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.”
In the last eight weeks, NAHJ members discussed via social media the need for the association to exercise autonomy in producing events, advocacy, and fulfilling the group’s mission, NAHJ president Hugo Balta said. The discussion culminated in a town hall meeting last week where members were allowed to ask questions and express concerns.
On Monday night, Balta instructed board members that it was decision time.
“To those who simplify the crisis by saying, ‘go back to the negotiating table’ and ‘how about one more chance?’ I say how many chances do you need?” Balta said, a sentiment he reiterated in the blog post.
Throughout the two-month period, board members were lobbied hard to vote one way or another via email and phone calls. NABJ’s Roland Martin, who vigorously defended NABJ’s decision to leave UNITY two years ago, recorded a message that was played for NAHJ members Tuesday morning, while UNITY’s newly elected president, David Steinberg, awoke at daybreak, Pacific Time, in order to plead with board members to stay.
UNITY has already started to enact reforms NAHJ suggested, Steinberg said, adding that he doesn’t understand why the association wants to leave just as those changes have started.
“I think it’s in both NAHJ’s and UNITY’s best interest to continue the relationships,” Steinberg said Sunday night, two days before the vote.
But relationships built on suspicion and doubt aren’t built to last.
“Even armed with the truth, emotion, love, beautiful memories can often make you stay in a bad relationship where you are disrespected, not heard, and ignored when you speak,” Latty said at the town hall. “You can still pray that things will change, that the love will return, that the one you love will change. But come on people, does that ever happen in real life? Sweet memories do not pay the bills. Why should all this energy and emotion be put into an organization that frankly is directionless, doesn’t know what it is and has refused time and again to hear us. Nothing has changed since NABJ left. Nothing will change. And I’m really sorry, but there is no table to go back to.”
Steinberg said that UNITY recognizes it must make changes, especially in terms of cost-cutting. What he didn’t say is that UNITY must also change the way it communicates and manages its relationships with partners and potential partners.
“There are now two important journalism organizations which have raised serious questions about UNITY’s governance structure, its activities, its funding, and its reaction to questions and criticism,” NPR’s Deggans said. “To me, this is the most important aspect of the situation. UNITY needs to provide better answers to the very good questions both groups have raised about how they do their work.”
How can an organization call itself UNITY when there is so much conflict? Now even members of the Asian American Journalists Association are pondering whether they too should leave.
Depending on who is asked, the answer to whether UNITY will be around a year from now varies. Some say UNITY ended when NABJ left in 2011. Others say UNITY is sitting on enough money to continue on without NAHJ. Still others aren’t so sure.
Steinberg said UNITY survived after NABJ left, and it will survive this too.
“It would be better if NAHJ stayed,” he said. “We’d have to change the way we do things, but we’re already looking at things that will cut costs and make it more viable going forward anyway,” he said. Steinberg has said in the past that UNITY will potentially partner with other groups to produce a convention instead of attempting to do it alone. “UNITY is not dependent on any one group,” he added.
Steinberg hopes to rebuild unity (lowercase) by pushing for both NABJ and NAHJ to join a newly created advisory board, along with other partners such as the American Society of News Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. That’s definitely not the UNITY of days gone by when it was just journalists of color, but UNITY hasn’t been that way since 2011, when the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association joined the organization.
Blanca Torres, NAHJ’s financial officer on its board of directors, was on the fence over the weekend about how she would vote. Torres worried that UNITY, as she once knew it, was already gone. “The last convention without NABJ really changed the dynamics for me personally,” said Torres, who ultimately voted in favor of leaving. “That’s when it hit me that this wasn’t the same organization it once was. UNITY has a lot of money, though, and can logistically carry on. But it just won’t ever be the same.”
Disclosure: The author is a member of the NABJ.