Historical Virtual Convention, Paves Road for the Future

By Christian Crittenden

The National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists entered into the unknown this year with a virtual convention amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is a historical moment for NABJ,” President Dorothy Tucker said the day before the conference opened. “It is our first virtual convention. It is uncharted waters. It has been both exciting and exhilarating and stressful and frightful all at the same time. I think it’s going to be great. I know it’s going to be great.” 

NABJ began to prepare for the possibility of a virtual convention in early March, and while there was never any plan of canceling the annual convention, the official announcement to make the switch didn’t come until late April. The organization had to move swiftly to make sure everything was in place and that the millions of dollars were not lost in cancellation fees.  

“There has been a really big learning curve for all of us,” Executive Director Drew Berry said.

The organization worked to find the best way to move the in-person programming that was scheduled to virtual. With the current climate, programming has been adjusted to make things more relevant. 

“There were several workshops that we picked out in March that didn’t make the cut because we had to make room for COVID-19 as well as talk about the racial reckoning that’s going on in the country,” convention programming chair Walter Smith-Randolph said. 

Feels like the real thing

NABJ has done its best to provide attendees of this year’s virtual convention with as close to the in-person experience as possible. Participants have the opportunity to be a part of over 100 sessions and panels, some of which have been pre-recorded, so they can go back and rewatch if they’ve missed something. 

In addition to the panels, one added feature of this format is the ability to schedule interviews with recruiters at the career fair, one of the most important parts of the convention. In the past, lines could last for hours, but now members can sit one on one with recruiters and have a private interview. 

One added incentive is that NABJ was able to partner with Grubhub to provide over 1,500 meals, so members could feel they were a part of an actual luncheon from home. 

“I think the thing I enjoyed the most was the luncheon experience,” NABJ member and past student representative Kyra Azore said. “I feel like NABJ thought about their members when they did that. They thought about how their members would feel, how they could get the most out of this.” 

A virtual student newsroom

The annual NABJ Student Multimedia Project has gone completely virtual as well. A team of professional journalists and students have made the switch, with the students reporting on multiple platforms from across the country.

“I never expected the student projects to go virtual like it did this year,” Dr. Sheila Brooks, founder of the project, said. “But isn’t it a wonderful change? I think it is. I think it’s a wonderful change because it gives our young people just another opportunity to gain some other skills that they didn’t have, those digital skills, technical skills that come with those digital skills.” 

Just a few glitches

There was a lot of anticipation and uncertainty from the members on how the virtual format would work for them. The unknown nature of the convention didn’t stop 3,713 members from registering.

“I was so excited that the conference moved virtually because I really do believe that the networking pool would be maximized,” NABJ member Kamara Daughtry said. “There are so many people who will be able to connect.”

The organization provided each registrant with a link to the website and their own password. Once participants gained access they were taken to an interactive dashboard that has links to the career fair, specials events, workshops and more. 

Of course, when dealing with technology there will be hiccups and bumps in the road, but most of the issues have been minor. 

“Some of the workshops would have technical difficulties,” student Brittany Jarret said. “I’d click on a workshop and there would be a black screen and they would let you know that it was moved to Zoom, so that was a little frustrating because I was missing out.” 

NABJ already has begun to put pieces in place if a virtual convention is required for next year. Even when the in-person conventions return there could be some forms of the virtual format that remain because of the success of this year. 

“I think there’s going to be some sort of virtual component at every convention going forward,” Berry said. “It won’t be this big grand thing unless we have to, but there’s going to be some sort of virtual component. It makes it accessible to more people.”

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