By Justin Madden and Kelcie C. McCrae
The last time NABJ was in New Orleans, in 1983, Greg Lee was in elementary school. Now Lee is celebrating his first year as NABJ president in his hometown.
“It has an emotional backdrop – family and professional,” Lee said.
The 38-year-old New Orleans native joined NABJ as a student at Xavier University. Soon, he was working as a copy editor at the Times-Picayune, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He rose quickly through the national organization’s ranks as a founder of the Young Black Journalists’ Task Force and a four-term chairman of the Sports Task Force. In 1999, he joined the national board and lost an election for treasurer in 2003, but bounced back by winning the office in 2007. In 2011, he was elected NABJ’s 19th president – one of the youngest in the organization’s history.
Lee faced a number of issues after taking office. The top issue, undoubtedly, was NABJ’s relationship with UNITY, an organization created in the 1990s initially to push for inclusion of all people of color – blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans – in newsrooms across the country. Last summer, Lee supported the NABJ board’s decision to re-evaluate its relationship with UNITY. Conflict over financial management and a name change has since moved NABJ’s leaders to recommend severing ties with the mega-group.
“Fundamentally, UNITY has strayed from its mission. UNITY has become a fundraising machine only. But no one is being honest to express that sentiment,” Lee said. Earlier this week, Joanna Hernandez, president of UNITY, told The Monitor, “We still have the mission to promote diversity in newsrooms. All we have done is expanded it.”
Lee has dealt with another issue that’s at the core of NABJ’s mission: astonishing attrition of nearly 1,000 black journalists in the last decade – more than any other minority journalist group. Lee has traveled the country, meeting with news executives to explain why diversity makes good business sense at a time when more than one-third of the country’s population is non-white.
“It is disheartening to see these newsrooms do not reflect the society that we walk every day,” Lee said in statement press release.
Observers say Lee is financially savvy, given his previous work as NABJ treasurer.
“Greg has a lot of experience in the business aspect of NABJ. He’s fiscally conscious,” said Maurice Foster, NABJ’s executive director.
One founder, Allison Davis, was hesitant to give Lee a grade.
“He unfortunately faced a lot of things he inherited economically. There was a huge shift in the industry, the move out of UNITY. He had no real control over it,” she said.
Nevertheless, Lee gives himself a B and said there are parts of the job he must master.
“It’s a hard job. I knew that when I got in. But that’s OK,” Lee said.
The president’s work extends beyond the association. Earlier this week, Lee spent hours rebuilding a New Orleans home and furnishing it during the NABJ Day of Service with the support of Home Depot. On Saturday, he will read to local children. He is also working on another project: the online NABJ Job Portal.
Some called him passionate, energetic, and a leader who wants the best for NABJ.
“The bottom line for Greg has always been to advocate for and to watch out for NABJ. Greg did that. He’s doing it, and I know he’ll keep doing it,” former NABJ President Will Sutton said.
Much of Lee’s success will depend on his ability to guide NABJ in providing intensive training for journalists, including entrepreneurs, at different career stages. He must protect NABJ’s stability at a time when news organizations are cutting back on sponsorships – and diversity is often an afterthought. NABJ’s mission to make sure black voices are at the table when news coverage is shaped has never been more important, and Lee is charged with leading the organization in addressing this critical task.