With the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) already gone, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) halfway out the door, David Steinberg has his work cut out for him as the new president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity. Not only does he need to figure out how to repair relationships with NABJ and NAHJ, Steinberg also will need to restructure the nearly 20-year-old advocacy organization and shore up its financial future.

Even though he’s white, and male, Steinberg, the current copy desk chief and stylebook editor for The San Francisco Chronicle, believes he is well-suited to deliver UNITY’s message regarding its commitment to diversity. The more people arguing the case that diversity matters, the better, he said in a telephone interview.

“I can’t ever say that I’ve lived the experience of a person in a different situation, but I think I am certainly keenly aware of the issues,” the Oakland, CA, native said. “I am blessed to have grown up in a very diverse area, so these issues are issues that have always been important to me and a part of my life. These issues aren’t suddenly new to me; these are issues that I have been working on, and working for, basically all of my life.”

Growing up in Oakland gave Steinberg constant exposure to people from other places and cultures: In elementary school, Steinberg had classmates who were born in Manila, Hong Kong, and Mexico City. In high school, he’d head off to Hebrew School while friends went to Greek or Chinese school. Across the bay in San Francisco, the gay community was visible. Oakland also provided him with a diverse set of role models. The city’s mayor was black and the city council “looked much like the UNITY board, though with fewer white members,” Steinberg said. And the local newspaper was the only major daily in the country with an African American publisher, the late Robert Maynard, who spoke at Steinberg’s high school graduation.

The 47-year-old Steinberg, who is gay, is a former two-term president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, or NLGJA. (You don’t have to be gay to be a member of the group, just like you don’t have to be black or Hispanic to be a member of NABJ or NAHJ. All that is required is that you share the group’s values and believe in its mission.)

Steinberg will serve through the end of 2014, the remainder of the two-year term to which Tom Arviso Jr. had been elected in January. Arviso, a member of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and publisher of The Navajo Times, resigned abruptly in April out of frustration with UNITY’s slow pace of change, the Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince reported. Steinberg was nominated and went through a vetting process that was fast-tracked in order to avoid delays in seating a new president. UNITY board members reviewed references, questioned candidates, and were given several days to vote, according to Mary Hudetz, president of Native American Journalists Association and the nominations chairwoman for the election.
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United we stand, divided…

Founded in 1994 to allow journalists of color to present a united front when advocating for diversity in news organizations, UNITY is comprised of four journalism associations. From largest to smallest, they include: the Asian American Journalists Association, NAHJ,* NLGJA, and NAJA. The National Association of Black Journalists left the alliance in 2011 over disagreements concerning the accounting and division of revenues from the group’s biggest event, its convention, a perceived inability for its voice to be heard, and UNITY’s inability to provide financial records in a timely fashion. Soon after NABJ left, the predominantly white National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association stepped in.

Since its founding, UNITY has hosted massive media conferences that attracted presidential candidates, corporate donors, celebrities, job seekers, employers, and lots of money. There were doubts about UNITY’s future from the beginning, but founders overcame their differences in favor of the greater goal of diversifying the country’s newsrooms. Over time, however, the economy soured, and so did relations between UNITY and its two largest alliance partners—NABJ and NAHJ.

As the percentage of journalists of color in US newsrooms declined to its current 12.37 percent, down a point since 2006, some representatives in the UNITY coalition also began questioning whether UNITY was fulfilling its mission, and at what cost to the independent associations that comprise its membership.

Governance and transparency

Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil.