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Despite challenges, Black journalists prepare to meet demands of industry

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 17, 2011 - 10:46:50 AM

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PHILADELPHIA (FinalCall.com) - Faced with layoffs, decreasing numbers in America's newsrooms and a whiteout on cable during primetime news shows, thousands of Black journalists from around the country gathered in the city of brotherly love to discuss their own “reinvention and restructuring” to meet the demands of an often hostile industry.

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“It's heartbreaking to think that one third of the Black journalists in newsrooms in 2001 are not there anymore. There are no Black editors in Metro and Sports. Houston, we have a problem,” National Association of Black Journalist (NABJ) outgoing President Kathy Times told the opening session of the group's 36th conference.

This newsmaker plenary featured Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who told the audience that their work raises the issues of, “what's right and what's wrong. Without your work, we wouldn't have a starting point for the pursuit of justice.”

“Keep up your work. Keep asking the tough questions. Keep insisting that the full story of American be told,” he said. “I'm glad to count you as partners.”

He was asked why the assassination of Malcolm X wouldn't be reopened.

“We have limited resources and there was a small possibility we would come up with a crime to prosecute in federal court. If evidence comes up we have the possibility of reopening the case.”

AOL's purchase of Huffington Post put its founder in the spotlight but what had many journalists upset was the fact that the site's blogger's, which helped to make it popular and well read, are unpaid.

Session attendees were greeted by representatives from the National Writers Union handing out flyers that read, “Pay the Writers!”.

Ms. Huffington addressed this issue by saying her site offers two things, news and blogs. “I have 1300 journalists on payroll and I also offer a platform for people to post for greater distribution.”

“People can choose to participate in the platform, if they have something they want to write that requires wider distribution, or not to participate in the platform,” Ms. Huffington said. “We are not dependent on them.”

Her appearance came on the same day that she launched HuffPost BlackVoices. She explained that there is a “split-screen world” the nation lives in when it comes to Black communities.

“African-Americans saw their wealth drop by over 50 percent,” Ms. Huffington said. “If White America had seen its wealth drop by over 50 percent, the establishment would be acting as though their hair were on fire.”

It is up to the media to create urgency around these issues, and to throw a spotlight on the “other side of the split-screen,” said Huffington. In addition to those stories, she explained that her new site would also pay more attention to the stories of success and triumph in Black communities.

Another major issue for the Black journalists is the lack of diversity on cable news shows.

Less than two weeks ago, NABJ and the NAACP criticized CNN for missing the opportunity to diversify its nighttime lineup with the forthcoming departure of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as host of two short-lived prime time shows. It was filled by former CNBC anchor Erin Burnett.

“I don't understand any major network's rationale for not being as inclusive as possible,” said Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Executive Director Barbara Arnwine. “This lack of representation has been brought to the major networks' attention repeatedly over the years. It is time for them to walk the walk of diversity at all levels, including prime time talent positions.”

Currently, there are no Black anchors hosting prime time news hours for any major cable network. MSNBC is reportedly considering civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton for a prime time slot, however there are no Black journalists who can tout a similar promotion.

Journal-isms, a news blog by Richard Prince, reported that an irritated NABJ member told colleagues without challenge, “This would still be just another non-journalist media ‘celebrity' receiving a TV show based upon their name recognition, not their years of experience, training, ability and talent.”

That statement irritated Rev. Sharpton who canceled his appearance at the convention. Roland Martin, the NABJ secretary, CNN and TV One commentator, told attendees that he and NABJ President Kathy Y. Times expressed to Rev. Sharpton that comments, published in Journal-isms, represented the views of two members, not the entire NABJ membership of 3,400.

“Rev. Sharpton took offense to the story that was written and thought that was the position of NABJ,” Mr. Martin said. Despite their repeated explanations, “he was still upset by that and felt that by coming here and being a part, that would be the story,” Mr. Martin said.

The conference was also a who's who in the news featuring Dr. Cornel West, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Former GOP Chair Michael Steele. It included skills training workshops and developing new Black media.

NABJ also elected Gregory Lee, Jr. as its next president. At 37, he is the youngest and the first sports journalist to ever hold the position.

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