By Minerva Canto
Special to TelevisionWeek
One by one, they spoke up.
At nearly every other table in the New York hotel ballroom, someone decked out in formalwear stood up and pledged $1,000 of his or her own money toward a goal that many at the event had been struggling to attain for many years.
A stranger walking into the room filled with hundreds of people that night in June 2003 could have thought the event was for high rollers, people with deep pockets. But most of the people with the fever to donate on that last night of the annual convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists were working journalists.
They were hardly the kind of people with an easy $1,000 to spare, but they just couldn’t resist the urge to put their money into a project whose goals they so deeply believed were necessary.
Juan Gonzalez, then-NAHJ president, was clearly ebullient. In all, several dozen journalists and others had pledged thousands of dollars. A few, like John Quiñones of ABC News’ “20/20″ and Gloria Campos Brown of WFAA-TV in Dallas, promised to donate a minimum of $5,000.
Mr. Gonzalez, a columnist at the New York Daily News, was the driving force behind the Parity Project, an ambitious five-year mission to catapult the percentage of Latino journalists at local English-language television stations from 5.2 percent to 9.0 percent by 2008. The project also aims to double the percentage of Latinos working at daily newspapers from 3.8 percent to 7.8 percent during the same time period. The goal in the news industry has long been for newsrooms to mirror the communities they cover.
The Parity Project signaled a turning point for NAHJ. It meant that leaders of the organization had taken on a decidedly more aggressive stance in pursuing their goals.
“NAHJ is sending a signal to our colleagues in the industry that we will no longer sit by patiently while media companies reform at a snail-like pace,” NAHJ’s board of directors wrote in their new five-year strategic plan announcing the Parity Project in late 2002.
When NAHJ’s annual conventional opens in Fort Worth, Texas, later this week, it’s in this spirit of renewed focus and energy that Latino journalists will gather once again.
“As the theme says, it’s ‘El portal a un nuevo mundo,’ or looking toward a new world,” said NAHJ Executive Director Ivan Roman.
More than 1,500 people have already registered for NAHJ’s signature event, the largest gathering of Latino journalists in the country and a conference billed as one of the most successful in the news industry.
In addition to the Parity Project, NAHJ leaders say the organization has adopted some new goals to address members’ needs, which have been changing with the ever-evolving nature of the news industry.
In 1983, the year before NAHJ was founded, 50 corporations controlled most every mass medium and the largest media merger until then was worth $340 million, according to research by NAHJ. Twenty years later, only six companies dominated the industry and the AOL Time Warner merger was worth $350 billion. This resulted in news units that had become smaller divisions of media conglomerates, thus more prone to economic and political pressures.
Current NAHJ President Verónica Villafañe, “a convergence journalist” who works in both English- and Spanish-language television, said the annual convention is a time for the organization to address these changes and interpret them for members.
One of the ways NAHJ is doing this is by offering, for the first time, simultaneous interpretation in Spanish of many convention events, including 15 of the 20 broadcast journalism sessions at the convention. It reflects the organization’s new emphasis on creating more professional development opportunities for Spanish-language journalists, whose ranks have been increasing with the growth of Spanish-language media.
Ms. Villafañe, who works for the San Jose Mercury News by reporting live for the NBC-owned KNTV-TV newscast and several times a week on sister Telemundo station KSTS-TV, noted that an NAHJ survey of the Spanish-language media last year revealed that 71 percent of poll respondents said their companies have no training programs. The poll surveyed nearly 400 Spanish-language journalists and newsroom managers.
Naturally, NAHJ also has broadened its scrutiny of the news industry to include Latin America. This year’s conference will feature a session on the dangers faced by journalists who work in countries where their jobs put their lives in danger. Also, actor John Leguizamo will discuss his upcoming film, “Cronicas,” during a June 17 panel on two films about Latin America.
Thus, the convention will address topics of wide-ranging concern in the news industry, such as freedom of the press, while also offering expanded options for professional development opportunities.
“There was a time at the convention when it was a time to come together as Latino journalists … because there was a dire need to do so,” said Mr. Roman, a former newspaper journalist who was first elected to the NAHJ board in 1986. “Now, we focus a lot more on training and development than we used to.” Of course, the convention also will offer the traditional networking opportunities, both through informal events like cocktail receptions and formal events like the job fair, which many media companies use as a prime opportunity to scout for candidates to fill future positions.
The convention also allows NAHJ to spotlight the gains made by the Parity Project in the past couple of years.
At the Rocky Mountain News, the first newspaper to partner with the Parity Project, the percentage of minority journalists increased from 8.5 percent to 11.6 percent, an increase of 36 percent during a nine-month period ending in December 2003.
The benefits of joining the Parity Program soon became apparent to the TV partner of the Rocky Mountain News. Last year, KCNC-TV, a CBS owned-and-operated station in Denver, became the first TV station in the United States to partner with Parity.
“It’s working out fantastic,” said Tim Weiland, news director at KCNC. “There are several prongs to the project that directly touch us here.” By meeting with a newly formed advisory committee of community leaders, the TV station has boosted the quality of its coverage, a boon in a city with five English-language TV stations and one in Spanish.
Another direct result of the project has been KCNC’s ability to tap into NAHJ’s growing database of Latino journalists.
“In the broadcast news business, if I’m looking for a Hispanic news reporter, I might develop a pool of people, but if I’m looking for an online editor or a producer it’s more difficult,” Mr. Weiland said. “NAHJ is building that database.”
The four-day NAHJ convention opens Wednesday with a daylong series of 10 training and development workshops on a variety of topics such as investigative reporting and leadership skills.
Past NAHJ conventions have attracted dignitaries such as President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox. This year, Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled to formally kick off the convention with a speech discussing the significance of his victory for the Latino community and goals for his administration.