Already grappling with declining revenue, NABJ can ill-afford to lose other corporate sponsors. And CNN can’t afford bad press during a legal fight, or to have a partner that helps the opposition
First let’s lay out a few facts:
As co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’s Digital Journalism Task Force, I am considered one of the association’s leaders. As co-chair, I have successfully worked to bring money into the association from private foundations, not public media corporations.
Next, NABJ isn’t angry with CNN for pulling its financial support. The bigger problem is what we call the “domino effect,” the fear that other corporate sponsors will follow suit. And last, the issue of NABJ accepting corporate dollars from big-time media conglomerates like CNN is a double-edged sword, but a challenge other journalism organizations face as well.
Both The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. chose to highlight a conflict of interest in accepting money from the very institutions NABJ is charged with monitoring. Fair, but both Wemple and Navarette were remiss in not mentioning everyone else who operates this way. If they call out NABJ, they should call out others a s well.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, for example, offers media corporations membership in the organization, something NABJ doesn’t do. As corporate members, companies including Telemundo, NBC News, ESPN, Hearst and others pay $2,000 to enjoy direct access to member journalists, including their resumes, and other perks that non-corporate members don’t get such as special pricing to advertise on NAHJ’s website and discounts on booths at NAHJ’s annual conventions. The Online News Association may have the most impressive list of corporate media sponsors; in recent years the list has included Google, NBC News Digital, Digital First, NPR, Yahoo, MSN, ESPN, CNN, Disney, the Gannett Foundation, Reuters, and others. Sponsors for the Society of Professional Journalists include The Wall Street Journal and the Radio Television Digital News Association, which lobbies federal lawmakers on behalf of network news executives as well as producers and reporters, whose interests may not always be one and the same.
SPJ’s executive director, Joe Skeel, said his association did not accept cash from RTDNA; the two groups exchanged ads that appeared in their respective program brochures. He added that The Wall Street Journal bought a table at SPJ’s awards banquet, which entitled the newspaper’s employees who attended the event to VIP seating at the dinner (the paper also received an award at the banquet, Skeel said) and an ad in the association’s program book. That’s not to say that SPJ wouldn’t accept other forms of corporate sponsorship from the Journal or other media companies, Skeel said.
“If The Wall Street Journal wanted to, and was gracious enough, to give us money, we would accept it,” Skeel said by phone. “If it is a media company, SPJ accepts that support and happily so. If it is a non-media company, we have a set of guidelines to help us determine whether to take the money or not. We might accept, but the company would not be able to influence our educational programming or the messages that we send out.”
Skeel said SPJ’s Code of Ethics serves as a guide for helping the association decide whether to accept money from non-media corporate sponsors.
NABJ also has a policy regarding corporate sponsorship. “As a non-profit professional and educational organization, NABJ greatly appreciates corporate and foundation support for its mission, goals, programs and activities. Acceptance by NABJ of any financial or in-kind contribution from our partners or funders does not constitute an endorsement of their policies, products or services,” NABJ’s executive director Darryl Matthews recently wrote on the association’s Facebook page. “There should be no expectation on the part of our partners or funders for any special treatment in news or media coverage. Likewise, as we welcome input from our partners, NABJ retains final approval of all topics of discussion, selection of panel experts, speakers and other aspects of creative control regarding branded events.”
Accepting handouts from corporate media companies is nothing new and NABJ is not alone in doing this. Is it the right thing to do? Not necessarily, but these organizations are still needed considering the state of our industry, and it takes money for them to survive.
In recent years NABJ and other associations for journalists of color have been receiving less and less money from media companies, and are reaching out to more non-traditional sources for operational revenue, including car (Toyota), banks (Wells Fargo) and pharmaceutical companies. Those relationships worry me more than taking money from media companies. Still, at the end of the day, NABJ is an advocacy association. Its executive director and (sometimes) its elected leaders advocate for more diversity inside newsrooms. Individual, working members of the press do not advocate; we instead focus on our jobs of reporting the news of the day, which keeps us plenty busy so there’s not much time to advocate, if any.
But all of this is background, and really has zero to do with what’s happening now between CNN and NABJ.
Why CNN is angry
In 2010 NABJ blasted CNN for hiring former New York governor Eliot Spitzer to co-host a new prime-time program and for its lack of diversity on the anchor desk; CNN/Time Warner followed that up by contributing at least $15,000 to the association as a bronze sponsor of its annual convention and job fair. Then-NABJ President Greg Lee and Bob Butler, then NABJ vice president of broadcast, now association president, also had what some describe as a tense sit-down with CNN’s Jeff Zucker in February 2013; CNN followed that meeting with a $20,000 contribution to NABJ’s annual convention in August of that same year.
NABJ has called out CNN many times and the network continued to support the association. CNN won’t say this on the record, of course, but executives there are actually angry with NABJ for publicly commenting on a $5 million lawsuit filed against the network by Stanley Wilson, a former producer who is African-American. Typically people, especially those in authority, hold their fire when it comes to commenting on ongoing legal disputes. But in an email to the Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince, NABJ president Butler appeared to take sides.
“I am concerned because this sounds eerily similar to complaints I have heard from other African-American employees who have left CNN since I joined the board of directors in 2007,” Butler wrote. “The common theme in these conversations was frustration that they were not given opportunities to advance or were passed over by less experienced employees.”
What Butler’s statement did is provide evidence that helps the plaintiff establish what legal professionals call “pattern and practice.” (In addition to my other titles, I am also a law school graduate). To say Wilson’s claims are, or may be, part of a pattern or practice at CNN engages in a legal fight NABJ – as an association — had little or nothing to do with, and it elevates NABJ’s criticisms of CNN to a whole new level. At this point, it’s not just boiler-plate criticism; NABJ has, perhaps unwittingly, provided plaintiff Wilson with ammunition in his legal fight against a long-time NABJ partner.
No wonder CNN is mad. With friends like these, during a legal battle, who needs enemies?
Why NABJ is angry
Mainly it is Butler who, as the top elected leader of NABJ, is currently expressing frustration with CNN. He claims CNN “is basically calling me a liar” for saying the network would no longer financially support NABJ. CNN says that it has not yet yanked funding from NABJ, but it is considering doing so. (For the record, Butler is probably telling the truth on this score. Defendants in civil suits don’t normally take kindly to outsiders wading into their cases, especially when that wading helps out the plaintiff. And then NABJ expects CNN to pay for that privilege? Yeah right.)
NABJ declined to provide the total level of CNN’s financial contribution to the association. Keith Reed, the organization’s treasurer, said NABJ does not “disclose the specific financial details of agreements with our sponsors.” Not even to a task force chair and dues-paying member. But the $15,000 to $20,000 sponsorships that CNN has given NABJ in recent years for the association’s annual conventions is just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $2 million in total revenue NABJ receives annually. The amount is based on 2012 federal tax records that are publicly available. NABJ recently submitted documents for 2013, but they are not yet available online.
Let’s face it, CNN’s viewership, ratings, and advertising revenue, have been in decline for years. This is nothing new to NABJ. We’ve known for a while that CNN executives are so worried about covering and saving their own butts, they don’t have time – or the interest – to think about ours. Diversity there, it seems, is an afterthought, if it is thought about at all.
“A single $20,000 check is one thing. But what if NABJ loses $20,000 checks from several sponsors? That would be catastrophic,” said one former NABJ member who is now living in retirement but still follows the industry.
That’s really what Butler and other NABJ leaders are concerned about–the message CNN’s supposed departure might send to other sponsors.
Some members worry that blasting CNN publicly for not supporting the association could give other companies pause about continuing or establishing a relationship with NABJ. “NABJ has never blasted companies when they don’t come back because of that potential,” said another veteran member who spoke on background.
This year at the annual NABJ convention in Boston, CNN took its reception off-site, meaning NABJ did not reap any financial benefit from the reception nor would it count toward food and beverage sales at NABJ’s host hotel (NABJ contracts with the hotel for a certain amount in sales during convention days. This is pretty standard with convention hotel contracts). This decision happened before the current fallout between the two parties.
Perhaps more telling, however, is The New York Times’ decision to hold a private job fair separate from NABJ’s job fair. Not only did that set many tongues to wagging about the newspaper’s support of the association, but it stripped money away from the association in that NABJ couldn’t charge the newspaper for having a booth inside the official convention job fair.
Already grappling with declining revenue, NABJ can ill-afford for this to continue happening.
The more money NABJ loses in this way, the less it has to operate in the manner to which it has become accustomed. The fewer salaries it can pay to professional staff; the fewer promotional trips executive leaders say they take on behalf of members; the fewer dollars that will go to NABJ scholarship recipients, etc. etc.
The answer to this dilemma is simple, but hard at the same time: As it cannot continue to rely on corporate sponsorships, NABJ needs to figure out new and more creative revenue streams. That’s easier said than done, especially in journalism associations, which tend to be quite bureaucratic in nature. NABJ needs to become more entrepreneurial in its thinking, and model that behavior for its out-of-work members. Another thing NABJ needs to do, which it has not done in the past, is win support from more black media companies.
“The ones we have don’t support NABJ,” said the current member I quoted earlier. “BET comes and goes. Look at Cathy Hughes and TV One. Do they give checks or come to the job fair? What about Ebony or Essence?”
For the record, TV One and Essence, which is owned by Time Inc. and was once a sister-property to CNN, have supported NABJ in the past, but not at the same level as other corporate sponsors.
Until NABJ identifies more diverse revenue sources – or creates a few of its own — leaders will continue to fret when big media companies like CNN bark over messy lawsuits, or lukewarm criticism about a lack of diversity.
Tracie Powell is founder of All Digitocracy and (at least until publication of this blog post) co-chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force.