Why supporting NABJ today is an investment in the future of journalism

Thousands gather in New Orleans this week for the annual convention

A scene from the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel during the 2016 NABJ NAHJ joint convention in Washington, D.C. (Photos by Michael D. Bolden)

This week I’m taking a trip into the past with high hopes for the future. I’m headed to New Orleans and the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists.

It’s a trip into the past because New Orleans is where I began my professional journalism career, as a copy editor and education reporter for The Times-Picayune.

It’s a trip into the future because NABJ, self-described as “the largest organization of journalists of color in the nation,” is expecting more than 3,000 journalists in New Orleans this week. It is an essential part of the future of journalism in our country, and is committed to diversity in the industry, a belief that we at the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University view as core to our work and a necessity for fairly and accurately informing the public.

Our nation is growing more diverse. According to U.S. Census estimates, people of color will comprise the majority in our nation by 2044. Many of our largest cities are already there. Yet, too often, society — and news organizations — neglect that diversity. The perspectives of people of color are ignored, misrepresented or patronized. Many times, it’s because people of color don’t have a seat in the newsroom.

NAHJ President Mekhalo Medina and NABJ President Sarah Glover during the 2016 joint convention in Washington, D.C.

Just this past week, Richard Prince, writing in his column on diversity issues in journalism, detailed how the Houston Chronicle was losing several journalists of color, even as it serves “one of the nation’s most diverse cities” and strives to improve its diversity numbers. No matter how well intentioned newsroom leaders may be, you can’t substitute goodwill for having diverse people and perspectives in the conversation when decisions about stories and projects are being made.

I began studying journalism in college 30 years ago. I was a New York Times Scholar at the University of Alabama, and Times editor (and NABJ co-founder) Paul Delaney was among the news leaders who spent time with my cohort, investing in the diversity of some of journalism’s future leaders. Three decades later, we’re still wrestling with these issues.

The American Society of News Editors has tracked the ups and downs in newsroom diversity since 1978, when it was 4 percent. The numbers have hovered between 11 and 14 percent for the last 20 years. The 2016 Diversity Survey put the number of minority journalists at a marginally better 17 percent (with caveats because of differences in the number of organizations responding to the survey), while the country is about 38 percent people of color. In fact, in recent years the news about how poorly news organizations have been doing on diversity has been drowned out by the overall loss of jobs in the industry. This year ASNE has partnered with Google News Lab to try to refocus on the diversity numbers and capture a more precise view of what is happening across news organizations (those results should be out soon). But one thing stands out: The lack of meaningful progress is shameful.

NABJ President Sarah Glover said, “While there have been some strides made to increase diversity in newsrooms, progress has not been adequate. Gains are evident but at a snail’s pace. At a time of changing demographics where the U.S. population will be majority-minority in 2044 according to the U.S. Census, a diverse workforce is crucial to produce coverage that is fair and accurate in order to attract new audiences and viewers. There must be a renewed effort and commitment to make diversity a priority. No excuses.”

Absolutely.

To be clear, we are all responsible for advancing diversity in news organizations, whether it’s a legacy newspaper on the East Coast, a digital startup in Silicon Valley or a local press club. But NABJ and its counterparts, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, and several others, are in the vanguard of this work. They embrace the bedrock journalism mission of fairly meeting the information needs of the public, while addressing equity and inclusion in the practice of the craft, and helping their members adapt to the complex technological changes that are transforming news organizations.

Michelle Johnson, JSK ’94, right, mentors young journalists in the student newsroom during the NABJ convention in Minneapolis in 2015.

This week’s conference shows the breadth of that work. Panels, workshops, boot camps and leadership institutes will offer a wide range of training on the latest tools and methodologies, data-driven storytelling, investigative reporting, becoming a newsroom leader, and more. JSK Fellows will be in the mix, demonstrating ideas on journalism innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership, which along with diversity, are central to our mission.

Michelle Johnson, JSK ’94, an associate professor of the practice at Boston University and a former Boston Globe editor, serves as the academic representative to the NABJ board. This year, she’ll also be talking with the young journalists working on the multimedia student project (which she devoted years to as a mentor), running a workshop for journalism educators, and co-leading training on using Google tools for news.

Yvonne Leow, JSK ’15, president of the Asian American Journalists Association, is attending NABJ for the first time, to teach at the American Society of News Editors Emerging Leaders Institute, which focuses on training diverse talent.

Tracie Powell, JSK ’16, founder of allDigitocracy and a senior fellow at the Democracy Fund, will appear on three panels, including discussing the value of fellowships in a discussion on Saturday morning.

Michael Grant, an incoming fellow and creative director of the San Francisco Business Times, chairs the NABJ Digital Task Force and is co-chair of the association’s HBCU Task Force. He will participate in a panel on Saturday on the challenges of “managing across generations in a digital newsroom.”

So, this week, a trip to New Orleans is a trip into the future, because diversity is the future of journalism. That’s why I’m a member of NABJ (and several other journalism organizations) and why I’m headed to the Gulf Coast this week. The mission is urgent. The need is critical. I hope to see you there.

Michael Bolden is the managing director, editorial and operations, for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, a professional program that supports innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism worldwide. Email him at bolden@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @michaelbolden.

MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid moderates a panel during NABJ 2015 in Minneapolis.