Minority journalist conference
welcomes gay group
by Matthew S. Bajko
LGBT individuals have attended the quadrennial Unity confabs held by minority journalist groups for decades. This year marked the first time that they helped organize it.
After the National Association of Black Journalists voted in 2011 to end its relationship with Unity over a dispute about finances and governance, the remaining groups invited the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association to become a member and help plan the 2012 conference, which took place last week in Las Vegas.
It had been a longtime goal of founding NLGJA member Leroy "Roy" Aarons, a former editor at the Oakland Tribune who died in 2004, for the group to join Unity. But Aaron's entreaties were always rebuffed.
That changed last summer when NLGJA's board voted to unite with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Native American Journalists Association to present the four-day convention that drew more than 2,000 media professionals to Sin City.
The inclusion of NLGJA at Unity was largely celebrated during the event. The majority of attendees were more focused on landing a job offer or meeting new contacts than on whether the LGBT journalists belonged at the convention.
(Photo: Matthew Mullins/NLGJA)
"I think it has largely been supportive," said NLGJA national board secretary Ken Miguel, a segment producer for ABC7 in San Francisco, when asked to describe NLGJA's reception at Unity. "I think it has given us a bigger platform to share our collective vision on fairness and accuracy in coverage."
Sharif Durhams, a member of both NABJ and NLGJA, on whose national board he serves, has attended the last three consecutive Unity conventions. He said attendees this year had been "incredibly welcoming" of the gay journalist group.
"People have been curious about our organization and the benefits we bring our members," said Durhams, the social media editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I hope members of NLGJA see the similarities in the discrimination some of these other minority groups face."
Durhams added that he hoped NLGJA's inclusion in Unity would result in discussions about race and sexual orientation as it relates to the news media.
"I also hope our members get asked challenging questions. There is homophobia in communities of color just as there is racism in the gay community. I hope we are challenging each other to explore those issues," said Durhams.
The August 1 opening plenary, in fact, zeroed in on those topics as the discussion about covering race and LGBT issues turned to the ongoing debate over expanding Unity's membership to include LGBT people and dropping "Journalists of Color" from its name.
ESPN editor and CNN commentator LZ Granderson, who is gay and black, ruffled feathers when he suggested homophobia played a role in why NABJ voted to keep NLGJA out of Unity for years.
In an interview with OutQ News, NABJ board president Gregory Lee denied charges that his association was motivated by anti-gay bias in not wanting NLGJA to join Unity.
"I'm sick of everyone jumping on our organization and saying that we're homophobic. We're not," said Lee, who attended the Unity confab. "We've been pioneers; we have our own gay and lesbian task force. It's wrong, and I'm sick of it."
But Lee added that the Unity name change has complicated talks about having NABJ rejoin the group. And he told OutQ News that one condition for having the black journalist group return would be to hold a vote on having the gay journalist group remain a member.
The controversy appeared to play out more in press coverage of Unity than at the conference itself. Conference attendees paid more attention to a brouhaha over the Hispanic journalists' board blocking live coverage of its meeting on Twitter by a student journalist than whether NLGJA should be present.
And the decision of President Barack Obama and his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney to skip the confab also generated derision, particularly after Romney arrived Friday, August 3 to speak at a campaign event in North Las Vegas. Obama, who addressed the Unity convention in 2008, also was a no-show this year; his campaign sent Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) on Obama's behalf.
NABJ's absence was also felt.
"I definitely think there is tension in the room with NABJ not being here," said Miguel. "I think of the groups here, nobody made me feel unwelcome."
Durhams added that he hopes NABJ will rejoin Unity by 2016 for the next conference.
"It does change the vibe of this event by not having NABJ a partner," he said.
David Steinberg, who stepped down Sunday as NLGJA's national board president due to term limits, said seeing the association become an official member of Unity was one of his biggest accomplishments over the last four years. Aarons would be "very, very happy it happened," he added.
"The people here, at least in my experience, have been wonderfully accepting and very happy to see us join, " said Steinberg, a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. "A lot of people have come up to me and said they think it is overdue, it makes sense, and they are so glad we are here."
As for the Unity name change, Steinberg said the request came from NLGJA in order to reflect the new dynamics of the group and the makeup of conference attendees. It passed the Unity board 11-4 with one abstention.
"For some people the term 'journalists of color' has a very emotional response. Whether true or not, there were some people in NLGJA who felt the name 'journalists of color' was adopted specifically to keep NLGJA out," said Steinberg, who met with Lee for 20 minutes during the conference. "Whether true or not, it is irrelevant. But because people felt that, you had to address that."
Since he took over as president in 2008, Steinberg has helped steward NLGJA through a fiscal crisis that almost saw the professional group shut down. It is now stable and has roughly 600 members.
"There were some ups and downs the last four years. We are now in good shape," said Steinberg. "We are smaller but more financially sound than we were. Having NLGJA join Unity was the icing on the cake."
At its meeting July 31 NLGJA's board voted in Michael Triplett, the assistant managing editor for Bloomberg BNA Inc., as its new president following the results of an election among members of the 23-year-old professional association.
"I am honored to have been elected president of NLGJA," said Triplett. "This is an organization with an amazing future ahead of it and I look forward to being part of that future. Thanks to David Steinberg, our outgoing president, who guided us through some of our most challenging years and put us on our positive path."
The board also confirmed as its vice president of print and digital media Sarah Blazucki, the editor of the Philadelphia Gay News. And Laura Kutch, community relations manager at ABC7 in San Francisco, was seated as a new member of the board.
NLGJA announced during the Unity confab that its 2013 national convention and ninth LGBT Media Summit will take place August 22-25 in Boston.
Full disclosure: Matthew S. Bajko is a member of NLGJA and stepped down from the national board this month after serving on it as a representative for the LGBT press the last four years.