who I talked to say they respected NABJ's decision but wish a better resolution could have been reached.

Now more than ever, they said, they want to move forward in their efforts to diversify newsrooms. They point to the 2010 census, which shows that minority populations have been growing across the U.S. And they point to the latest ASNE study, which indicates that the number of minority journalists working in U.S. newsrooms has decreased for the third consecutive year.

NAHJ's Salcedo still believes that UNITY's partners thrive together because of their common interests.

"There are many issues that are of interest and concern to all the UNITY alliance partners -- media consolidation, net neutrality, fair and accurate coverage of communities of color, access to jobs at all levels of all media, to name just a few. Each organization can fight for those issues on their own, but we are much more effective when we join together to address them," Salcedo said via email.

"There will always be issues that Latino journalists face that are unique to us. The same is true for members of the other alliance partners. But on the big issues, the overriding issues, the systemic issues -- our voices are stronger in unity."

NOTE: This story has been updated to provide additional detail about NABJ's proposals and their impact on UNITY member organizations.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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