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

Every UNITY member group gets four votes on the board, meaning each association is on equal footing no matter the size of their individual association membership, no matter how much revenue they generate from convention registrations. NABJ, and now NAHJ, feel that they should have more influence because their respective associations are bigger, have more to risk and therefore should also have more to gain. For example, both NAHJ and NABJ worked unsuccessfully to reduce the day-to-day operational costs of UNITY, including doing away with its full-time executive director, whom the groups thought should only work in the two years leading up to a convention. With NABJ now gone, NAHJ seriously considering its exit and Steinberg as its new president, UNITY is finally considering doing what NABJ and NAHJ recommended in the first place: eliminating the executive director or changing the scope of the job.

“While we understand that in its genesis the forming of UNITY was to have an equal number of representatives regardless as to how many members you represent, our industry has changed. The economy has changed,” said NAHJ President Hugo Balta, a coordinating producer at ESPN. “In order to have true representation and influence on the board, representation should be based on the individual association’s membership size. You can’t effect change if you’re always deadlocked.”

Steinberg understands that each association must look out for its own interests, but added that they should also try standing in the other associations’ shoes.

“You’re not going to do something to sacrifice your group because of the ‘greater good,’” he said. “However, when we have these discussions, you have to be willing to look at any decision or any change from a couple of different perspectives—from the perspective of the largest group, and the perspective of the smallest group,” said Steinberg. “If you keep both of these perspectives in mind, then you could probably get to a change that is not perfect for either one but is something that both could live with and find agreeable.”

UNITY had $687,714 in total assets as of December 31, 2012, the time of its last financial audit, posted on the organization’s website.

When NABJ left there was a general feeling that UNITY was no longer a coalition organizing a conference every four years. UNITY was taking a disproportionate amount of convention revenues, member groups felt, and supported an executive director earning a six-figure salary. Meanwhile, members have been struggling. “For UNITY to make the largest portion of the profits from a UNITY conference, especially when there’s a greater need among alliance members, is preposterous,” Balta said. “It’s arrogant, and it’s unrealistic.”

Black journalists complained that the situation had become identical to the merchant sharing his tent with the camel, only to be pushed out into the cold. It had become an entity that competed with alliance partners for sponsor dollars and grants. NABJ struggled to understand why UNITY required so much money and why, since NABJ was the UNITY partner with the largest membership, it had so little say in UNITY’s operations. Steinberg has already reached out to NABJ leadership and hopes to soon speak with the association’s newly elected president, Bob Butler. “But I understand that NABJ is not in a position to say yes to rejoining tomorrow,” he said.

When asked whether NABJ would consider returning to UNITY if all of its concerns are addressed, Butler said: “Once those issues are resolved, we can have that conversation. Until that time, we cannot have that conversation.”

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.