By Tracie Powell
UNITY was founded in 1994 as a way to bring together the four associations representing journalists of color– National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association.
The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association joined UNITY in 2011, the same year NABJ left in frustration; NAHJ might soon follow.
NABJ (of which I am a member) had no vote in the recent election since it is no longer a member of the UNITY alliance, and NAHJ sat out in protest over an apparent lack of transparency on UNITY’s part, according to NAHJ representatives. When Steinberg was announced the winner of UNITY’s presidential election last week, it was met with an uncanny silence. One lone comment appeared beneath a Facebook posting about Steinberg’s victory: “The picture says it all.”
As someone who initially worried about the direction UNITY might be headed in — when a frustrated NABJ left and a predominantly white NLGJA gained admission — I am still a bit uncomfortable about the organization’s future with Steinberg at the helm. Not because of Steinberg’s leadership abilities (if anyone can pull it off, he probably can), but because of perceptions by current and former alliance partners that UNITY has forever lost its way, a perception underscored by the fact that a white man was just elected to lead an organization founded for and by journalists of color.
Steinberg and and I chatted by phone prior to his confirmation, which takes place later this morning. Below is a brief Q&A, but a longer narrative will appear soon in The Columbia Journalism Review.
allDigitocracy: How can a white guy be the best person to run an organization founded for journalists of color?
DS: The basic idea is that we all care about diversity and the best person to carry the message is literally the best person to carry the message. I know that might sound a bit simplistic, but I think the best messenger is the person who can effectively deliver the message and I think that I can do that.
allDigitocracy: You think as a white male you’re the best person who can relate to the concerns and truly understand the issues journalists of color are confronted with on a daily basis?
DS: 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, and I think that my radar is up for issues like that. 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 expanding that message and that mission. My theory has always been that the more people you have arguing for your case and the more people you have hammering on the message that diversity matters, the better we are. However we can deliver that message, that diversity matters, the better we are. We all have a role to play in doing that.
allDigitocracy: What’s your first priority as president?
DS: Two things: We have to address financial and governance concerns, we need to change and reflect the economic world that our own members in the industry live, and we need to ultimately make UNITY an organization that has the fundamental support from all the journalism diversity organizations. 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.
allDigitocracy: It sounds like you want NABJ back.
DS: Everyone on the UNITY board wants NABJ to come back. I have reached out to (newly elected NABJ president) Bob Butler and we’ll be talking. I understand that NABJ is not in a position to say yes to rejoining and making that happen tomorrow. I also understand that it’s on UNITY to show that we’re getting our house in order. We need to present ourselves as a good partner to both NABJ and NAHJ. UNITY is stronger when we all work together.
allDigitocracy: Where did UNITY go wrong, not just with NABJ or NAHJ, but in general?
DS: I wasn’t in the room, or part of the discussions, when NABJ left so I can’t pinpoint the ultimate reasons, but obviously something went wrong if NABJ felt that it was in its best interest to leave. There’s always going to be disagreements and discussions about how you move forward. Four separate organizations make up UNITY; you’re going to have disagreements… Sometimes it takes a little extra effort, we all have to put in some effort in order to make it work.
allDigitocracy: UNITY has suspended its search for an executive director. Will that position remain unfilled, what’s next?
DS: That’s all part of the discussions that will be taking place over the next couple of weeks. The main complaint is why hire an executive director at a six figure salary when their main job, putting on a convention, happens only every four years. UNITY may hire someone with a slightly different title or we might change the scope of that person’s responsibility. One idea that has been offered is that we hire someone to run the day-to-day duties in the office — writing grants, reports, and conducting audits and maybe ramp it up two years into the four year cycle by briging in a consultant or meeting planner to help put together the convention. That way we’re not paying for that work for four years when you really only need it for two years.
allDigitocracy: Will there be a UNITY Convention in 2016?
DS: I hope so. No decision has been made because we’re still in the research stage. We are having preliminary discussions about planning. We have to identify and compile a list of about five possible host cities and then ramp up our research. UNITY is open to working with other groups on hosting a convention, but again, that’s being discussed. We don’t know how it will work just yet.
Note: We will update this post when the full piece is published in CJR.