By Kelcie C. McCrae
A commission of NABJ members is recommending the group of black journalists not rejoin UNITY at this time, citing concerns the coalition has lost its focus.
“UNITY was founded to help journalists of color work together to ensure diversity, primarily by organizing a co-located convention of its members,” said Keith Reed, NABJ’s UNITY commission chairman, in a letter read to the board of directors. “In the years since, the scope and operations of the organization changed considerably.”
UNITY, which NABJ split from last year, has made a couple of changes to its structure in recent months. Following the inclusion of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, UNITY dropped “journalists of color” from its name.
Commission member and past NABJ president Sidmel Estes said she is not happy with the new name, UNITY Journalists.
“The change of its name was the deal breaker,” Estes said Wednesday. “They are moving away from its original vision.”
Nearly 20 years ago, UNITY held its first convention with four minority journalism organizations: Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and NABJ.
The coalition’s mission, Estes said, was to make sure there was advocacy for racially diverse newsrooms across the country.
The changes to UNITY do not sit well with NABJ President Greg Lee either. He said UNITY has not shown NABJ, a founding organization, the expected level of respect.
“NABJ proposed three changes to UNITY and we were 0-for-3,” Lee said. “This new organization comes in and gets what they want. We built UNITY.”
According to a report from the Poynter Institute, NLGJA members in UNITY urged the coalition to change its name to be more inclusive. The members told the organization they might not attend the UNITY 2012 Convention in August if the move to include gay and lesbian journalists wasn’t made.
NABJ officials announced the organization’s departure from UNITY last year, saying coalition membership was no longer in the best interest of the black journalists organization. At the time, one of the main issues was revenue not being properly divided given NABJ’s large membership according to a report in the 2011 Monitor.
Shortly after the decision, Lee created a UNITY commission comprised of members who had different views about NABJ’s departure.
“We wanted people who were very active in the original UNITY negotiation discussions,” Lee said. “We wanted to make sure people who were for it and against were represented.”
The commission was charged in October with the task of reviewing the board’s decision and exploring if it could be reconciled. The group reviewed three main points: UNITY’s mission, governance and financial structure.
Reed said they held about six conference calls to discuss the split and the issues surrounding it.
Herbert Sample was a part of the NABJ review board. As a NABJ member for more than 20 years, he was initially upset about the organization’s split from UNITY. He didn’t think NABJ approached the situation well and acted too quickly.
“We had to plan the 2012 convention very quickly,” Sample said, referring to NABJ’s move to a June convention time instead of a later date after the UNITY pullout. “Also on a PR level, we came off looking like the group that wanted all the power because we were the biggest group.”
Now, nearly a year after the decision, Sample said he is fine with the recommendation not to rejoin UNITY.
“UNITY is supposed to be journalists of color. By dropping its name it de-emphasizes what its mission is,” he said.
Reed, who is treasurer of NABJ, said the board will take up the recommendation at its business meeting Saturday at the convention. He thinks board members will agree not to rejoin the coalition.
He said removing “journalists of color” from UNITY’s name is not in NABJ’s best interest, but he has no problem with NLGJA being added.
Reed said he took issue with the inclusion of NLGJA’s white members because white males hold many of the decision-making jobs within the industry and don’t need the same level of advocacy as minority journalists.
“We have white men in NABJ and I have no issue with that,” Reed said. “But if NABJ is set up to advocate for African-American journalists and then removes ‘black’ from its name, it changes the mission. And that’s what essentially UNITY has done. UNITY has every right to do that, but NABJ doesn’t have to be a part of it.”
Another past president of NABJ, Will Sutton, said he never wanted to see NABJ move away from UNITY.
“But I understand why they did,” Sutton co-founder of UNITY said, reiterating that the collaborative effort has lost its intended focus.
UNITY President Joanna Hernandez said the group’s purpose hasn’t changed.
“We still have the mission to promote diversity in newsrooms,” she said. “All we’ve done is expanded it.”
The recommendation for NABJ not to rejoin UNITY comes as a disappointment to Hernandez, who hoped the largest group of minority journalists would return to the coalition. UNITY also created its own commission to handle negotiations between it and NABJ.
John Yearwood, an NABJ member, leads UNITY’s commission and said he’s disappointed.
“NABJ will always be my home, but it’s important for them to realize that as the world changes, so does the future of our organization,” Yearwood said.
He said they were ready to hold conversations with NABJ, but those never came.
Lee said it was not NABJ’s intent to collaborate with UNITY’s commission, but rather to do what was in the best interest of NABJ.
“UNITY now may not be the best or strongest organization,” Yearwood said. “But we all need to be at the table.”