Opinion: NAHJ Must Reinvent itself, Just as Many of Its Members Have

The theme for this year’s National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ convention is “Un Nuevo Amanecer: A New Day for Our Story.” As we gather in Orlando over the next few days, these words have become more fitting than we initially envisioned.

Soon after the convention ends, the organization will be reducing its staff to an executive director and one part-time staffer. Executive director Iván Román announced his resignation in April and will be leaving his position later this summer. A search for a replacement is ongoing. 

Board decisions were not made lightly, but NAHJ’s economic issues left virtually no other options. For consecutive years, the organization faced a six-figure year-end deficit. To continue down that road would have meant the end of NAHJ.

However, as our theme this year suggests, this is not the end, but a new beginning.

The narrative is familiar to the many journalists who have been affected by the layoffs that shook our industry over the last few years. As NAHJ’s Region 2 director (covering New York, New Jersey and New England), I have had the opportunity to meet a number of these members and have been incredibly impressed by their optimism and the way they have worked to reinvent themselves and emerge from these tribulations as stronger, multidimensional media professionals.

NAHJ has an opportunity to do the same.

With any kind of sweeping change, feelings of hesitation and trepidation are natural. However, change is also a time for excitement, optimism and possibilities. Just as our members have reinvented themselves – a number of them with assistance from this very organization – so must NAHJ.

Assigning blame and harping on problems is easy. But such distractions do little to improve the state of this organization. Instead, we need to look at what positive changes we can enact.

First, NAHJ needs to ask less and provide more. The fundraising strategy the last few years has relied too heavily on asking members to give. Clearly, member contributions are an important tenet of fundraising, but the truth is, in an economy just climbing out of a recession, members have fewer dollars to give. NAHJ cannot – and should not – ask members to make sacrifices in their lives to offset NAHJ’s budgetary shortcomings.

NAHJ needs to be a blessing, not a financial burden in members’ lives. Fundraising, a critical part of any nonprofit’s survival, should be a priority both at the national and local levels, but a fundamental change in the approach needs to be made.

It needs to offer its members something they want to be a part of at a price they can afford. Regional events, especially in areas where we have large concentrations of members, are one way NAHJ can accomplish this goal. 

As someone who has organized three major regional events, I know these efforts take time and energy, but I also can attest to the overwhelming benefits they provide to the organization, in terms of funding and the momentum and enthusiasm they generate.

We have seen the rewards of such efforts within the NAHJ New York City chapter. Between chapter meetings, our silent auction and a regional conference, dozens of members came out to an NAHJ event for the first time or came back into the fold after years away.

These events do not have to be huge in scale. Dallas has done a phenomenal job in holding single-session workshops. Orlando held a raffle with a handful of donated items. With generous support from the New York Mets, NAHJ NYC and the Sports Task Force hosted a mixer at Citi Field. Every time we bring our members together on a regional stage, NAHJ becomes stronger as a whole on a national level.

That sense of community is what I believe to be the greatest feature NAHJ can offer. Multimedia training and professional development opportunities are wonderful, but the reason many NAHJ members join this organization, in my opinion, is to connect with other journalists – to learn from them and give back to them.

NAHJ needs to reposition itself as a multigenerational organization. It does a stellar job at serving our student members, but we need to continue to be a resource for members throughout their careers.

One of NAHJ’s greatest assets is that the organization is comprised of talented journalists at every stage of their professional lives. Our founding and longtime members have experiences and insights into the field that only decades of work can provide; our mid-career members have their own unique perspectives, having come up through the industry at the same time as the digital media revolution; and our student and younger members provide us a glimpse into the future of journalism, bringing a fresh take to the table.

The more we can bring these generations together, the more we can learn from each other.

Networking is essential to success in this industry and should be an essential part of NAHJ’s services. From having 100-plus members at a regional conference or four members getting together for happy hour, NAHJ should be about building relationships.

As the industry evolves, collaborations become more important. UNITY is a great example, but it should not be the only one. Our “Beyond the Border” collaboration with New York University and the University of Arizona illustrated the power of such joint ventures. The project produced a number of compelling stories about the Latino community and provided an opportunity for both our student and professional members to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime reporting experience.  

Furthermore, such collaborations build relationships with organizations and institutions that we can utilize in the future to strengthen both parties.

NAHJ also needs to do a better job of appealing to those working in Spanish-language media. A common theme among Spanish-language journalists is that NAHJ doesn’t offer enough for them. 

NAHJ needs to change this perception. 

The creation of the Spanish-language Task Force is a step in the right direction, but efforts need to be made to continue down that path. NAHJ should actively target Spanish-language outlets for membership recruitment and then provide services, from creating additional programming to offering more information in Spanish.

With English-dominant, Spanish-dominant and bilingual members, NAHJ needs to adopt targeted approaches to growing membership. The broader our collective membership, the greater impact we’ll be able to have within our communities and our industry.

Many members have voiced concerns about the need for more transparency and better communication. Messages need to be clear and concerns should be addressed openly and quickly. Hopefully, an improved web presence (which is in the works) and more town halls (whether in person, via conference call or on the web) will make this process more effective.

The more we provide members – be it information, programming or networking opportunities – the more people will want to become members.

A stronger NAHJ will allow us to provide an even better experience for the wonderful sponsors that play such an important role in helping sustain our organization.

NAHJ needs to cultivate these existing relationships, with members and sponsors, and reiterate its appreciation for the tremendous contributions everyone affiliated with this organization makes. Each individual makes this organization more valuable.

Our organization is more relevant and necessary than ever before. We are in the middle of a social revolution that is defining the face and voice of a nation, the effects of which may not be fully understood for years to come. NAHJ has both an opportunity and a responsibility to push for a more diverse media that reflects the populations it serves and to lead its community of Latino journalists in telling these stories of unrivaled change.

Embarking on a new journey is never easy, but changing course is often the only way to improve and grow.

We all know that journalism has entered a new era, and NAHJ must adapt and evolve to meet these changing times. Un nuevo amanecer, a new beginning, will allow NAHJ to emerge a stronger, more unified organization.

Maria Burns Ortiz is the outgoing NAHJ Region 2 director and the current NAHJ Sports Task Force chair. She was a founding member and vice president of NAHJ New England and is an alumna of the 2003 Student Campus. She is a lifetime member of NAHJ and regular contributor to Fox News Latino. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely hers and do not necessarily reflect those of NAHJ.

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