UNITY at a crossroads

With a new (white) president and disgruntled membership, the diversity group needs to assess how to move forward

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.
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

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.”

Troubles between the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and UNITY came to a head at the 2012 convention in Las Vegas, when Steinberg was UNITY’s treasurer. Balta said UNITY missed deadlines to provide an accounting of revenues. Ultimately NAHJ was told it owed UNITY in excess of $10,000, according to receipts from the 2012 convention. Only after angry NAHJ representatives demanded an audit did UNITY revise its numbers, telling NAHJ it owned $4,535, said Balta in a Facebook posting. NAHJ has yet to agree that it owes UNITY anything, Balta said. (update, October 9: UNITY reps say that there was an audit scheduled to happen anyway.)

The Asian American Journalists Association was also told it owed money from the 2012 convention; Steinberg left it up to the individual associations to disclose how much each might owe. Paul Cheung, the group’s president and director of interactive and digital news production at the Associated Press, declined to say how much AAJA allegedly owes UNITY. “Financial sustainability and stability is always of concern for nonprofit groups like UNITY and AAJA,” he said in a private Facebook message. “However, I’m confident that newly elected president David Steinberg and I will work on a solution.”


NABJ’s Butler, a multimedia journalist with KCBS radio in San Francisco, said it would be unfair for his organization to comment on UNITY’s new leadership and future since the group is no longer a member of the alliance. Butler said he believes Steinberg is “a good journalist” and “a good guy.”

Balta was more blunt. UNITY “is no longer specific to journalists of color,” he said. NLGJA has every right to champion a candidate that represents its group to lead UNITY, Balta added, but he does not believe Steinberg was the best candidate. Instead, Balta said, the gay and lesbian association could and should have chosen someone who was gay and a minority.

“But they didn’t choose that,” he continued. “It’s not for me to say why or why not, but to be constructively critical, I think they made a major error in championing a candidate that did not fully represent the entire board.That will continue to have repercussions,” he said. “That continues to be a challenge in any discussion about the possibility of NABJ returning and I’m telling you right now it has to be part of the discussion for NAHJ.”

NAHJ will hold a virtual town hall meeting October 16 to answer questions from members about the organization’s future with UNITY; a week after that, the NAHJ board will reconvene for a vote. Balta said his recommendation to leave remains the same and is bolstered by Steinberg’s election.

Steinberg disagrees with those who say UNITY has lost its way. “I don’t believe, perhaps, what some have suggested: that UNITY had lost its way when it expanded its mission. I looked at it as not turning its back on the values and message of how it was founded, but by expanding that message and that mission,” he said.

Overcoming distractions

While Balta and his association reassess their relationship with UNITY, other coalition partners are rallying around Steinberg. AAJA’s Cheung said in a press release that he is “looking forward to working with David on how best to grow and shape UNITY’s future.” Janet Cho, a business reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the AAJA representative who lost to Steinberg, said, “the next few months will be critical ones for reassuring our alliance group members and others in the media industry that UNITY remains relevant and necessary.” Hudetz, president of NAJA, said she looked forward to working with Steinberg in the coming year.

Meanwhile, Steinberg is plunging into the nuts and bolts of governance and financial responsibility. UNITY currently lacks a permanent executive director, and there’s also no guarantee it will host a convention in 2016. Instead of an executive director, board members are discussing hiring someone with a different title or different job responsibilities, which may include writing grants and reports as well conducting audits. Two years prior to a convention, UNITY may hire a consultant to help with convention planning, Steinberg said. And while he hopes to have a convention, board members are only in the early stages of researching cities and, more importantly, potential partners that will join UNITY in producing a conference.

“If we reconfigure how we work, then we’ll also likely need to reconfigure staffing, which obviously would impact the costs. That could be a good thing if it helps make us more fiscally responsible,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg also wants to establish an advisory board made up of representatives of other journalism organizations—including NABJ and the Society of Professional Journalists as well as the American Society of News Editors—who share UNITY’s vision and can help promote media diversity. “By working together through UNITY, we can speak with a louder voice to promote causes that advance—and challenge obstacles that threaten—media diversity,” he said.

Steinberg acknowledges that UNITY will have to get its financial house in order and adjust the way it does business in order to be more relevant and responsive to stakeholders. “We have to restore the partnership and shared values that UNITY was founded on and try to overcome the differences that ultimately distract us from that mission,” he said.

*The story originally had AAJA and NAHJ membership proportions reversed.

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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. Tags: , ,