For those of you unfamiliar with the organization – which unfortunately may be the case for even media-literate folks – the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) is arguably the largest, oldest, and most historically significant media advocacy organization in the world. Founded 40 years ago in a Washington D.C. hotel, the organization has been on the frontlines for much of its history in challenging racism within the media, both in terms of coverage and the lack of diversity in newsrooms. But in recent years, it has garnered some negative publicity – from even some of its past board members – for its recent decline, notably as it relates to its finances.
Let me make this clear, before I get accused of spreading dirt. NABJ is a wonderful organization. Its student programming has jumped start many careers, including those of Roland Martin and Wesley Lowery. It has, in the past, acted as a strong advocate against racism within the press. Remember Don Imus, the old bigot who thought it was funny to call the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team nappy-headed hoes? He was fired largely because NABJ’s leadership at the time, including then-president Bryan Monroe and future president Greg Lee, took the lead on calling for MSNBC and CBS to dump him.
I too owe a great deal to this organization. I got one of my first internships through one of its conventions. I am also an NABJ Baby, having participated in its summer journalism workshop. I also decided to dedicate my doctoral research to learning more about the organization’s rich history. I love NABJ. But the problem is, because of my research, I know it can, and has been a much better organization.
This is why I was taken aback by recent comments made by Sarah Glover, NABJ’s president. In a recent post to the organization’s website, Glover – whom I believe will make a great president – said NABJ was a “thriving” organization. She made the comment to rebut a HuffingtonPost article that declared the organization could soon close its doors, due to its poor financial situation. Glover was right to call the author out for his suggestion. NABJ isn’t closing. Too many people are too invested in it to simply let it die. And Glover has already made some moves to tighten its budget.
But let’s have some real talk. NABJ is not thriving. It’s not even close to thriving. It is an organization that is indeed in financial turmoil, and one that has lost much of its prominence due to its inconsistent efforts to engage in media advocacy.
I’m not going to bore you with the financial issues of NABJ, partially because no one really knows the full scope of those issues. The organization releases its financial data, notably its annual reports, irregularly. This is one reason a group of members created a website, called NABJ Board Watch, to lament about the organization’s financial decline. But one figure that has been routinely published – its net assets – can tell you a great deal about how poorly the organization has faired as compared to the past. In 1998, NABJ ended its fiscal year with net assets of $2.1 million. In 2010, the organization reported year-end net assets of $722,000. And the organization’s finances have been up and down ever since.
So what happened? Convention city selections have also played a role in NABJ’s financial situation. Despite warnings from past boards that cities like Indianapolis, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities would be difficult draws, the organization kept booking expensive convention venues in places like Indianapolis, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities. In each case, the organization’s bottom line was either only marginally improved, or negatively impacted by poor attendance at these conventions. It also goes without saying that the Great Recession and decline of the news industry, which is a major funder of its conventions, added to this turmoil.
But the financial issues are only one part of the story. NABJ has become an advocacy organization that, quite frankly, doesn’t do much advocacy as it pertains to challenging racism within the media.
As detailed in the book, The NABJ Story, the founders of the organization envisioned a broad agenda for the organization rooted in the victories of the Freedom Rights movement. Heeding the call of the Kerner Commission, it certainly sought to increase diversity within newsrooms. That was, however, but one of the organization’s goals in relation to advocacy. NABJ’s original constitution also called for the organization to “sensitize the white media to institutional racism in its coverage.” It declared that it would work to “expand the white media’s coverage and balanced reporting of the black community.” Additionally, the constitution declared that the organization would “critique, through a national newsletter, examples of the media’s reportorial deficiencies as they affect blacks.”
This language, of course, is no longer within NABJ’s constitution. And as the organization has aged, its work in media advocacy – notably outside of the narrow realm of newsroom diversity – has waned significantly.
One major example of this is the decline of its publication, the NABJ Journal. When the Journal transitioned from a newsletter to a glossy magazine in 1996, Herb Lowe, a future NABJ president who helped oversee the change, announced that he wanted the Journal to become “the absolute best trade publication, bar none.” At that time, the publication, at least as it related to issues pertaining to race and media, was quite prolific.
But don’t take it my word on what the NABJ Journal was in its heyday. You can find out yourself by reading Richard Prince’s Journal-isms blog at The Maynard Institute. Prince served as a primary editor of the publication for much of the 1990s. And his current blog – which is the preeminent source of information on issues related to race and journalism – is pretty much a replica of what he did when he wrote for NABJ. And in case you were wondering, its name – which is the same as it was with NABJ – is a reflection of its original source, the NABJ Journal.
What is the Journal now? It’s not Journal-isms. When the publication does come out – it is published on irregular cycles, in some cases only once a year – it typically only features good news about the organization, notably the details of its conventions or award winners. As Richard Prince has noted on his blog repeatedly, NABJ stopped covering its own board meetings after he left.
But the state of the publication shouldn’t matter, right? Today, all an organization needs to do to comment on racism within the media is use Twitter, send out a press release or find someone with a camera willing to listen. Problem is, NABJ hasn’t done much of this over the past eight years. And it doesn’t make any sense.
You literally cannot find a period in American history where the opportunities to talk about racist crap in the media corresponded with the ability to talk about racist crap in the media. We have people freaking out about the Black president, people freaking out about Muslims, police shooting Black men at will and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And, in each case, hundreds of examples of racist news coverage exist. Yet NABJ, which was founded to challenge institutional racism within the media, has rarely had a peep to say publicly about any of it, let along take charge of an issue as they did with the Imus Affair. When a Black journalist gets fired, they are all over it. But when the opportunities to talk about something like the hypocrisies laden within the whole VanillaISIS affair arise, they say nothing. This is what the so-called preeminent media advocacy organization has become today.
That said, I don’t think there is anyone to blame for NABJ’s status. What has happened to the organization is institutional in nature. And it is also what has happened to pretty much every civil rights organization as they have aged.
This is the basic decline model for many organizations. The organization grows. More is expected out of it, which leads to additional revenue costs. To find revenue, the organization eventually starts to seek funding from problematic sources, namely, the people they were designed to critique. Once that happens, the organization stops being as critical of institutional racism. As the new model takes hold, the organization begins to wane in its public significance. It clings to the successes of the past, but in reality, it has little power or ability to actually do what its founders designed the organization to do. Richard Smith, a Black political scientist who has studied civil rights organizations, has referred to this process as incorporation. And this pretty much describes what has happened to NABJ.
How can an organization criticize racism in the media industry when its major funders are Disney and other media corporations? How can it engage in dialogue about larger issues within the African American community when one of its major funders is Rent-A-Center? How can it appeal to the new era of media workers when its conventions, between flights, hotels and other fees, typically cost at least $1,000 to attend?
But here is the good news about NABJ’s situation. Because, quite frankly, the organization has bottomed out financially and politically, the opportunity now exists to remake the organization in a way that reengages it within the larger Black community, and places it back on solid financial footing. To their credit, the board has already taken some steps toward this, notably by announcing that it will no longer hold its conventions at expensive venues. But that alone will not make it thrive as an organization.
The organization must take a more expanded approach to its advocacy efforts. This includes bringing the NABJ Journal back to its to its more comprehensive roots, and taking a more active role in directly challenging racist coverage. Asking the industry to diversify is not enough, especially at a time when all journalists face layoffs. NABJ must bring to its advocacy strong evidence that the lack of diversity is leading to poor coverage of people of color.
NABJ needs to find ways to embrace and empower the emerging nontraditional press, while continuing to serve it constituents within the mainstream press. Finding a way to embrace more activist-oriented journalists will increase the organization’s membership revenue, and provide new voices that can directly critique racism within the media.
The organization also needs to seek out a more diversified revenue streams, that are not tied to the companies it seeks to critique, or to other problematic companies like Rent-A-Center. No advocacy organization can fully engage in critique if it depends on those it seeks to criticize for money. Addition revenue from memberships and grants, in addition to cost cutting, may help with this.
Or, NABJ needs to make an even more difficult decision, and openly acknowledge it is narrowly focused to the needs of journalists color working within mainstream media industries, and other media professionals. Even then, it must find a way to again stay publicly relevant, and create strong alliances with organizations that have similar interests.
Either way, if NABJ wants to thrive as an organization, as opposed to limp along like other aging civil rights entities, leadership must begin to immediately begin the process of getting the entire house in order. Acknowledging the depths of its problems is the first step.
Dr. Letrell Crittenden is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Robert Morris University, and a board member of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation. He studies and writes on issues related to diversity and inclusion with the media industry, and community journalism.