Ah, it was a beautiful sight: African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans side by side, united as one in their quest for . . . free food. They're hungry reporters, after all, and some things (mini biscuits and ham, chocolate, alcohol) transcend ethnicity. If you feed them, they will come.

More than 7,000 newshounds -- members of the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association -- kicked off the Unity: Journalists of Color convention with a lavish buffet at Union Station last night.

"We all sort of feel some solidarity on advancing more people of color in the newsroom," said Vindu Goel, business editor of the San Jose Mercury News. "This is the modern equivalent of the old boys' network."

He gestured around the huge hall. The old white boys have been replaced with men and women of almost every hue; most were young journalists in the early stages of their careers. Editors and publishers circled the room, meeting and recruiting bright prospects. The only ones wearing tuxedos were the waiters.

Together they'll spend five days delving into the complex and delicate issues of race, diversity and representation in the news business. They'll hear from President Bush, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and Secretary of State Colin Powell. They'll network like crazy. And they'll spend four nights eating, drinking, playing. And networking like crazy.

"We're a majority in this space, and that's very affirming and supportive," said Mark Hinojosa, assistant managing editor of electronic news at the Chicago Tribune and an NAHJ board member. "A lot of journalists tend to be chameleons -- they have their own culture, and they assimilate into the dominant culture. Here, you can let your hair down."

The trick, said Christina Lucuski of the New Jersey Network, is to navigate between culture and career. "I came basically to network and to learn more about broadcast journalism," explained Lucuski, who belongs to NAHJ. "It's like you belong to a subgroup, but it gives you access to these other groups and the larger group, which is journalists. It's kind of obvious who's in which group. You feel like these people are like you."

This is Unity's third gathering. (The convention has been held every five years, but the board recently decided to meet every four years to coincide with the presidential election cycle.) The idea is that the collective strength of the four news associations will be far more effective in raising minority numbers in newsrooms across the country. There are personal and collective benefits to conventions like this.

"Individual careers are enhanced by making connections," said Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll, who has attended gatherings like this for more than three decades. "It makes a big impression on ranking editors and newspaper companies that minority journalists are demanding a greater voice. You can see which way the tide is turning."

Unity has evolved into one of the best places to recruit young talent. The fact that both Bush and Kerry are addressing the convention speaks volumes about the growing importance of minorities in the media, said Goel. "It says they recognize that the face of America is changing, the journalists who cover America are changing, and [the candidates] need to reach us."

Unity is actually four conventions under one big tent at the convention center. Each association holds its own receptions and banquets -- stereotypes are apparently acceptable when they're your own: The Hispanic journalists will host a salsa party tonight, the Asian reporters a karaoke night Saturday -- but there has been a concentrated effort to provide for maximum commingling.

Everyone will be lavishly wined and dined by big corporate sponsors. Not wined, exactly -- last night the drink of choice was provided by Coca-Cola, which hosted the bash with Ford Motor Co. There were plenty of Coke floats and chocolate Lincoln centerpieces.

One might think the whole enterprise is dripping with politically correct earnestness, but one glance at the crowd revealed an interest in the traditional pleasures of any out-of-town convention: kicking back with professional buddies and checking out the opposite sex.

"The flip answer is drink and hang out with friends," said Victor Chi, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. "You come to these conventions, you get to know people, you make friends. In a lot of cases, going to the convention is the only time you catch up with them."

So the atmosphere was both hyped and relaxed, like a giant frat party where everybody knows and likes each other. The line to get into the party went on forever. Guests walked in with cell phones glued to their ears, catching up with old and new friends.

"It's incredibly fun," said Andre Whitehead, owner of Whitehead Media Ventures in Lynchburg, Va. "It's known as the conference of beautiful people. That's the nickname."

Carroll, who has been to plenty of media bashes, said, "These events are by far the best parties among journalistic organizations. A lot of people connect here in a way that goes way beyond journalism."

Does a Hispanic journalist flirting with an Asian journalist count as unity? Well, it's a darn good start.

Minority journalists gathered at Union Station last night for the start of the five-day Unity convention. Journalists kick off the Unity: Journalists of Color convention with a lavish buffet dinner at Union Station last night.