What Now for NABJ?

The black journalists' group takes a risk by quitting a key alliance with other ethnic associations.

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The FBI was no friend of black journalists, either. When Caldwell began covering the Panthers for the New York Times, the FBI subpoenaed his notes. When the Times waffled about defending him, we organized the group Black Perspectives to support Caldwell and to make the case that a loss of confidentiality would destroy our ability to do our jobs.

The Spoils of Success

I had joined the Washington Post by the time we organized NABJ. In the climate of the times, we envisioned the organization as a powerful advocate for black journalists. NABJ would protect and defend our interests; it would critique coverage of our communities by the major news organizations and would press news organizations to hire more African Americans.

But journalism went from being a calling that involved confronting the status quo to being a career. Media companies declared their fealty to diversity. The NABJ Convention became a vast job fair where dozens of lovely little anchorettes -- all cast, seemingly, from the same mold, with light skin, straightened hair, business suit and heels -- lined up patiently to show their videos to NBC, ABC and CNN. The media companies became big sponsors of our events -- and not surprisingly, that made it difficult for NABJ to criticize their coverage. Most of NABJ's energies focused on the convention rather than on the issues we faced.

In some ways, it seemed we had won our war. Black journalists rose through sweat and talent to top positions in mainstream media. Bob Maynard and Nancy Hicks Maynard became owners of the Oakland Tribune; other African Americans won top editor positions in Denver, Atlanta and Cleveland. There were black TV-station managers and news executives. A throng of black columnists brought fresh color to the monochrome of punditry.

But we didn't pay enough attention to profound changes in the industry. The Internet, of course, was the biggest one. In 1992 Stephen Miller -- a tech editor at the New York Times; Leon Wynter, then a Wall Street Journal reporter; and I, by then editor of PC Magazine, held NABJ's first information session about the Internet. Almost no one attended.

Over the years, like the organizations we worked for, NABJ gave short shrift to changing technologies, to the detriment of all. As we now know, the Web would transform our industry from a self-confident -- some would say arrogant -- business to one scrambling to stay alive in a world of blogs, aggregation, tweets and mashups.

From Affirmative Action to Diversity

The other big change was the browning of America. When NABJ was first organized, the battle in the newsroom was black vs. white. Management was lily-white. African Americans were the largest minority group. Hispanics and Asians were rare in newsrooms outside the West Coast.

But immigration and demographics transformed that equation: As their numbers in newsrooms increased, these groups, too, organized into professional organizations: the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association.