When Yvonne Latty joined the UNITY board two years ago, she had one mission: Bring the National Association of Black Journalists back into the fold of the country’s most prominent journalism diversity organization. The group had severed ties in 2011. But a week ago, Latty told fellow NAHJ members that they should follow NABJ’s lead and leave UNITY too.
Like most, Latty talks fondly about the memories of past UNITY conventions, the group’s quadrennial gatherings. Before 2012, the first convention without NABJ, they were the stuff of legend. “Empowerment based on sheer numbers,” Latty recalled in her speech at a town hall meeting last Thursday, convened to discuss whether to continue NAHJ’s relationship with UNITY. But that’s no more, she said.
Divorces are often messy and emotional, and NAHJ’s decision on Tuesday to split from UNITY was no exception.
“I look at this like a marriage. Sometimes to save a relationship you have to get a divorce, before the relationship leaves permanent damage on the parties involved. Now is the time to leave,” wrote Rebecca Aguilar, NAHJ’s vice president of online, in an email. She was one of 13 members of the association’s 18-person board of directors who voted in favor of separating from UNITY, a 19-year-old organization first formed as a partnership between the four associations representing journalists of color.
NAHJ’s vote to separate from UNITY comes two years after the National Association of Black Journalists arrived at the same decision. Soon after Tuesday’s vote, UNITY posted a message expressing disappointment in NAHJ’s decision. Tagged at the bottom of that message was the description of the organization. NAHJ had already been dropped from the tagline.
But it’s not clear how diverse or strategic UNITY can be without both NABJ and NAHJ. The former represents the largest number of working journalists in US newsrooms, and the latter the fastest growing US demographic.
“The cultures they encompass will power the demographic trends which affect our nation’s population for decades to come,” said Eric Deggans, NPR’s TV critic and author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. “It’s hard to imagine a group of journalists dedicated to advancing the cause of diversity in media being truly effective without the participation of both these groups.”
After months of hand-wringing, it took NAHJ just two months to formally end its relationship with UNITY. But some journalists have asked what took NAHJ so long. When NABJ left in 2011, the association cited as reasons for its exit: a lack of transparency on behalf of UNITY, especially as it pertains to revenues from the once-popular quadrennial conventions; being the largest associations at the table, but not feeling heard largely due to UNITY’s “everyone has an equal vote” style of governance; and a perception that UNITY has lost its mission, a perception underscored by last month’s election of UNITY’s first white, male president. Despite the fact that it was the second largest group in the UNITY partnership after NABJ left, NAHJ had the same problems with UNITY. In the two years since NABJ left, many on NAHJ board of directors simply felt nothing had changed.
Still, a minority of NAHJ board members—two people voted against leaving UNITY—don’t believe that the group considered all angles before pulling out of the partnership. One of those members was Erin Ailworth. She said the discussion with members prior to the vote had mostly focused on needing to leave UNITY, and not enough time was used to discuss how to fix the relationship.
“I think that the arguments presented to the larger NAHJ board, as well as members, have been too focused on leaving with no real discussion or appetite for taking a bit more time and trying to fix the alliance,” Ailworth said on the eve of the vote.
“I’m not prioritizing UNITY over NAHJ,” said Ailworth, the association’s vice president for print and a reporter for The Boston Globe. “It’s just that I’m not sure that we have fully accounted for how leaving UNITY will impact NAHJ emotionally or financially.”
Around 11:15 am Tuesday, Ken Molestina, a general assignment reporter for WUSA-TV in Washington, DC, tweeted:
Tough decision. @NAHJ votes 13-2 in favor of leaving UNITY alliance. I was one of 13.— Ken Molestina (@kenwusa9) October 22, 2013
Molestina said that he waited until the very last minute to make up his mind on how to vote.
“It’s tough to leave something we all still believe in,” he said. “But in practice, it just doesn’t work for us anymore. At the end of the day, I’m confident and comfortable with the decision that was made.”