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.
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."
Susan Denley, director of editorial hiring and development for the Los Angeles Times, called Unity "the best place to meet, recruit and have our sensitivities raised."
Minority journalists say they lack representation in newsrooms. Although minorities represented more than 30 percent of the U.S. population in the 2000 census, they made up 12.5 percent of the workforce in the nation's newsrooms in 2003, according to an ASNE report. The percentage was 9.9 among supervisors.
Today, Unity will release its own study of diversity among reporters covering the White House and Capitol Hill, which shows striking underrepresentation of minorities in that elite group.
Race, minority journalists say, is the unacknowledged elephant in newsrooms.
During last year's plagiarism scandal involving New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who is black, minority reporters in general, and black reporters in particular, said they were reminded of how racially tense newsrooms can be. They noted that several white commentators focused on Blair's hiring through an affirmative-action program and suggested that such recruitment should stop, but did not mention race in subsequent scandals that led to the resignations of Times reporter Rick Bragg and USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, who are white.
At the same time, race has also divided Unity's planners.
After Gonzalez and Sutton sold the idea in the late 1980s, the four organizations sent representatives to a negotiating table in Baltimore.
"It was kind of like those Cold War meetings between the U.S. and the Soviet Union," said DeWayne Wickham, a USA Today columnist who was president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) when Sutton and Gonzalez broached the Unity idea. "We were trying to agree on whether the table should be square or round."
As talks progressed, a leadership consultant was hired to mediate planning sessions leading to Unity 1994. The consultant, Ron B. Brown, noticed that body language and tone of voice divided speakers as much as issues of power, money and control.
At one point, a black woman raised her voice while making a point, offending someone who is Asian, Brown said, and at another time, a Latina jabbed a finger at a black woman, who recoiled, saying, "Don't point your finger at me!"
"We were able to step in and say, 'Hey, let's slow down and see if we can get the information out,' " Brown said. "We're talking about two or three incidents like this in a very long process."
Before Unity 1999 in Seattle, Washington state was trying to end its affirmative-action programs, and black journalists wanted to protest by holding the convention elsewhere. Other groups had already given in to black journalists who wanted to stage the first Unity in Atlanta. "Georgia is where the Trail of Tears started" but Native American journalists attended that convention anyway, said Paul DeMain, managing editor of News from Indian Country in Hayward, Wis., and former Unity president.
Still, the other organizations made a stand, and the NABJ -- the oldest, largest and most profitable of the organizations -- backed down.
By pressing on despite disagreements, Unity has become admired by civil rights organizations such as the National Urban League and political groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- which prefer joint board meetings to conventions, to avoid the logistical and cultural headaches.
Still, people disagree about what Unity has become.
Dinah Eng, a freelance Gannett News Service columnist and former president of Unity and the Asian American Journalists Association, said the goal of Unity was worth whatever it took to bring people together.
"I think that all true change starts with vision and leadership," she said, "and the people who put together this effort really saw the challenges and benefits to doing this, and they overcame their fears to make it happen."
But George E. Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and a member of the NABJ, said convention-goers do not truly unify.
"I don't like Unity," Curry said. "To really have unity, you should have panelists from each group represented on every panel, with blacks hearing about Asians, Native Americans hearing about Hispanics. It's not like that."
That may have been true in the past, Lopez and others said. But this year, Unity organizers required event planners to seat a representative of each racial group on all Unity panels. That way, the thinking went, people would mix during the day as they did at nightly parties and fiestas in Seattle.
Wickham said Unity has evolved into a single entity, contrary to the original intent.
"The initial idea was four boards, four presidents, with planning by executive directors," he said. "It was a function of our cooperative relationship. Today it's morphed into something that has no useful purpose. I see nothing that clearly indicates to me what purpose this organization serves other than to call a meeting."
But what a meeting it is, some convention-goers said: a sea of brown, black, Asian and Indian faces from throughout the world. African drums, traditional Native American dances, Chinese parades and Latin-world festivities have opened and closed the gathering.
"It's a relief," said Mei-Ling Hopgood, a Chinese American reporter for the Dayton Daily News and Cox Newspapers, who works among the Washington press corps. "I've never worked at a place that had a majority of . . . people like me. It's refreshing. You feel more like you belong."
Gonzalez, now a columnist for the New York Daily News and president of the NAHJ, and Sutton, deputy managing editor of the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., said they never dreamed there would be even one convention like Unity.
"People are beginning to perceive how big this thing is," Gonzalez said. For the NAHJ, "it's going to be the most successful convention we've had, and the same is true for NABJ."