March 2, 2021

A Rift Divides Members of Journalism Groups

As the National Association of Black Journalists opens its annual conference in Philadelphia on Wednesday, a topic of conversation is likely to be its recent efforts to get more black anchors on prime-time news programs.

But another issue may form a larger backdrop — the association’s decision to end its alliance with three other minority journalist groups after nearly 20 years.

The rift between N.A.B.J. and the Unity: Journalists of Color coalition comes as the number of minorities in newsrooms across the country has declined for the third consecutive year.

When the association joined Unity in the early 1990s, its goal — along with the other members, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association — was to make newsrooms and reporting more inclusive. The highlight of the alliance is the Unity: Journalists of Color conference, which brings the groups together every four years.

This year, a debate erupted between board members from N.A.B.J. and Unity over how much revenue N.A.B.J. and other member organizations should receive as a result of the conference. N.A.B.J. members also questioned the need for Unity as a stand-alone organization and whether it was using its revenue to effectively support minority journalists.

Unable to reach an agreement, N.A.B.J. withdrew from the 2012 Unity conference in April and announced last week that it would hold its own conference in New Orleans in June. That decision has left some N.A.B.J. members divided over how and why it was made and what they will do next year.

“I know that there are issues, but be that as it may, it seems to me that this is not the time to walk away from being a united front,” said Callie Crossley, an N.A.B.J. member, seminar program manager at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the host of “The Callie Crossley Show” on WGBH radio. “To me it’s not clear how we come out better in the financial end.”

“I’m deeply disappointed that what we worked so hard to put together is coming apart,” said Walt Swanston, a diversity consultant and former executive director of N.A.B.J. from 1993 to 1994 and for Unity from 1997 to 1998.

Lynne K. Adrine, an N.A.B.J. member and the director of the graduate program for broadcast and digital journalism at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said she was disappointed that N.A.B.J. had pulled out of the Unity conference. But she said she understood that the organization had to “exercise a certain amount of fiscal responsibility, especially during these trying financial times.”

N.A.B.J. representatives have responded to their members’ concerns by explaining that by leaving Unity, the group will keep its sponsorships secure and continue to earn money on its own that can be put toward programming for its members.

“We expected people to feel torn about it,” said Kathy Y. Times, the president of N.A.B.J. “At the end of the day, the board is an elected body and weighed months of negotiations to make sure that N.A.B.J. was meeting the needs of our members.”

Like other member organizations, N.A.B.J. has struggled over the last decade to balance its support of annual conferences and professional enrichment programs with a decline in financial support from media companies suffering from sharp advertising losses. In 2001, as part of an effort to broaden its sponsorship base, the group lifted a long-held ban on financing from the makers of alcoholic beverages and began accepting more nonmedia sponsors.

Maurice Foster, the executive director of N.A.B.J., said the group had been in contact with convention sponsors who said they would support the N.A.B.J. conference in 2012. Many sponsors considered the Unity conference “a matter of convenience,” Mr. Foster said, since it allowed them to reach many organizations in one location. “Every other year, they were prepared to go to four places,” he added.

Unity representatives, however, said the alliance continued to play a critical role in representing minority journalists. Onica Makwakwa, the executive director for Unity, said the coalition earned nearly $1 million during the 2008 convention, has since conducted multiple research projects and supported public policy issues affecting minorities.

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