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United No More: Minority Journalists Alliance Breaks Down

A major alliance of minority journalists, including members of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), has ruptured after almost two decades of collaboration. One of the results has turned out to be an even murkier future for Indian journalists, already vastly underrepresent in newsrooms across the country.

Leaders of the UNITY: Journalists of Color organization, billed a strategic alliance, announced in April that the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) had voted to secede from the organization over concerns of divvying of the funds and control of the overall organization. Founded in July 1994, UNITY had included NABJ, the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and NAJA, and it represented more than 10,000 members, according to figures posted on the organization’s website. It has long served as the largest representation of minority journalists in the nation.

“[A]s a business model, UNITY no longer is the most financially prudent for NABJ and its membership," the black journalists association announced in a statement to its members in April. Leaders with NABJ said their organization was not receiving an appropriate cut of funds and sharing of expenses as a result of the collaboration. They said that NABJ represented 53.32 percent of the UNITY convention attendance in 2008, with AAJA at 20.4 percent, NAHJ at 22.66 percent, and NAJA at 3.61 percent. But the costs and funding arrangements of a convention held jointly by the overall group were divided in a way that made NABJ leaders unhappy, and they felt they could do better putting on their own conventions in the future.

The NABJ board issued the following statement April 10 explaining its rationale: “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.”

UNITY president Joanna Hernandez offered a statement of her own, which read in part: I am saddened by the decision that the board of directors of the National Association of Black Journalists has made to leave the alliance of UNITY: Journalists of Color…. [A]lthough the NABJ board has made this decision, we will never shut the door nor turn our backs on our friends and colleagues.”

NABJ leaders said they planned to hold their own convention in 2012 when normally they would have partnered with the other minority journalists organizations to hold a joint meeting.

In the past, the collaboration had proved strong. One of the many highlights of the UNITY relationship was the ability to get candidate Barack Obama to appear before thousands of alliance members during his 2008 campaign for president. During the appearance, he took questions from a member of each organization.

NAJA has long been the smallest member of the organization. Anything that makes the relationship among minority journalists weaker is harmful, said Rhonda LeValdo, president of NAJA, soon after the announcement of NABJ’s decision to leave the group.

“NAJA is disappointed but respectful of NABJ’s determination which they called a ‘business decision,” LeValdo said in a statement. “NAJA still encourages members of NABJ to participate in the UNITY 2012 conference in Las Vegas next August. This invitation is also extended to any person who is interested in attending UNITY 2012 and supporting our mission to promote and achieve diversity in the newsroom and in media coverage. NAJA proudly welcomes anyone who is interested in learning about Journalists of Color and the important responsibility they uphold in today’s society.”

Amidst the break-up, LeValdo pointed out that the American Society of News Editors recently issued the results from its newsroom census showing that the overall number of journalists of color in the nation’s newsrooms has fallen to 12.79 percent, while the number of Native Americans in these same newsrooms remains at less than 1 percent.

“NAJA is disheartened by these statistics, especially when the 2010 census count shows an 18.4 percent increase in the Native American population in the U.S. since the 2000 census,” LeValdo said. “This is unacceptable to NAJA and we will continue to advocate and support our members and their efforts to become more visible and prominent in newsrooms and media coverage across the country.”

LeValdo told Indian Country Today Media Network that in the past, the individual minority organizations had paid “equally” for the expenses of the joint conventions. “Each of the alliance partners were responsible for paying 20 percent of the costs for expenses, even though as the smallest group, we only used 3-4 percent of the expenses, we were paying for a full 20 percent,” she said. The logistics of how much NAJA would have to pay to be included in future UNITY conventions had not yet been worked out as of press time.

LeValdo added that many journalists were surprised by NABJ’s ultimate decision: “All of the alliance partners felt at the last meeting, that much ground had been covered in making NABJ feel that they are wanted in the UNITY alliance. We dealt with issues that were brought up, even volunteering a UNITY member to attend their board meeting in Philadelphia, which was declined. We are really saddened by their decision to leave, but still welcome any of their members who still want to attend.”

Indian journalist Mark Trahant, who was president of NAJA when the organization originally joined UNITY, said he was disheartened by the discord. “Of course I am sorry to see this division, and I am certain there will be other enterprises and events that include NABJ,” he said. “What really troubles me is that the coalition partners need to have a conversation about the dramatic changes in the media and how we can shape what’s next. That discussion requires more voices in UNITY, not fewer ones on their own.”

Planning for the next UNITY convention goes on with it scheduled to happen in August 2012 in Las Vegas sans the NABJ. Leaders of the UNITY organization have said individuals with the black association would still be invited to attend.