Are advocacy organizations representing journalists of color still effective?
In honor of the late Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute, the March 5, 2015, #wjchat TweetChat was about media diversity. Chatters discussed everything from continuing Dori’s legacy to what diversity in a newsroom looks like. But one tweet stood out to me: “I’m going to take the unpopular stance & say it’s time to blow up the existing journo-color groups. They aren’t working.” So AllDigitocracy decided to reach out to members of journalism organizations of color to see if this is true and what these groups can do to promote diversity more effectively.
Allison Davis is a digital pioneer and one of the original founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), an organization that is celebrating 40 years this year. She strongly disagreed with the tweet, saying that organizations for journalists of color are needed now more than ever.
“I walked into one of those hot new media companies where everyone was sitting in an open space on their laptops, and all I saw was a sea of white faces,” said Davis. “I could count on one hand the number of people of color working on news-gathering.”
This is sad, said Davis. “In this new hot media group, we’re not having an impact,” she said. “I wish that one day we wouldn’t need affinity groups, but that isn’t going to happen until media companies really treat us fairly.”
Sonya Ross is an editor for the Associated Press, a long-time member of NABJ, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and has served on several journalism-related boards. She said it all depends on the context of the tweet. “If the idea is to destroy these organizations, then I don’t think it’s a good idea. But if blowing up means cleaning house and repositioning organizations for the future, I can see that,” she said.
House cleaning doesn’t always mean dismantling, said Ross. “I can see rebuilding these organizations, because it’s clear that new blood and revitalization is necessary,” she said. “But that’s true of every organization.”
Sree Sreenivasan is co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), Chief Digital Officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and an adjunct professor at the Columbia Journalism School. He said he likes being in an environment where all things need to be reconsidered, using Gmail to illustrate his point.
“The best email app to handle it is Inbox, and it’s made by Gmail,” said Sreenivasan. “They are disrupting themselves, so there’s no reason why journalism organizations of color can’t do the same,” he observed. “If you don’t disrupt yourselves, then someone else will.”
SAJA, at 21 years old, is the baby of the bunch when it comes to journalism organizations of color, said Sreenivasan. “We stand on the shoulders of groups like NABJ, who blazed the path,” he said. “But we’re not organized like the other groups. We’re trying to do a narrow slice of what they do. We don’t have a paid staff, we don’t hold a convention and we’re not a part of Unity [Journalists for Diversity]. We work with different organizations, but we don’t pretend to be at the same level.”
SAJA is in good place where it can pick and choose what it does, said Sreenivasan. “We do things like give away $60,000 in scholarships,” he said. The organization also oversees the SAJA-Knowledge@Wharton Scholarship with the University of Pennsylvania created to enhance the quality of minority business journalism. Winners attend the Wharton Seminars for Business Journalists in Philadelphia.
“We’re unlike the bigger organizations who have to do more because their members expect more,” said Sreenivasan.
Athima Chansanchai is a past board member and local leader at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) who is also active with SPJ. She has written for newspapers including the Baltimore Sun, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Village Voice. She just published a new book, “100 Things To Do In Seattle Before You Die.”
Journalism organizations of col0r don’t need to be blown up, said Chansanchai, but they do need to take a harder look at themselves. “They also need to listen more to people who have raised questions about the organizations and look at changes to make them more sustainable,” she said. “You can’t just depend on conferences and hitting up the same foundations and journalists as the major revenue generators.”
AAJA has amazing value because of its legacy and efforts to connect people, said Chansanchai. “But networks have been disrupted. It’s been a long time since a top-level executive type has headed AAJA, and that causes a trickle-down effect,” she observed. “How do you get managers in the newsroom to advocate where you’re coming from when they’re no longer there?”
Hugo Balta is the immediate past president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), the senior director of Multicultural Content at ESPN and a diversity and inclusion media specialist. He thinks the tweet is too broad because it doesn’t say why things aren’t working. “It’s very subjective, and without knowing the intent of the person who tweeted it, it’s hard to say if the statement is true,” he said.
Balta said that all affinity organizations need to be more inclusive of each other. “There needs to be more room to work collaboratively. A great best example of this is NABJ and NAHJ having a joint convention in 2016,” he said. “Having been part of the leadership that initiated that conversation, it was important to develop an opportunity to interact and share with other journalists of color who have unique voices, but shared experiences in the struggle to get a seat at the table.”
Deb Krol, a member of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and a freelance journalist covering health, the environment and travel issues, says there’s still a role for journalism organizations of color. “But journalism has changed so much, with new media organizations being so white with a lot of structural resistance,” she said. “So we don’t need to get rid of journalism organizations of color. We need to form strategic partnerships with organizations like SPJ or the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which already have diversity committees.”
The big crash in print journalism especially hurt journalists of color, who are last hired and first fired, said Krol. “Journalism organizations of color need to band together and handle this issue to get and keep people of color in the newsroom,” she said.
Commenters had different views on what journalism organizations of color can and should be doing to help promote diversity in the newsroom. SAJA’s Sreenivasan said his organization is not about having fun at a convention. “What SAJA tries to do is show that it’s about work and training workshops for everyone from entry level to mid-careers to veterans to help them get better at their jobs,” he said. “We make the case that it’s about training, retraining and developing new skills. And it’s not just yearly conferences where training happens.”
There’s online, year-round training that’s supplemented with in-person events, said Sreenivasan. “To ask a journalist working for a small newspaper making little money to pay for expensive conferences doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We need more regional and online conferences. Memberships are changing. People will pay for things like Netflix, which gives them what they want on demand, and we should adopt that model.”
AAJA’s Chansanchai admits it’s a struggle. “Sometimes journalists feel like the weight of the world is on them. But there’s a balance needed,” she said. “This really is about journalists of color organizations being able to tap into the decision makers and board rooms. Change comes from above, not just at the grassroots.
“You can only issue so many press releases and have so many conversations. I get fatigue when I see another caucus formed to study an issue,” said Chansanchai. “We do what we do because we like to see a result. Definite changes need to happen with these organizations to keep them alive, striving and reenergized. It goes back to transparency. We need to talk about the struggle and listen to members for the solutions.”
NABJ’s Davis applauded a recent professional development event held by the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists. “We need to do more programs like it, along with Google Hangouts, to mentor and share our stories,” she said.
The affinity groups need to continue, said Davis. “NABJ has a pretty good reputation, and I’m always surprised when I meet people who are complimentary of the organization,” she said. “I’m happy that it still resonates in newsrooms. We need to get people more involved and engage with them more so people don’t feel like they can forget about us.”
NAHJ’s Balta says that the tone that journalism organizations of color take needs to be changed. “The first thing those organizations need to do is stop waving their index finger at media companies and extend an open hand instead,” he said. “Organizations need to understand that they’re not just watchdogs, but conduits to help media companies build their business goals, and diversity is part of that.”
Organizations need to engage with them as partners, said Balta. “We need to learn their goals and challenges and help them achieve them, and then we will have more success placing journalists of color and get the financial support they need to better prepare journalists of color with a unique and important prism,” he said.
NABJ’s Ross agreed with Balta. “We have got to understand that there are certain aspects of the paradigm that just don’t work anymore You can’t be alienating and also expect people to be warm to what you’re talking about,” she said. “Whether we like it or not, sometimes that in-your-face style is so offputting media companies will tune you out. We need to ask `when should I be tactical and when should I be pushy?’”
For these organizations, sometime tact and diplomacy are in order, said Ross. “My mother used to say you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar. We have to know when to be honey and when to be vinegar. Advocacy can never be a bad thing if in the end the result is good,” she said.
Benét J. Wilson is an aviation/travel freelance journalist and blogger who has written for publications and blogs including AirwaysNews.com, CrankyFlier.com, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, Aviation International News, Airport World, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine, and the Runway Girl Network. She currently serves on the board of the Online News Association and is Vice Chair of Education for the National Association of Black Journalists’ Digital Journalism Task Force.