In Depth

Layoffs Call NABJ to Action

Black Journalists Group Helps Members Face Industry’s Challenges

The National Association of Black Journalists has never been healthier. The organization, which is the largest of the four groups putting on the Unity Conference, numbers 4,000 members. “We’re holding on to our members and improving from last year, so we’re growing,” said NABJ Executive Director Karen Wynn Freeman.

This election year is historic for the strong showing by an African American and a woman candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but the NABJ is not celebrating. Instead, it’s hunkering down.

“It’s a particularly challenging time for our organization and many others,” said NABJ President Barbara Ciara. “If there’s an ongoing theme, it is survival on many levels—whether you’re young and trying to break in or you’re in and trying to stay afloat.”

Extraordinary assistance for NABJ’s membership this year includes scholarships, not just for students but for professional members who have been laid off. “Seeing those layoffs, we provided scholarships to help those members defray the cost of registration for the whole convention,” said Ms. Ciara.

NABJ has issued an open letter to the industry as a whole to stress its concerns at the number of layoffs affecting its membership. “When there are layoffs, the last hired are often the first let go,” she said. “We’re reminding employers in print and broadcast to not let diversity be a fad. When they’re forced to make reductions, we’re insisting they keep diversity in mind.”

With those layoffs in mind, NABJ’s focus at Unity ’08 is on providing career development programming and other tools to make its membership more valuable in existing positions and more likely to be sought out for available jobs. “We’re trying to gear our programming and any member benefits for those recently laid off and seeking employment,” Ms. Ciara said. “It’s a new and different time for NABJ. The traditional print publications are reducing numbers at an alarming rate, and many of our members are suffering.”

NABJ’s programs include workshops on how to utilize digital technology and how to create a freelance career. NABJ also is rolling out a schedule of media institutes for professional development every month of the year, in different regions. “We’re serious when we say we’re tackling professional development as the No. 1 component to help our members survive,” Ms. Ciara said.

Power Positions

Conversations at Unity ’08 also will focus on increasing the number of minority managers, said Ms. Ciara. “We think if we get more minorities in positions of power and decision-making that perhaps the problem will correct itself,” she said. “NABJ is rolling out our own survey of network-owned TV stations, and the actual numbers of African Americans at TV stations [vis-à-vis the population] will be very surprising—not to our members, but to the public.”

NABJ is hosting a landmark event at Unity ’08. On a trip to Senegal, Ms. Ciara met President Abdoulaye Wade and learned about his country’s efforts to fight the impact of global warming, in particular the encroaching Sahara desert. Accepting Ms. Ciara’s invitation, President Wade will be the first foreign head of state to speak before a Unity conference. The plenary session, “Confronting Climate Change: An African Perspective,” is sponsored by NABJ and will be moderated by John Yearwood, world editor of the Miami Herald.

Ms. Ciara is excited about the historic nature of President Wade’s appearance at Unity ’08, but she also pointed out practical benefits of his appearance for the NABJ membership.

Specialization Urged

“What President Wade is doing to turn around global warming is incredible,” she said. “We’re encouraging our members to do specialized reporting like environmental or health, so they have more opportunities. Everything we’re doing is about member benefit. It’s critical for our members to survive the journalism industry.”

Another plenary session will focus on the decades between 1968, the date of the Kerner Commission report on civil disorder in the U.S., and 2008 and beyond. Panelists will represent all four of Unity’s partnership organizations. “I think it’s going to be interesting to hear the perspective of those who were there then and are still active now in the world of journalism,” said Ms. Ciara. “To hear them speak about the passion and the sense of purpose that journalists had then, and what they’re faced with now, is a perspective that will help us figure out where we go from here.”

NABJ also is sponsoring a panel on “Jeremiah Wright and Jena: Who Covered It and Who Got It Right?” Moderated by radio personality Tom Joyner, the panelists will discuss how nontraditional media such as the Internet can magnify and even transform a small-town event or obscure video into worldwide news.

The upcoming presidential election will loom large at Unity ’08, with a prime-time discussion set for Thursday between the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates, both of whom will face questions from the four alliance partners. “We’re definitely looking forward to this and to the presidential election,” said Ms. Freeman. “At the NABJ convention in 2007, we had both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Republicans had a conflict in their schedule. It was a packed house with over 2,000 attendees. We’re looking for more of the same. We’re clearly hoping to see history with Obama and McCain on stage.”

Even so, Ms. Ciara said, “The historic nature of this year’s presidential race underscores the lack of minority numbers covering the presidential race.”

NABJ will salute excellence at its July 26 gala. Miami Herald columnist Leonard
Pitts Jr. has been named Journalist of the Year, and Harry Porterfield, a reporter at ABC affiliate WLS-TV in Chicago, will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“People will hear stories of life and death, honor good journalism and learn to be better journalists,” said Ms. Ciara. “We’ll wrestle with our demons in surviving this industry, but we’ll also have a little fun. Sometimes, it’s like a family reunion. ”