Forty years in, founders say NAHJ’s mission remains urgent amid industry, national shifts

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists convened in Hollywood, Calif., for its 40th anniversary and national conference. JAEEL BEATO/LATINO REPORTER

Gerald Garcia still remembers what the Hispanic journalism community looked like in the early-1980s: Chaotic.

A wave of Latino journalists had started to establish their own networks, but instead of building a unified organization, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latino journalists competed for the same streams of funding and, seemingly, worked against each other despite sharing common interests, goals and experiences.

“There was no such thing as a unified front at all,” said Garcia, who was the publisher of the Tucson Citizen at the time.

In 1982, a group of 15 leaders in the Hispanic journalism world began to discuss forming a single collective inspired by the National Association of Black Journalists, which was founded seven years prior. Garcia became the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’s first president and spearheaded its mission of bettering Latino representation in the news industry — both in newsrooms and the stories they produced.

“We need to know our history,” NAHJ founder Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez said. “ How can we make things better, not just for ourselves in the profession, but more broadly through our people? How can the coverage that we perform, how can we make that so that it gives even more saliency to Latino issues?”

Forty years later, the organization has grown 30 fold, from 120 members upon its inception to more than 3,700 today, a record high for the organization. Much has changed in those years: the Hispanic population in the United States is larger than ever before and the media landscape has shifted drastically. Spanish-speaking journalists are in high demand, but Latino reporters remain underrepresented in newsrooms around the country. And despite decades of advocacy, stereotypes of Hispanic people and immigrants persist in media.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists convened in Hollywood, Calif., for its 40th anniversary and national conference. JAEEL BEATO/LATINO REPORTER

“I see a lot of progress, but I also see a lot of opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of,” said Gilbert Bailon, ​​executive editor at WBEZ Chicago public radio and NAHJ president from 1995 to 1996. “We’ll see more growth. But I don’t think that everything’s going to naturally fall in place. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of training and advocacy.”

Newspapers, once among the primary ways that Americans accessed news and information, have contracted significantly since the 1980s. In the last 20 years alone, more than a quarter of all newspapers in circulation have shuttered, according to a research study done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, leading to significant job loss and a shift to multimedia journalism.

But meanwhile, the Hispanic population has only grown. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a quarter of the US population will be Hispanic by 2050.

“We need Latinos” in newsrooms, Bailon said. “We need people across platforms, across cultures, across languages. That will not change, that is only going to grow. We need to be part of that.”

NAHJ helped usher in a focus on Hispanic voices

NAHJ’s founders officially formed a nonprofit in February 1984. Priority number one: pushing mainstream news organizations to diversify and prioritize the hiring of Latino journalists.

“You’d be watching one of the talk shows on Sunday morning or listening to NPR, and you hear people talk about immigration issues, and there would be not a single Latino on those panels,” Rives-Rodriguez said. “This is something that many of us think is a key issue for Latinos. It’s not that we’re not there, it’s just that we’re not recognized.”

A few years into its existence, NAHJ began to focus on building a more robust pipeline for Latino journalists entering the industry by creating student training programs that would become known as the NAHJ Student Project, a pop-up newsroom at the annual conference that provides hands-on newsroom experience and mentorship for college students. The Latino Reporter is produced by student journalists and professional volunteers with the NAHJ Student Project.

“When I was a 17-year-old kid inspired by the greats of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite … I never was embraced by that world, until NAHJ,” said Mekahlo Medina, a former NAHJ president and Los Angeles anchor. “Each day after, I’ve spent my career paying that back.”

Medina is just one of many NAHJ leaders who have grown up along with and inside of the organization. When Medina attended his first conference, NAHJ had only existed for 11 years. Nearly two decades later, he became NAHJ president.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists convened in Hollywood, Calif., for its 40th anniversary and national conference. JAEEL BEATO/LATINO REPORTER

NAHJ will continue to focus on the future, leaders say

For many members, the annual conference is an opportunity to job hunt, network and build skills, but Bailon says it’s more than that.

“It’s like going home,” Bailon said. “You go to a conference or you get on a virtual call. So many familiar faces.”

But the organization, Bailon said, must evolve and build toward a future if it wants to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of journalism. Focusing on young people and American-born Latinos, which comprise a growing number of the Hispanic population in the United States, will keep NAHJ and the journalism members produce relevant in coming years, he added.

As this 40th anniversary hits, looking at the future is just as important as reminiscing at the past for the longtime members. But in Hollywood this week, they plan to do a bit of both.

“I don’t know that, you know, in 1984, people were thinking what are we going to be in 40 years?” Bailon said. “I’m very proud of where we are. I think we have a great reputation and respect throughout the industry. There’s room for more growth.”

Kathleen Ortiz is a junior at Rice University studying both Social Policy Analysis and Sport Management with a concentration in Sport Law. Ortiz serves as the sports editor for Rice’s paper The Rice Thresher and works as a law intern at Rusty Hardin & Associates in Houston, Texas. Reach her via email at kathleenortiz13 [at] gmail [dot] com or LinkedIn @Kathleen Ortiz

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