It’s a familiar scene for participants who attended last year’s National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic: Zoom panels, virtual happy hours, a digital career fair and hours upon hours of screen time.
For the second consecutive year, NAHJ is bringing together Latino journalists via screens at its all-virtual International Conference and Career Fair.
Event organizers are trying to replicate the energetic atmosphere from years past, when hundreds of journalists would fly in from around the world to learn, bond and celebrate achievements with colleagues. In a change from past conferences, organizers have extended the virtual event to take place over the course of a month — well beyond the usual four to five days scheduled in past years. Events began June 16 and will continue through July 17.
“It’s really exciting…to have this extended amount of time and take this idea of the curriculum to the next level,” conference Chair Yoli Martinez said. “There’s tons of trainings, sponsored sessions … it’s exciting because it’s not just networking but also learning opportunities.”
While organizers are confident in this year’s offerings, only a few months ago they weren’t completely sure how to make the annual event happen.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020, the NAHJ executive board decided to put on another all-virtual conference in 2021. The uncertainty of the pandemic’s trajectory and ensuring the safety of all attendees were determining factors, officials said.
“At that point, we didn’t have a crystal ball — there was no way to really know what was going to happen this summer, how open the economy was going to be, and our ability to go places and move,” Interim Executive Director Zita Arocha said.
The convention builds off of NAHJ’s joint conference with the National Association of Black Journalists last summer, which conducted sessions through several virtual platforms. This year’s event uses the hybrid social platform Boomset and incorporates a series of workshops.
From Wednesday to Friday, the convention’s career fair will also draw some of the biggest news organizations in the United States. Members can submit their resumes and connect with exhibitors such as CBS News, The New York Times, WarnerMedia and Univision during select hours.
Despite efforts to give attendees variety, Arocha knows it’s tough for people to be physically apart through the convention.
“We’re trying to make up for it obviously through all the virtual platforms and email and social media,” she said. “But personally, it’s not the same.”
Arocha said one upside to the virtual format is it may make it more affordable for people who might not have been able to pay airfare, hotel, and other travel expenses.
According to data provided by NAHJ, membership registrations grew to 1,138 this year from 641 last year. It also acquired over $600,000 in media and non-media sponsorships, which the organization says will keep it financially stable.
In addition to the conference’s virtual setting, NAHJ has seen its fair share of changes through the past few months. Former Executive Director Alberto Mendoza resigned this past April and NAHJ selected Arocha to take over on an interim basis on June 2. Mendoza had a role in pre-planning for the conference along with remaining staff members.
As in years past, this year’s event aims to help journalists advance their careers, build on their skills and celebrate their Hispanic and Latinx identity — all from behind their own screens.
The extension of the event is one example of how the organization is adapting to unusual times, NAHJ President Nora Lopez said.
“[We] do what we can to further the cause and to make newsrooms more welcoming and open to diversity,” she said. “It’s always amazing to me that we’re still having these conversations and still having to do this kind of advocacy.”
Though Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines released in May have led many states to lift or ease COVID-19 safety protocols around masks and social distancing, organizers say they don’t regret making the convention all-virtual for the second year in a row.
“I don’t believe in regret,” Arocha said. “I believe everything is a learning opportunity, and frankly, with so much having shifted to virtual platforms during the pandemic, I can see us and NAHJ in the future … adopting some kind of hybrid of virtual and in-person, and actually I think that’s going to make everything a lot better.”
While no official plans have been released regarding next year’s conference aside from its Las Vegas location, many of those bringing this annual gathering to life are eager for it to return to an in-person event.
Olivia Montes is a senior at Washington College, where she has studied communications and media, political science and journalism, editing and publishing. She is a news intern at Delaware State News and hopes to pursue a career in print journalism, though she has recently started a podcast at her school radio station. Reach her on Twitter @MontesLiv.