NAHJ executive director resigns abruptly. Search for successor to begin after conference.

NAHJ Executive Director David Peña during a board meeting on the first day of the NABJ/NAHJ 2022 Convention and Career Fair in Las Vegas, Nev., on Wednesday, August 03, 2022. (LATINO REPORTER)

David Peña Jr. abruptly resigned as executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists just 12 days before the start of the NAHJ annual convention.

Peña will not attend the conference, which is underway in Miami from July 12 through July 15, although his resignation will not take effect until July 28. Peña did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Latino Reporter.

In a July 3 statement to Journal-isms, a blog by Richard Prince that documents diversity news within the journalism industry, Peña wrote: “After a year and a half I felt it was time to take a break and look for other opportunities. I am proud of the work achieved to solidify the internal foundation of NAHJ, expand its presence into Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and diversify its funding sources as it enters its 40th year.”

The NAHJ national conference is the organization’s marquee event, during which executive directors typically oversee high-profile events, greet fundraisers and sponsors, and showcase the progress of the organization. The 2023 conference, which sold out months before it was scheduled to kick off this week in Miami, will bring thousands of journalists and other Hispanic professionals together. The organization, board members said, has more members than ever. Peña’s abrupt departure leaves NAHJ without an executive director during a pivotal moment of growth and change.

Peña served as the journalism organization’s top executive for 18 months. When he was hired in February 2022, NAHJ leaders spoke optimistically about Peña’s abilities to restore members’ trust following a series of high-profile controversies — including an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct at previous conferences, a nearly-cancelled board election in 2020 and member concerns over transparency and financial management.

In an email statement on July 6, three days after Prince first reported the news of Peña’s planned departure, the NAHJ board of directors announced Peña’s resignation alongside the appointment of the organization’s first interim chief operations officer. Yaneth Guillen-Diaz, NAHJ’s longest serving staff member, will assume the role of overseeing this year’s conference.

Members of NAHJ’s board of directors have said little about the plan to find Peña’s replacement, though NAHJ President Yvette Cabrera said the board would discuss it at board meetings the Wednesday and Sunday of the conference.

NAHJ Finance Officer Marilyn Garateix, Interim Chief Operations Officer Yaneth Guillen, President Yvette Cabrera, and Convention Co-Chairs Nancy San Martin and Tony Dandrades during a board press conference with the Latino Reporter staff before the start of the NAHJ Miami 2023 International Convention and Expo. FABIANNA RINCON/LATINO REPORTER

On Wednesday morning, board members did not discuss the topic of Peña’s departure nor any efforts to seek a replacement during the board’s public meeting.

At a news conference on Tuesday, the Latino Reporter asked for specifics about Peña’s resignation, its timing and the reasons behind it. Cabrera said Peña’s departure was a “personnel matter” and declined to elaborate.

“Because it is a personnel matter we can’t go into it further,” Cabrera said. “In our [July 6] press statement, we wish him well in his future endeavors and that’s as much as we can say about it.”

Cabrera added that there is a strategic plan in place to guide the organization and “that’s exactly what the staff will be focused on.” The organization will post the vacant position and begin seeking applicants after the conference, Cabrera said.

“We want to be deliberate and diligent about the process, so we will have a search committee within the board,” said Cabrera. “We’re eager to receive those applications.”

The Latino Reporter contacted 15 members of NAHJ’s board via email to ask about Peña’s resignation, contributions and impact. None responded.

Zita Arocha, who served as NAHJ’s executive director in 1993 and stepped into an interim role running the organization before Peña was hired in 2022, said she was “quite surprised” by Peña’s sudden departure, citing his short tenure in the role.

“I had been worried about the leadership of the association before and during the conference and was relieved when I learned that Yaneth was stepping in,” Arocha wrote in an email. “She’s been with the association a very long time and understands the inner workings of running programs and helping to organize the annual conference. I have no doubt NAHJ is in expert hands.”

Cabrera said part of the decision to promote Guillen-Diaz to interim chief operations officer was because the board “wanted someone that knows the organization well, someone that’s been with us for a long time.” Guillen-Diaz has been on staff at NAHJ for more than 20 years.

In recent history, NAHJ has brought in executive directors from the outside to oversee the organization, rather than promoting from within. Peña joined NAHJ after spending years serving as a consultant and in leadership roles at a variety of nonprofit organizations. His predecessor, Alberto Mendoza was hired as executive director in 2015 following several stints in nonprofit leadership. He spent six years at the helm of NAHJ.

National Association of Hispanic Journalists Executive Director David Peña, left, poses with former NAHJ President Nora López, center, and actor Diego Luna at the 2022 NAHJ national conference in Las Vegas. (LATINO REPORTER)

In 2021, Mendoza announced he would depart the organization amid record-breaking growth and swirling controversies. 

Nora López, who served as NAHJ president from 2020 through 2022, hired Peña during her term. She declined to answer questions about Peña’s job expectations, how much time he was expected to serve in the role and his contributions to the NAHJ.

In 2022, the NAHJ board made a unanimous decision to adopt a five-year plan whose implementation was entrusted to Peña. 

The plan emphasizes four key priorities for the organization and its members: advocating for equity, parity, and accountability in newsrooms for Latino journalists; expanding NAHJ’s influence and empowering members to foster engagement; creating training opportunities; and restructuring the board and leadership to enhance the organization’s capacity.

According to Peña’s LinkedIn profile, he organized and tracked a dozen grants totalling $1.4 million and emphasized education and training and implemented safety and cyber security training for journalists in the U.S. and abroad.

Over the past year, the news industry contracted, with budget cuts and layoffs affecting news organizations around the country. NAHJ has recently publicly commented on the layoffs within the Los Angeles Times, Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN which disproportionately affected Latino employees. NAHJ offered a six month membership extension for active members who have been laid-off.

At the news conference Tuesday, Cabrera said that NAHJ is “financially stable” but acknowledges that the “financial climate is tricky right now.” Donors and sponsors have become more cautious in how they spend money, making it challenging to raise funds. The annual conference remains a prime revenue stream for NAHJ.

“We’re at the point where we’re a force to be reckoned with financially and with membership,” said Marilyn Garateix, national financial officer. “We’ll get to the point where we’ll be able to provide more programming for members and even more initiatives that will help get our members the training that they need to really develop themselves.”

Gisselle Medina is currently pursuing a master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism working to hone in their skills in investigative and multimedia journalism. They aspire to produce interactive stories that reflect our dynamic world. Reach them at fiercewriter [at] Berkeley [dot] edu or on @GisselleeMedina.

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