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Welcome to the Future

AUG 6, 2012 10:25am ET
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I’ve just seen a vision of the future.

Not a vision of the mortgage future, although I came here (Las Vegas) on a mortgage-related errand, to pick up a journalism award National Mortgage News received for its coverage of American Indian housing.

I’m talking about the future of the media business, as shown by the work of the student journalists who were all over the coverage of the UNITY 12 conference in Vegas.

UNITY 12 is a once-every-four-years convocation of minority journalists, currently made up of the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association (I am an associate, or non-Native, member of NAJA), and the National Lesbian/Gay Journalists Association. More than 2,100 minority journalists touched down in Vegas and showed the energy that can be produced when you combine intelligence, drive, education, and passion into the coverage of the news.

The UNITY groups are trade associations for journalists of all ages, but it is the student journalists who are given the opportunity to shine the brightest. And shine they did. UNITY 12 isn’t just a giant trade fair for them, where they can hope to be recruited by CNN, Accuweather, Gannett or McClatchy (though there was quite an impressive trade show here for just that purpose). No, they have to sing for their supper.

The UNITY News operation, (www.unitynews.org) produced by student journalists and a mentoring team, put out a daily convention print newspaper, a daily video feed, audio stories for radio output, and of course were all over the social media.

It would be very easy to cover this conference in soft tones. There’s a lot of great stuff happening here. The big news orgs are at their best, recruiting minority journalists. The minority journalists are at their best, flexing their muscles with the strength in numbers they exhibit both physically and figuratively.

UNITY News didn’t do that. Or at least, that’s not all they covered. The first thing that happened was that one of them promptly got thrown out of a NAHJ meeting for tweeting news from the room (they were also filming).

Now, the irony of a trade group of journalists clamping down on coverage of their meeting wasn’t lost on anybody, and it cast a wide shadow over the meeting. UNITY News immediately recognized that and did a full video piece showing them getting the boot but also trying to get NAHJ’s side of the story as their meeting broke up. And they covered the event in the convention daily, with a followup story in print the next day as well. They did great.

This probably wasn’t NAHJ’s finest hour but there are two sides to every story. As someone who has covered many meetings over the years I am fine with an organization putting its internal sessions off the record or saying journalists are not allowed to attend. I believe NAHJ (and any other private firm or association) is perfectly justified in holding organizational meetings in private. It just has to be clear in advance. Ambiguity creates the kind of media buzz generated here.

A second hot story got full attention from the students. That was the absence of the National Association of Black Journalists from the convention. NABJ withdrew from UNITY last year, citing financial disputes, and the NLGJA subsequently joined. The student coverage went straight to the 600 pound elephant in the room: was homophobia involved? It’s not immediately apparent to me that homophobia was involved, or at least was not the precipitating factor for the split, but it was certainly worth raising the question.

Also, there was a smattering of black journalists at the meeting, despite the official split. I’m told the president of NABJ attended, and if so, props to him and the other black journalists that were there (some of them also may have been members of the one of the other groups. At least one woman here belongs to all four groups—something else I learned from UNITY News). Maybe this divorce isn’t quite final. Certainly the split has hurt UNITY as NABJ was the largest group in the coalition.

UNITY News didn’t stick to the convention floor but ventured outside into a hot Vegas summer to see what was going on in the host city. A video/print piece on homelessness profiled a woman who lived for years in a Vegas storm drain. Another took on prostitution in Sin City. A radio report interviewed an Elvis impersonator and noticed the raggedy edges of his costume, a sign that the recession has hit even the Elvis impersonators. Another, with the Colorado theater shooting fresh in mind, visited a local gun dealer. (I myself was appalled to see an ad touting Uzis for sale on a wall at McCarran Airport.)

Curiosity is a great trait for a journalist. Somebody noticed that the convention next door to UNITY was the Deaf Nation convention, so over they went for a report. The icing on the cake was interviewing a barista from the Starbucks the deaf people were getting their coffee from, and his efforts to learn a little elementary sign language. A terrific story.

President Obama and Mitt Romney were both invited to UNITY 12 to kick off the conference, and their no-shows prompted another timely student piece. (The Democrats did send a surrogate; I do not think the Republicans did.)

As a former obit reporter myself, I can appreciate the feelings that come up when you have to do an obit on someone you knew. Young as they are, these journalists had to prepare such a report, which they did with unflinching professionalism and obviously broken hearts. One of the student journalists set to be at UNITY 12, “Mando” Montano, died just a month before the show in Mexico City, where he was working for the Associated Press. With no prior knowledge of this beloved 22-year-old journalist, I got the certain feeling from the photos of him and the interviews with his fellow student journalists that the world, and the media business, lost a big spirit when Mando died.

And there may be a bit of unfinished business here. A scan of the Web turns up no cause of death for Mando, though he died more than a month ago. I have no knowledge of what happened, but if one of my journalists was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft, I’d want to be damn sure it was an accident and not a crime.

Nothing anybody does is perfect. The print editions had a hurried feel about them, with glitches like unbolded subheads and a missing jump page line. The group might also have looked into Native stories a little deeper. The Las Vegas Paiute tribe is an easy drive from the city and would have made a stark contrast to the bright lights-big city vibe of its neighbor. And though there was a print story about what it means to be an Indian, there was an intricate examination of Native identity (in the wake of the Elizabeth Warren debacle) at one of the sessions that would have made a thoughtful follow.

In general, though, the UNITY News operation did a standout job. I guess if you’ve read this far you’ll have gotten a feeling of the tremendous respect I have for these young journalists. As old media slowly withers away and new media brings immediacy but also the threat of shallowness and inaccuracy to newsgathering, I’m feeling hopeful these young people (meet them at http://unitynews.org/2012/unity-staff/) will navigate these roiled waters with skill and passion. They would be a valuable asset to any media organization in the world.

Comments (1)
Thanks so much for the kind words about UNITY News. I was one of the mentors on the project. We (the mentors) are so proud of the student staff and we were amazed at how hard they were willing to work. They happily took on whatever they were expected to cover at the convention and the host city, Las Vegas. They pitched many of the stories that they produced.
You're right. We had some small glitches, but overall it was a terrific effort by a "pop-up" newsroom. :)
Thanks again for the acknowledgement.
Posted by | Monday, August 06 2012 at 12:50PM ET
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