Over lunch or drinks, Gonzalez, a founder of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Sutton, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, used to trade similar stories--of managers who said they couldn't find qualified journalists of color to hire, white reporters who said they couldn't get jobs because of quotas, and minority journalists who said they couldn't get promoted into decision-making positions.
"We heard these [comments] regularly then," says Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist and former Philadelphia Daily News reporter. "Clearly, things have changed quite a bit."
His shoptalk with Sutton, then a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and now a deputy managing editor of Raleigh's News & Observer, played a part. The two took their traded tales back to their respective boards, wanting to get the groups together. After a series of meetings and over a number of years, UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc.--an alliance of NABJ, NAHJ, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association--was born.
The group, which first came together in 1994, is responsible for what may be the largest gathering of journalists in U.S. history. From July 7 to 11, as many as 8,000 journalists and students--nonwhite and white--are expected to converge upon a Seattle convention center for the 300-plus-booth job fair and 140-plus workshops organized by UNITY.
How can such a young entity throw such a big party? With diversity as a hiring imperative at most media outlets, UNITY's constituents are in demand.
People of color represent about 26 percent of the nation's population, but they comprise less than 12 percent of daily newspaper editorial employees (Asian Americans, 2.29 percent; blacks, 5.36 percent; Hispanics, 3.46 percent; and Native Americans, .44 percent), according to a 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey.
UNITY seeks to change that by promoting the presence and advancement of journalists of color. It prides itself on practicing the cultural pluralism it preaches: Its presidency rotates among the four groups, and its board includes equal representation from each.
But as newsrooms have struggled with multiculturalism, so has UNITY. When Washington state voters last year began considering Initiative 200, an anti-affirmative action ballot measure, some began questioning the convention site.
NABJ members, especially, voiced concerns, asking UNITY last spring to look into changing cities. They also asked about the implications of NABJ pulling out of the Seattle convention, which sparked heated argument within UNITY.
"Nobody was talking about carrying picket signs," says Jackie Greene, NABJ's UNITY representative and USA Today's director for technology planning. "We wanted to explore our options." UNITY's board initially balked at even considering a site change, though it reluctantly agreed to look into it in October. The Washington initiative, which bans preferential treatment based on race, sex and national origin in state and local government employment, education and contracting, passed statewide November 3, though Seattle voters rejected it. On November 4, NABJ's board voted to attend the Seattle convention.
"We got past it," Greene says, noting tensions among UNITY board members had been so intense that a consultant for UNITY talked with the association presidents about trust and dealing with difficult issues.
Similar issues arose before the first convention, UNITY '94 in Atlanta. Some participants had objections related to the Atlanta Braves baseball team's mascot, and many raised concerns about the relatively small numbers of nonblack minorities in Atlanta--which is largely why Seattle, a city with strong Asian American and Native American populations, was chosen for UNITY '99.
Ultimately, UNITY '94 was a success, drawing more than 6,000. "I don't think anyone knew what the first UNITY would be--how big and how joyous and how powerful," says Kara Briggs, NAJA president, UNITY's 1998 president and a reporter for Portland's Oregonian.
Organizers intend this year's event to be the Woodstock to UNITY '94's Monterey Pop--even more memorable and unifying than its ground-breaking model. In Atlanta, the groups had separate headquarters, but "we're mixing people up this year" in more than a dozen hotels, says Walt Swanston, UNITY's executive director. Programs cover everything from diversity fatigue to new technology, from working in small markets to understanding the global economy.
The time and place for future gatherings remain uncertain, but "there is a need," Gonzalez says. "UNITY is the closest thing rank-and-file journalists have to a democratic forum. It's an imperfect form, but it is the closest thing we have."
When Juan Gonzalez and Will Sutton weren't competing on the beat they shared more than a decade ago, the reporters discovered they had more in common than Philadelphia City Hall.