Or how an alliance crafted to bring true diversity to the nation’s newsrooms cracked under the pressure of power, money and politics.
By Denise Clay
When Onica Makwakwa, executive director of the alliance Unity Journalists of Color, heard the news that the National Association of Black Journalists, the alliance’s largest partner, was pulling out, it caught her by surprise.
That was because weeks before the NABJ board made its decision, the board of Unity, which also consists of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association had met in an attempt to resolve their differences regarding finances, transparency, and other governance issues.
“We came out of that meeting hopeful,” Makwakwa said. “We had taken a lot of time discussing NABJ’s concerns. We expected a different outcome. We had hoped for a different outcome.”
But in the end, NABJ’s board decided by a nearly unanimous vote that Unity hadn’t done enough to answer its concerns regarding the division of funds from the collective’s annual convention in 2008, the organization’s governance, and what Unity the entity was doing with the money that it collects in non-convention years.
“We had to make the decision that was best for the organization,” said Kathy Times, NABJ president. “We worked hard and gave it a lot of thought. We agonized over it. But in the end, we had to do this.”
But how did things get to this point? How did Unity go from being an alliance formed by two Philadelphia City Hall reporters who noticed that being a reporter of color, any color, was a challenge to the current breakup?
That answer depends on whom you ask.
In December 2010, as she was ending her term as Unity president, former NABJ president Barbara Ciara gave the Unity Executive Board a memo from the NABJ board regarding the 2008 Unity convention.
NABJ officials wanted to see the financial records regarding the convention and wanted to talk about the funding split between Unity and its alliance partners. There had been rumblings about the financial split in NABJ circles for the last two years and people wanted answers.
Also, for the last two years, the Unity board defeated every proposal that NABJ made to it by a 12-4 vote, said Deidre Childress, the organization’s Vice President for Print.
Because it was the largest of the four alliance members, and had brought the most money into the alliance, NABJ felt that it deserved to have more of a say in terms of governance for the organization, Childress said.
“It had just gotten to the point where we felt that we couldn’t win with the [Unity] board as it’s currently constituted,” she said.
NABJ and Unity began negotiating to give NABJ more of a percentage of the profits from the Unity conventions. Three proposals were presented and voted down by that familiar 12-4 vote.
Although all of the organizations would have benefitted from the increased money that the NABJ proposals would have given them, it would have made things difficult for Unity itself, said Doris Truong, president of the Asian American Journalists Association.
“In terms of the proposals that NABJ brought to the table, each would have jeopardized UNITY’s long-term sustainability — even while providing a larger cut of revenue for the partner organizations” she said.
Unity went on to pass a counterproposal that capped the amount of money that it could receive from the conventions every four years.
But Unity the entity’s pledge to take less money wasn’t enough for NABJ. The organization needed $400,000 to keep its programs and staff going, Times said. Without it, there would have to be layoffs and NABJ members would have fewer programs available to them, she said.
Besides, NABJ did better from a financial standpoint when it held its own conventions, Times said.
Because legal council told the NABJ board that not participating in the 2012 Unity Convention wouldn’t be enough to keep it from being liable for the organization’s expenses, the board voted to break away from Unity entirely.
After the decision was made, NABJ issued the following statement:
“After careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation, the National Association of Black Journalists, Inc. (NABJ), a founding organization of UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc., voted today to discontinue its participation in UNITY.
While NABJ remains committed to the coalition’s mission of achieving parity in newsroom employment and accurate coverage of people of color, NABJ board members concluded that as a business model, UNITY no longer is the most financially prudent for NABJ and its membership. NABJ, with the support of members of the Founders’ Task Force and Council of Presidents, will withdraw from UNITY and its 2012 convention. NABJ will hold its own convention in 2012.
As the largest organization of journalists of color, NABJ remains vigilantly committed to the common ideals for which UNITY was founded, and further, remains allied with each UNITY partner in its individual mission of achieving these goals.”
Statements from the remaining Unity partners soon followed.
“NAHJ is very sad and disappointed about NABJ’s decision to withdraw from the Unity alliance, ” said Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “A unified voice may be stronger, but we can still sing in harmony.”
Since the announcement, NABJ has had a private, members-only conference call to discuss concerns about the withdrawal and to talk about the organization’s plans to hold its own convention in 2012. Details of that conference call were unavailable at press time.
NABJ is currently looking for a place to hold its 2012 convention, which board members have promised will not take place at the same time as Unity so that organization members who want to go to that convention will have the option of doing so.
The Remaining Pieces
The American Society of Newspaper Editors recently released its annual newsroom census. This census, which details what the nation’s print newsrooms look like, showed something that anyone who picks up a newspaper or reads one online already knew.
The percentage of reporters of color has gone down.
Because of this, everyone hopes that the members of the four former partners mean what they say when they promise to continue to work together.
“We absolutely plan to continue to work with the organizations,” Times said. “Our local chapters do things together on a regular basis. [The decision to leave] doesn’t impact this.”
“Our work together with NABJ is not over,” Truong said. “We can clearly see from the newsroom census released last week by the American Society of News Editors that greater strides need to be made so that newsrooms reflect the changing face of our communities.”
Unity also pledges to keep up with its advocacy efforts.
“Even with three members in UNITY, two of the fastest-growing U.S. populations are represented by having AAJA and NAHJ at the table,” Truong said. “Our unified voice will continue to be strong, and we know that organizations consisting of newsroom leaders are looking to us to help provide a direction.”