Media: After 27 years, a black journalists’ group finds itself at a crossroads.
THE National Association of Black Journalists, founded 27 years ago to promote the careers of black newsmen and newswomen, and to open the profession’s blinkered outlook on issues involving ethnic minorities, has reached an awkward maturity. It is old enough to be proud of its past. But if it ever was certain about what it is, what it needs to do and how to do it, that certainty is fading.
About 2,000 people attended this year’s annual meeting here, down 25 percent from last year. The group has lost 300 full members in the last year, about 10 percent of the current total of 3,000. And this week its leadership temporarily cut the association’s ties with its large Chicago affiliate, which was riven by an internal feud.
Externally, the media organizations which once lavished support on the group’s conventions, sponsoring lunches and dinners, are funneling their donations into skills training. And there were no big-name keynote speakers, compared with past conventions, which featured the likes of Thabo Mbeki when he was still an antiapartheid advocate (well before he became South Africa’s president) and the American civil rights crusader Julian Bond.
Instead of the lavish corporate-sponsored sit-down lunches of past meetings, mobile vendors sold hot dogs, tacos, burritos, sandwiches, coffee and cookies. And while financial stability has returned — the organization’s budget was narrowly in the black in 2001, after posting a deficit of $344,000 in 2000 — some internships and other initiatives had to be trimmed back.
Meanwhile, the association’s core beliefs are under attack — and misrepresented, the group’s leadership would argue — by the author William McGowan, whose recent book, ”Coloring the News,” argues that newsrooms, in their quest for diversity, have donned a new and dangerous set of blinkers that keep them from close examination of issues like race and feminism.
Still, there was evident interest and enthusiasm in some of the convention’s workshops. And some of the most popular focused not on becoming better at journalism, but on leaving it — sessions that focused on how to become a Hollywood screenwriter, how to get into marketing and how to produce daytime talk shows.
The convention program’s capsule description of the talk show workshop read: ”Lights! Camera! Action! This session will show you how a talk show is created and produced. Learn how to book the gregarious guest and write the scintillating script. This session is ideal for news producers and journalists seeking a transition.” One of the panelists was a producer for ”The Jenny Jones Show.”
Afterward, a San Jose Mercury journalist approached one of the panelists, Chris Conti, the senior vice president for drama development at NBC Entertainment, to say, ”I have hundreds of good ideas” for scripts. Mr. Conti later said he had come to Milwaukee to troll for talented black writers because he wanted his network’s programming to have a broader perspective — the same goal the group’s 44 founders had for journalism in 1975.
The popularity of the workshops on how to get out of journalism illustrated the problem facing the leaders of the National Association of Black Journalists. The organization has weathered fiscal crisis and political controversy (for instance, over its statement of doubt in 1995 about the guilt of the convicted killer of a Philadelphia police officer). Now the indifference of the current and potential members seems to be the association’s greatest challenge. And one key to overcoming that indifference is to use its platforms to offer members a road map for leaving journalism.
Condace Pressley, the Atlanta radio journalist who is midway through her two-year term as president, said she was working to poll the membership on what it wants out of the convention — a gathering that has both symbolic and practical importance, since two-thirds of the group’s $1.7 million budget comes from convention dues and sponsorships.
Her vision of the organization has at least two parts. On the one hand, she said, full-time journalists working in newsrooms are the heart of the organization, and those who do not know about her organization need to be identified and recruited, she said. On the other, she said, the association should stand for entrepreneurship, giving its members a taste of possibilities for advancement inside and outside the news business.
But is an entrepreneurial journalist likely to remain a full-time journalist? The fight in the Chicago chapter turns in part on whether a lawyer and a freelance photographer really qualified for full membership in the association, as required of the officers of the group’s regional affiliates.
Today, one of the organization’s founders argued for tightening membership restrictions — a return to ”quality membership” he called it. Ms. Pressley talked matter of factly about holding affiliates to the association’s membership rules. It was a mark of her leadership style. Compared with her high-visibility, more confrontational immedidate predecessors, she has shown herself to be a pragmatist.
But that pragmatism leaves her with a puzzle: what does a journalism organization do to sustain itself and keep full-time professionals as its core membership, when one of the things that excites its members is the idea of leaving journalism?