TAMPA — With their numbers shrinking faster than any other minority group, black journalists from around the U.S. will gather here today to learn ways to keep their jobs and compete for future ones.
This week's meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists at the Tampa Convention Center comes at a critical time for the industry. Advertising cutbacks are burying media companies in red ink. Many newspapers have trimmed pay and slashed staffs. A few have folded or gone Web-only.
All the while, Web sites, blogs and social media networks are multiplying, becoming viable competitors of traditional, mainstream media.
The biggest casualty, according to figures from the American Society of News Editors, is black journalists. Nearly 400 of them lost jobs in 2008 — the largest drop for any minority group.
While there has been a net increase in Asian, Latino and Native American journalists at U.S. daily newspapers since 2001, there has been a net decrease of African American journalists. Overall, the number of minority journalists has returned to 1998 levels.
"We feel like we're losing ground," said Barbara Ciara, whose two-year term as NABJ president ends this week. "The best way to combat that is through education."
Forty-four men and women founded NABJ in December 1975 to provide support, advocacy and training to other black journalists. The organization has since grown into a $2.2 million, 3,200-member association — the largest of its kind for journalists of color.
The way NABJ sees it, a more diverse newsroom is more reflective of the multicultural audience it serves, more accurate and fairer.
To offset what Ciara has called the "bloodletting" of black journalists, the 34th NABJ convention has been designed to give aspiring, beginning, midcareer and seasoned media professionals and students more hands-on training than in previous years.
"If you've been laid off, we want you to develop a new skill, expose you to something new, be in a position where you can reclaim your sense of belonging in the journalism community and reinvent, if necessary, so that you can change with the evolution of this business," Ciara said. "The old model of having workshops where people talk at you is not necessarily an effective teaching tool. We need to get people on the equipment."
Over the next five days, entities ranging from Google and Microsoft to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (owner of the St. Petersburg Times) and the Gannett Foundation will facilitate more than 50 workshops, learning labs and short courses. Sessions range from "Multimedia Gadgets and Tricks of the Trade" to "RSS, Widgets, Twitter. What Does It All Mean, Anyway?"
"We want people to know how to navigate their own Web sites, manage online tools, create things, post things, podcasts, Webcasts — know how to shoot, know how to edit," Ciara said.
The NABJ convention, which the county's convention and tourism bureau estimates will pump $2.3 million into the local economy, will be leaner than in past years. It typically draws more than 3,000 people. The number of people headed to Tampa stood at 1,566 as of Tuesday.
More than 80 would not have been able to attend without a $150,000 grant NABJ received from the Ford Foundation.
Other associations are feeling the economic pinch, too. Only 800 people attended this year's gathering of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The American Society of News Editors canceled its annual meeting.
NABJ, Ciara said, never considered canceling or suspending the convention. It is the association's primary revenue source. According to NABJ, 50 percent of the organization's revenue comes from the group's annual meeting.
"We planned for a worst-case scenario," Ciara said. "We budgeted for 1,500 registrants and we're going to get just over that number."
Success, however, won't be measured by attendance and revenue figures alone, she said.
"When media companies say, 'Who do you have that can fill this slot,' we want to be able to reach out to our membership and say, 'We know for a fact that these people are qualified,' " Ciara said.
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.