Minority Writers Seminar (Archive)

After more than two decades as an NCEW-AOJ service, the Minority Writers Seminar found a new home in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was held in conjunction with the 2015 AOJ Symposium (convention) at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies there. The AOJ foundation endowment dedicated specifically to the seminar, and the seminar itself, were moved entirely to Poynter in 2016 in anticipation of AOJ’s merger into ASNE.
The material below is historical.

Minority Writers, background

This annual program by the AOJ Foundation (previously NCEW Foundation) and its partners educates minority journalists who aspire to writing opinion -- such as columns or editorials -- professionally. It is one of several programs supported by the Foundation.

This page includes current 2015 information and material presented to the AOJ annual meeting in Mobile, Alabama, on Sept. 23, 2014, and a Masthead-type article on the seminar and the late John Seigenthalerthat was on both AOJ websites during summer 2014.

The seminar was held at The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University from its inception in 1996 through 2014.

In 2015, the seminar was held in conjunction with the AOJ Symposium at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Symposium was Nov. 12-15 and facilitated seminar attendees' access to the Symposium, too.

In August 2015, the Foundation board affirmed its previously tentative plan to grant a free one-year associate membership in AOJ to seminar alumni.

The Seminar: 
What, How, Why

[Here’s the text of the presentation at the 2014 AOJ business meeting in Mobile by seminar faculty member Rick Horowitz, lightly edited]

 Let’s start with five words: “…and the Minority Writers Seminar.”

Those five words -- they’re part of most pitches for the Foundation, by [David] Holwerk and others. But that’s all they generally say: “…and the Minority Writers Seminar.”

What are they talking about?

Lois [Kazakoff, Foundation president] thought that AOJ members should know a little more about a program she has graciously called “the gem” of AOJ Foundation activities. Its mission, its logistics – how we spend those 3½ days at Vanderbilt each spring, how the seminar has changed over time, how it continues to evolve to meet the needs of a changing industry, and a changing “opinionizing” environment.

Our hope, of course – and that goes for Vanessa [Gallman] and Tommy [Denton] and Chuck [Stokes], and a couple of other faculty members who aren’t with us this week, and that goes, of course, for Joan Armour, who’s done so much to find the seminar a proper home, and who sweats the hundreds of essential details that make it run – and for Gene Policinski, whose First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt provides the terrific facilities – the John Seigenthaler Center -- that embody so much of what we’re about as opinion writers --

Our hope is that you’ll come away from this little presentation, and your questions for all of us, even more convinced that the mission of the Minority Writers Seminar is a worthy one: deserving of your enthusiastic support, both as contributors to Celebration, and as evangelists spreading the word to talented people inside your newsroom and elsewhere. People who would benefit from the seminar. Who would, in turn, benefit the communities they – we -- serve.

The Founding Mission

When Tommy, Chuck, Susan Albright, Sue Ryon, Caroline Brewer, Ed Jones put their heads together way-back-when, they were trying to meet a glaring need in journalism generally, and on the nation’s opinion pages specifically: a need for more variety, more diversity, differing perspectives among those people with the vital role of crafting editorials and driving the national and local conversation.

They were seeking greater diversity on opinion pages. But also casting a wider net for talent. Showing alternate career paths to people who might not have thought much about writing opinion, let alone joining a newspaper editorial board. (And who, frankly, may have lacked role models of similar background, or even similar appearance -- look around this room, for instance -- to demonstrate the way forward.)

That was then. And now? The industry has experienced major, wrenching, changes. So has the opinion segment of that industry, although depending on where you sit, not all of those changes have been wrenching: so many more platforms, so many more ways to get opinions out there.

But as Tommy likes to point out bright and early every year, loud is not the same as logical. Reasoned debate, informed debate, is a skill, a craft, a calling. The need for that remains as strong as ever – maybe even stronger, given all the competing noise in the room.

So that need is there. And in a time when places like Ferguson dominate the headlines and the conversation for weeks (as Tony Messenger so brilliantly described yesterday) – can anyone deny that that other need – for multiple perspectives -- still exists, too?

So where does the seminar fit in?

What It Does, What It Doesn’t Do

Let me start with what it doesn’t do. What it’s not.

It’s not a placement service, or an instant job pipeline. It’s true: In the past, in flush times, some graduates were “auditioned” at Nashville and hired soon thereafter, in part because of recommendations from seminar faculty.

Others had just been hired onto editorial pages, and their editors sent them to Nashville for some intensive training to get them quickly up to speed. Seminar success stories, absolutely!

  • But success is also people already in editorial/opinion positions getting better at what they do.
  • And others who hadn’t ever considered opinion writing as a career path now seeing it as attainable, and thinking about what they need to do to properly prepare for the opportunity.
  • Or someone who becomes an executive editor with a better understanding of, and appreciation of, her paper’s opinion function. That’s also a seminar success story.

And now, of course, the universe of opinion is expanding far beyond the traditional platforms of print newspapers and broadcast. New entities and individual practitioners on multiple platforms, offering their opinions, and finding audiences.

Vanessa’s been especially struck, she told me recently, by “…the diversity of the people who have participated, most not expecting to be on editorial boards, but just wanting to learn the skill of effective argument.

“From my memory [she says], graduates have included: educators, bloggers, freelancers, AOL reporters/editors, magazine publishers, think tankers, editors of ethnic publications -- Latino, Asian, tribal and Final Call.”

The participant profile has definitely changed over time – and we can talk more about that if you’d like during the Q&A. But the principles of reasoned, informed, debate and discussion are as important as ever – maybe even more important! (top of article) (top of page)

The Program

Three and a half intense days at Vanderbilt is a place to start.

There are presentations, panel discussions, roundtables, lots of back-and-forth, lots of hands-on.

The overall tone of the training is someplace between your friendly career-guidance counselor and a drill instructor, which fits the mix of faculty personalities. (Guess which one Tommy is…)

And keynote and guest speakers to augment the core faculty: from Dr. Syb to Mark Trahant, to Jarvis DeBerry to Erika Smith to Ruben Navarrette.

Then there was Ricardo Pimentel…

Ricardo came to the seminar one time as the opening-night speaker. Asked if he could stay around for the rest of the weekend; he thought he could be useful. Then he offered to come back the next year, and the year after that. Now he’s a mainstay – and next year he’ll be succeeding Tommy and directing the program! Those are some enormous shoes to fill – and a terrific choice!

So that’s the who. How about the what?

As the industry has changed, so has the program – and not just in the “ripped-from-the-headlines” topics that the attendees wrestle with during their mock editorial-board meetings and writing drills. There are:

  • Sessions on using social media to drive community involvement with opinion sections.
  • On tech tips to be effective beyond the printed page.
  • On new apps that can help you get out from behind your desk, help combine reported commentary with what you do at your keyboard.
  • Workshop sessions on the differences between writing for the page and writing for television.
  • Panels on the need for thoughtful opinion in an everybody’s-got-an-opinion environment.

This is from Ricardo: “In our lifetimes, we will see more newspapers migrate to digital only - with perhaps print publications on just a few days of the week. The digital world is, in many ways, even more suitable to accommodate opinion. The question is whether it will be the thoughtful, useful, reported guidance on public policy that most print publications have embraced or the top-of-the-head stuff that passes for opinion now on much of the Internet.”

I think he nailed it.

Some of the students may arrive with more tech skills in some of these areas than their faculty members. That’s fine; learning moves in all directions. But something else the seminar does is help marry those tech skills to the bedrock – “platform-agnostic” -- values of reason, logic, accuracy, civic engagement. Things AOJ/NCEW has always stood for.

More fundamentals: Those mock editorial boards – two of them in each seminar -- they’re not just to demonstrate the difficulties of forging consensus; there are fewer multi-person boards these days. They’re a chance to polish and sharpen arguments. To learn what it takes to make a persuasive, convincing case -- as a group, or as a solo act.

And after the board meetings, it’s on to the computers to craft the pieces they’ve just discussed. And then the following morning, from the faculty, detailed critiques of their work. (You remember critiques… At the seminar, they remain a central part of the program.)

And then, because it’s a Minority Writers Seminar, occasional sessions that also touch on issues like: How to avoid being stereotyped in assignments when you’re the only minority member on your board, in your newsroom. Likewise, how to deal with community expectations, etc. (And how many ways can you define “community”?) There are faculty members who’ve been through it, who’ve dealt with it, and can offer guidance. That’s yet another component.

And as always in any successful gathering, some of the most valuable information is exchanged outside of formal sessions – in the hallways, at the lunch tables, on the shuttle vans between the hotel and campus. Even over the occasional beverage.

(That’s a shock, I realize…)

The Seminar’s Future

So what happens next?

Well, there’s been talk, understandably, about “refurbishing” or “freshening” the seminar as it approaches its 20th year. And fresh eyes, fresh thoughts, from fellow AOJ members would be great.

I can tell you, though, that refurbishing, freshening is an ongoing process. It’s why, for instance, we have a closing-day evaluation session each year – to hear from the participants themselves: What works? What doesn’t? What can we do better?

We not only solicit their suggestions, but we do what we can to implement them. There are lots of tradeoffs, of course -- we’ve only got those 3½ days, and adding something means giving up something else. We’ll never think it’s perfect; we’re not easily satisfied.

Still, when we hear “Unlike other seminars, they don’t stop at theory” or “I feel blessed to have been chosen,” or “This was a life-changing experience,” we have reason to believe we’re on the right path.

So: Your help with the “refurbishing”? Absolutely – to better serve the seminar’s central mission.

Which is, I have to say, quite a different matter from being diverted from the central mission, or – pick your verb – “piggybacking” onto or even “abandoning” that mission for other activities, however worthy.

As a legal matter, it can’t be done – not as the fund is currently structured. It’s very clear what the money was raised for, what it’s to be used for. Nobody said, “Here’s $50,000 to help you promote greater racial and ethnic diversity in opinion journalism – but if you want to use it for something else instead – hey, no problem!”

But there’s an even better reason not to go that route: The need remains – again, look around this room! – and the Minority Writers Seminar continues to help address that need. And at a time when everyone has an opinion – that’s all the more reason to stand up for, and spread the word about, value over sheer volume.

Has the foundation raised money for the seminar in the past? Absolutely. Can the foundation raise even more money for it in the future? I hope so – but for this seminar, with this mission. Not simply beneath its banner, behind its brand name, but for other purposes entirely.

Successful fundraising is vital to AOJ’s future – we all recognize that.

But the purpose of the foundation isn’t to raise big bucks. The purpose of the foundation is to do important things. (Money is one of the tools we use to make those important things happen; it’s not an end in itself.)

Now, is the Minority Writers Seminar the only important thing AOJ should be doing? Of course not!

If there are other needs that should be filled – and there are – and other audiences that could benefit from AOJ’s services – and there certainly are – then why not use the Minority Writers Seminar as an example? As a model?

Identify other needs you think AOJ is well positioned to address. Design that program, and tweak it and polish it, the same way the founders of this program – Chuck and Tommy among them – did when they created it. And then take it to the members and to potential funders. Take it to your target audience, and make a case for it.

This shouldn’t be a stretch for anyone in this room. After all, we’re in the persuasion business.

Just as I hope you’ve been persuaded that the Minority Writers Seminar deserves your continued support. That it represents the very best of AOJ.

And that there’s room for more than one gem in AOJ’s showcase.

This page is a portal to historical information archived from the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly National Conference of Editorial Writers, 1947-2011) which merged into ASNE in 2016-2017.