El PASO, Texas — They were ready to go months ahead of time.
Members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists all around the U.S. had already made their plans, reserved hotel rooms, contacted friends and begun picking out outfits for the 2020 conference, which had been scheduled to convene in Washington, D.C., this summer.
Then came the pandemic and a growing awareness that nothing this year would go as planned.
As the 2020 NABJ-NAHJ conference kicks off this week, journalists are connecting through computer screens in their own homes instead of mingling at hotel bars and conference halls. Some said they worry about the intangibles that will be lost without the face-to-face interactions and serendipitous meetings that have come to define the conference experience.
But NAHJ officials have tried to set an optimistic example, touting the conference as virtual history in the making and focusing members on the many sessions and experiences they have been able to salvage.
Sessions will become conference calls. Luncheons will become takeout meals delivered by GrubHub drivers. Even the annual Gran Baile will be enjoyed virtually and at a distance.
“We believe that our members will take advantage of this virtual conference, not just for the training but also for the opportunities to meet with prospector employers, to set one in one interview and also there will be great networking opportunities,” said Yaneth Guillen-Diaz, NAHJ’s director of membership.
But longtime member Maria Elena Fernandez, a reporter for New York Magazine and Vulture who has attended NAHJ conferences since 1993, said she and other members are concerned about how — or if — the virtual format will work.
“I am very curious myself about how much networking actually we are going to be able to do,” Fernandez said. “Obviously they are offering a lot of webinars, but I feel like in the panels there isn’t a real effort afterwards to reach out to people who attended and establish a connection with the people who attended.”
Panels will be held over Zoom-like conferences. The career fair, where recruiters and brightly decorated booths typically draw hundreds of professional journalists, students and connoisseurs of branded pens and cheap sunglasses, will also move online. Candidates have been asked to sign up for time slots to meet with recruiters and upload resumes into an online portal.
But some members worry this structured format may take away from the free-wheeling nature many have come to associate with journalism conferences.
Alberto B. Mendoza, executive director of NAHJ, said the job fair has been a big focus for the organization — especially in the wake of industry-wide layoffs and cuts following the economic downturn driven by the pandemic.
“There are so many people that have lost jobs, so the biggest focus has been on making sure that we are facilitating a good experience for both people looking for jobs and recruiters,” Mendoza said.
Thalia Juarez, 28, a digital journalist on the audience engagement team at the Baltimore Sun, sits in front of a screen all day for work, she said, and was looking forward to connecting with people offline. Her excitement for the conference came to an abrupt halt when she learned it would be transformed into a digital event.
“When I heard that it was going to be virtual, I kind of was a little bit sad,” Juarez said. “I am already tired of doing Zoom all day, doing phone calls and emails. … Doing a virtual conference was not very appealing.”
Still, she said, she will be attending virtually in part because she’s hoping to explore the digital job fair and future opportunities.
Mendoza said it’s been hard to replicate events members have come to expect in a virtual platform. But, he said, the organization was committed to maintaining all 85 of its sessions.
“This is the new normal and we have to maximize the use of technology to serve our members,” Mendoza said. “We need to adapt.”
Once the organizations had decided to move the conference online, Mendoza said, organizers had to begin to renegotiate hotel contracts — a major financial commitment that NAHJ officials worried they might not be able to break.
“We were having to try to figure out how to do it without putting the organization in danger, without having a big financial penalty to pay,” he said, adding that the organization saved about $1.3 million by negotiating a way to pull out of their contracts with Marriott and Omni Hotels.
Mendoza declined to comment on the specifics of the contracts or how much money the organization could stand to lose this year overall.
Attendees on Wednesday had already begun to check-in for their first sessions and live-tweet the unfolding event using the hashtag #NABJNAHJ20:
The virtual convention could aggravate some journalists’ digital fatigue after so much work has moved online.
Isabel Sanchez, a reporter for NBC10 in Philadelphia and former NAHJ Student Project participant, said the prospect of meeting new people from around the country is one of the most appealing aspects of the conference — and has kept her coming back. She doesn’t know how that will work in a digital space.
“Meeting Latino journalists (in person) was my favorite part,” said Sanchez. “But of course it’s not going to happen.”
Maria Ramos-Pacheco is a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she will soon serve as editor-in-chief for the school’s magazine, Minero. She previously was editor-in-chief for The College Voice from Mercer County Community College, and she has also been a contributor for UTEP’s newspaper, The Prospector. Reach her at mgramospach [at] miners [dot] utep [dot] edu and on Twitter @Lupsramoss.