The annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists kicked off in Philadelphia yesterday. I'm on my way for the umpteenth time, because I've had a proprietary attachment to the organization. But this year I have more than the usual trepidations I've had over the years.
I've worried about the balance between substance and party at our annual gatherings; I've worried about whether the organization was doing enough to stave off the stunning disappearance of black journalists from the news business; and, now, in addition, I wonder if we've made a severe strategic error by breaking off our participation in the conferences organized by Unity, the coalition of minority journalism organizations battling for a foothold in a business that has never really been comfortable with us.
I'm entitled to worry. I'm proud to have been one of the 44 black journalists who crammed into a hotel room in December 1975 to create NABJ, which grew into the nation's largest organization of minority journalists. Back then, we were so few that most of us knew one another.
Black Journalists Back in the Day
We'd connected every summer on our version of the "chitlin' circuit," which moved from one city to another, from one riot to another, from one black convention to another. We covered the NAACP, the National Urban League, the SCLC, the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., by day and debated the business we were in and our role in it far into the night.
It was on that circuit that I met Earl Caldwell, Bob Maynard, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Chuck Stone, Luix Overbea, Jack White and other pioneering journalists working in "majority" media, but there was also a handful of representatives from black-owned news pubs: the New York Amsterdam News, Philadelphia Tribune, St. Louis Argus and Miami Times and, of course, Ebony and Jet.
Those of us in mainstream media were often at war with our editors. The unrest in black communities, and the Kerner Commission Report on the segregated nature of the news business, had cracked the door open for black reporters. We saw the way the news was covered as one-sided, especially when it came to racial incidents or violence involving the police.
Some editors suspected that we were closet "militants"; we thought they were too willing to believe authority's side of the story. When we filed reports that challenged their preconceptions or comfort level, we were quizzed, harangued and edited out of the truth. Or our stories were simply killed.
Our late-night sessions on the black circuit often focused on how you got those controversial stories past "the desk," the bastion of conformity that served as a firewall against the inflammatory stories of rage and deep dissatisfaction that we brought back. The advice from our elders was priceless: Find someone conservative to say it; use statistics to make your point; use a soft lead — and then hit 'em with the facts.
Then there were the stories that proved our point, like the killing of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. The media swallowed whole the Chicago Police Department's version of a shootout — until a reporter noted that the so-called bullet holes the police had pointed to as proof the Panthers had fired first turned out to be nail heads.
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.
In sheer numbers, African Americans remained the big dog in the pack. At the 2008 Unity Conference in Chicago, which brought all the minority journalism organizations together, more than half of the attendees were from NABJ. But the situation in newsrooms was changing.
The brown (but not black) faces became more frequent, and some of them began rising to the top of their organizations. And as the inner city changed, Spanish became a required skill for a metro reporter. The language of newsroom integration shifted from affirmative action to diversity. Asians and Hispanics were added to the pool. Media outlets decided that a newsroom could be diverse — without blacks.
And when the recession hit, the slow exodus that had begun in the late 1990s became a mad rush out the door as traditional media companies tried to cope with the flight of ad dollars and the mad blooming of Internet startups that sampled their content, turned into $100 million companies and eroded their audiences. As papers let editorial people go, the senior, highly paid black journalists were an obvious target. (Why so few African Americans were viewed as too valuable to let go is a story for another day.)
Then there was Unity. The idea of joining forces every four years seemed to make sense, especially once Asians and Hispanics found that they faced many of the same obstacles that black reporters and editors had encountered (Native Americans had similar issues, often with tribal councils who thought the papers should be mouthpieces). But Unity took on a life of its own; it created its own management structure. NABJ officials didn't like how the funds would be divided; they wanted more accountability.
NABJ may have had no choice but to quit participating in the Unity Convention. But whatever the reason, I think it's a loss for NABJ — and for all the other groups, too. In this climate where racial designations have become more elusive and racial politics more complex, African Americans cannot afford to claim racial exceptionalism for having been first at the barricades or having shed the most blood in the pursuit of equality. We need allies, and we need to find a way to work with other people of color in our pursuit of a common goal.
The New York Times' decision to attend Unity next year instead of NABJ's standalone convention may have been simply a matter of resources or a clumsy effort to influence NABJ's decision process. But it is a reminder that we've never been as self-sufficient as we liked to think we were — even back in that hotel room in 1975.
Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, is one of the founders of NABJ.