In Depth

Color it Unity

Ebony’s Monroe Explains the Plan as 10,000 Journalists of Color Gather in Chicago

Once every four years the four biggest associations for journalists of color join forces for a major conference, billed as the largest gathering of journalists in the nation. Nearly 10,000 participants are expected this week for Unity ’08, taking place July 23-27 at McCormick Place West in Chicago.

The conference promises to be an important media event, with the two major political parties’ presumptive presidential nominees—Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama—tentatively set to meet the press and answer their questions.

To get the best angle on Unity ’08, TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman spoke with Bryan Monroe, editor of Ebony Magazine, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and Unity ’08 board member.

TelevisionWeek: What’s the significance of the Unity ’08 conference?
Bryan Monroe: Every four years the four major journalism organizations of color in the United States—NABJ, the National Association of Black Journalists; AAJA, the Asian American Journalists Association; NAHJ, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and NAJA, the Native American Journalists Association—gather together and it’s a departure from each association’s annual conference. We pull together a mega-conference called Unity ’08: Journalists of Color. This started back in 1994 in Atlanta. We did 1999 in Seattle, then 2004 in Washington, D.C., because that was an election year, so the board made the change from five years to every four years. Now, in 2008, we’ll be in Chicago. It’s really a historic opportunity to get together not just a lot of journalists of color but what will end up being probably the largest single gathering of journalists in the U.S. this year. I don’t know how many are registered for the convention, but last time we had about 8,000 and this year we’re closer to 10,000. It’s huge, and that includes white journalists, black journalists, Asian journalists, Hispanic and Native American journalists. And their bosses, because this also is a gathering of some of the top news editors and executive editors and talent scouts. It’s the largest career fair in the country focused on journalism. If you’re a journalist, especially in these tight times, and you’re looking for a job, you’ve got to be at Unity ’08.

TVWeek: In 2004 Unity had both presidential candidates address the conference. Are you going to have Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain this year?
Mr. Monroe: We’re working on that right now. I had a conversation with one of the camps this past weekend, so we’re trying to work through some of the scheduling and logistics to get the right setting and opportunity for them. All our fingers are crossed and we’ve got them on the schedule. I don’t know if you’ve been through this kind of drama before. It always comes down to the last few weeks and days. It doesn’t happen till it happens.

TVWeek: It seems that they would want to appear before such a large gathering of media members.
Mr. Monroe: Oh, yes, it’s a huge opportunity. It’s a huge venue, plus with our partnership with CNN and Time magazine, where they want to go live with this presidential forum across as many as 2 [million] or 3 million viewers, for them it’s free publicity and a chance to get their message out.

TVWeek: What kind of forum will it be?
Mr. Monroe: While we’re not against a traditional debate format, we’re not doing this like a debate. We want it to be a conversation with each candidate separately. We’ll accommodate them if they want to meet together, but we understand the sensitivities and really find it as important to have each candidate address journalists who have significant questions and issues, from health care and violence in the inner cities, to the war in Iraq and the Supreme Court—a host of issues out there that we hope to be able to discuss with them.

TVWeek: How important were the appearances by President Bush and Sen. John Kerry at Unity 2004?
Mr. Monroe: They were put on the record. I remember when President Bush spoke and he was asked some tough questions about America’s sovereign rights. Sen. Kerry spoke as well, and he was hit with questions on military policy. At that time, it was live on C-SPAN. They were both on the record. If you go back and Google a couple of days after that conference, there was an enormous amount of press about what was said. As they say in the military, it had a force multiplier effect. And with this year’s theme being “New Journalism for a Changing World,” we will have an international presence. We have the president of Senegal, who is speaking Friday. We have a panel that morning called “What the World Needs Now,” talking about globalization and the importance of media and free speech. This is very much an international audience. It’s not just media from the United States.

TVWeek: To what extent will the conference focus on new media and journalism in the digital age?
Mr. Monroe: We have more than a dozen different workshops and seminars focused squarely on Web training, how to do video for the Web, how to write for mobile phones and the Web, as well as the ethics involved. And this year what’s going to be really fascinating are the student projects. Each year we have a newspaper, radio, TV and online project that the students work on concurrently with the convention. This year will be the first they’ll have a truly integrated newsroom in that online will be permeating everything we do journalistically. People who stop by that newsroom will be blown away.

TVWeek: Will the job fair reflect the new skills that are demanded of journalists, such as working both in print and on the Web, writing traditional articles as well as blogs?
Mr. Monroe: They have to be able to do multiple things, absolutely. In fact, you’re going to see recruiters out there looking for people who have many skills and talents. They’ll need to know HTML and Flash, and be comfortable going out to the meeting at City Hall and reporting instantly for the Web, or coming back and writing the story for a daily newspaper, and an audio clip for a podcast.

TVWeek: Are you holding sessions that deal with the relationship between journalism and blogging?
Mr. Monroe: We’ve touched on it in 2004, but this year we’re going well beyond that. We are assuming that blogging is very much a presence in the journalistic conversation. Whether or not it’s pure, traditional journalism with a capital J, it’s very much part of the media diet. So to deny it would be ridiculous. … Blogging is here to stay and we have to figure out how to integrate it and how to also make sure it’s armed with the same standards of credibility. We have a few workshops, specifically one focused on blogging politics: “Blogging: Covering and Investigating the Government.” We take those skills and apply them to watchdog journalism.

TVWeek: How much of the conference deals with intellectual and ethical concerns and how much is focused on business concerns?
Mr. Monroe: We try to have a really good balance between panels where we sit around and talk about issues that we’re facing with hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves sessions where you learn skills, whether it’s how to do video for the Web or photographic techniques, how to improve your lead as a writer or working with public relations pros. Really hands-on, useful, nuts-and-bolts kind of training. Particularly now, because the economy has gotten tougher and, quite honestly, companies have tightened up. Training dollars are one of the first things to get cut, and we’re able to provide training for journalists from around the country in one place at Unity.

TVWeek: Speaking of the economy, has there been any diminished interest in Unity because of the cost?
Mr. Monroe: I think more people will be coming to Unity out of their own pocket versus having their company pay for it. But that shows the power and the draw of this event. It’s a time when people can recharge their batteries in fellowship and learn new skills. People are willing to dig into their pockets for $300, $400 or $500 to get here, [pay for] airfare and hotel and registration. That’s a bargain compared to some other organizations.

TVWeek: What was the reason for choosing Chicago as a setting for Unity ’08?
Mr. Monroe: The Unity board, which is made up of representatives from all four associations, chose Chicago several years ago, partly because it’s a great city. I’ve now been here two years. It’s a gorgeous city and this is a great time of the year. It’s also centrally located. There are more flights in and out of Chicago O’Hare and Midway than any other location in the country, so a lot of people can get here by air—or by driving if they’re coming from Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan or Ohio. Even Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma are within driving distance.

TVWeek: Was Chicago chosen because of the Obama connection?
Mr. Monroe: No, no, no. That happened way before the senator decided to run for president. We made that decision several years ago. You have to when you’re doing big events like this. I think we picked Chicago three years ago, in June 2005.

TVWeek: Is there ever any conflict among the organizations when planning the Unity conference?
Mr. Monroe: Oh, no. It’s actually fun. Folks have worked together now for several years. Different members of the board come on and drop off for different terms, but one of the great things about this whole exercise is that it allows us as journalists of color, who come from different backgrounds, to demonstrate the importance of unity in our day-to-day activities pulling this event together. We have to walk the talk. Are there issues? Sure, there always are, but we’re able to resolve them and push through them in a spirit of professionalism and camaraderie. And at the end of the day, we have some fun, too.

TVWeek: Are there any other big names coming that you can share with us?
Mr. Monroe: We just confirmed last week Father Michael Pfleger. He’s going to talk about religion and the 24-hour press. I talked to him last week and he is very excited because he thinks a lot of what he’s done has not been represented well. He’s very eager to engage the media head-on. We have so many more people who are popping up for workshops, I almost won’t know until I show up. There will be some surprises.