By Calen Razor
In January, NABJ had a tough decision to make. A vaccine for COVID-19 was approved but no one could predict whether people would be able to show up to the organization’s Houston convention in person.
As hotels pushed the group for a decision, NABJ decided to err on the side of caution, leading to another virtual convention for 2021.
“We were facing a million-dollar loss if we said yes to hotels and then canceled somewhere down the line,” NABJ President Dorothy Tucker said. “So we looked at all the facts we had thus far and took them all into account for this decision.”
Given the circumstances, the association is ready to make the most of its resources. After all, it won’t be the first time the group has hosted a virtual convention.
NABJ’s virtual 2020 joint convention with NAHJ was successful with a combined 3,000 registrants. Even NABJ founding member Joe Davidson, who has been attending since the very first convention, was impressed.
“I thought last year’s convention was good. in fact it came out better than I expected,” Davidson said. “It was remarkable, especially considering the amount of time they had to pull it off.”
As expected on their first time around, minor bugs and technical issues affected the virtual convention experience last year. Tucker says she received multiple complaints about bad connections.
But, after having that experience, the organization has had time to make improvements. NABJ Parliamentarian Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig is confident that will show.
“You’re going to see the difference in how it’s stepped up, how it looks, and how easy it is to maneuver through workshops,” Fitzhugh-Craig said. “I think that’s a plus this year to make people feel connected.”
Members seem to be confident in the organization to provide a meaningful convention even in the face of a pandemic. According to preliminary numbers from NABJ Executive Director Drew Berry, this year’s convention amassed 2,400 registrations — exceeding their predictions by 200.
The programming committee is not allowing the digital convention to deter efforts to give members what they came for. A series of interactive and hands-on workshops are planned to engage journalists and allow them to reflect on current issues.
“We curated programming that is timely, representative of the organization and news making,” Convention Programming Chair Leisa Richardson said. “It raises discussion and offers insight on everything from the racial awakening to how to navigate the industry during a pandemic.”
Student Projects Newsroom Goes Virtual
Along with the virtual convention, the organization will conduct the virtual Student Multimedia Projects program for the second time. Last year, the program was successful in giving students the newsroom experience while operating online.
“My team that I had last year came through and we had successful virtual projects,” Student Projects Co-Chair Carol Gantt said. “It surpassed my expectations the way we were able to pivot, so I had a great team.”
The projects always aim to equip students with skills they will need in actual newsrooms in which they’ll soon be working. And while going virtual may have seemed like a hindrance for a hands-on experience with student journalists, it might actually benefit students more in the long run.
“The virtual platform forces students to learn necessary skills,” Gantt said. “Now you don’t have a shooter, now you don’t have someone to do your graphics and you need to do them. That puts a lot in your back pocket that you can pull out later.”
Students have been working in a daily virtual newsroom with professional journalists as mentors, building stories with their mentors in print, digital and broadcast. While Gantt hopes to return to an in-person experience, she and co-chair Justin Madden are still looking to produce meaningful work with this year’s NABJ babies.
“Full steam ahead” Next Year
If you ask any seasoned member of the NABJ, they’ll tell you first about the tight-knit community the organization fosters. Lifelong relationships are created at in-person conventions, turning colleagues into friends.
While she’s grateful that NABJ is able to hold the convention, Richardson said the biggest con is the fact that it’s not in person.
“The NABJ Convention is a family reunion. We thrive, and it gives us energy to go back to our newsrooms,” Richardson said. “We re-energize by seeing our colleagues and friends who we see every year usually.”
Berry says it’s much too early to make a decision about whether next year’s convention will be in person or a hybrid. But President Tucker is remaining optimistic about reuniting the NABJ family in Las Vegas in 2022.
“We’re full steam ahead on our plans for Vegas next year,” Tucker said. “I feel confident that our members are vaccinated, so I hope we can move forward with an in-person convention.”