In the marble corridors of Philadelphia City Hall, reporters Will Sutton and Juan Gonzalez tried to "beat each other's brains out" while competing for news, Sutton said. But at day's end, they shared in the timeless tradition of downing beers at a local pub and griping about their workplace.
Sutton, who is black, wanted to see more minorities in the Philadelphia Inquirer's newsroom. Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican, wanted the same at the Philadelphia Daily News. During one conversation, they seized on the idea of joining their black and Hispanic journalism associations to advocate for more diversity in their profession.
Phonethip Liu of the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville confers with students Walter Gabriel, left, and Gregory Lee, deputy high school editor for The Washington Post, about a graphic they are working on for the Unity News.
(Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
That conversation in 1986 sent them tumbling down a rabbit hole, into a world where the nation's four largest racial minorities share a common feeling of discrimination by the white majority -- and yet do not quite get along among themselves. But out of it came Unity: Journalists of Color, a convention unique among professional gatherings in its purpose of drawing together disparate minorities. When the third Unity opens in Washington today, questions of opportunity will still be at the forefront, but the scale of the event will reflect the power of Unity's combined voices.
Seven thousand people have preregistered for the five-day event, according to executives who govern Unity, and hundreds more are expected -- possibly the largest gathering of journalists in the profession's history. About 100 news organizations will recruit job seekers and set up exhibitions, and about 40 corporations, including Apple Computer and General Motors, are sponsoring events.
Featured speakers include Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and President Bush, who declined invitations to speak before the nation's largest black and Hispanic civil rights groups earlier this year. Panels will explore topics such as whether American media have covered events in the Middle East accurately, the ownership of ethnic news media by mostly white news organizations, and how to label race as more people, like golfer Tiger Woods and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, identify themselves as multiracial.
The Unity convention dwarfs the separate gatherings that its constituent groups -- the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association -- hold in other years.
The associations have come together at Unity, which is held every five years, "to advocate for newsroom diversity and better news coverage of our communities with one persuasive voice," said Anna M. Lopez, the executive director of Unity. The first Unity event was held in Atlanta in 1994, and the second was in Seattle in 1999.
"I think people are drawn because this has never been done by any other organization," Lopez said. "The number and the power and the energy of being together . . . is really unique, and is what our mission is about."
Media executives flock to the convention to hear what they have to say.
"Unity makes it more possible for newspapers large and small to come," said Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). "It has become a very large and important meeting. I know it's a struggle to put it together, but the organizations get more empowerment here than at their individual meetings."