Mohsin Zaheer, editor of Sada-e Pakistan, has been at every National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) since its inception in 2003. He said he has also seen the lack of attention the conference has given to ethnic media.
Zaheer, at last weekend's NCMR held in Boston, said that by just looking at the conference's concurrent sessions, ethnic media apparently did not have an equal priority as traditional independent media counterparts have.
The three-day event, he noted, failed to include or even mention ethnic media in almost all the discussions, except at a roundtable, "Information Exchange for Ethnic Media and Media Advocates," that he and fellow ethnic media journalists and advocates conducted on Friday night.
"This is my fifth NCMR. In terms of fully embracing the ethnic media, I have not seen any changes at all," he said. "The number of ethnic media attendees has in fact decreased significantly." Other than himself and two other journalists who work for Polish and Indian publications, he was not aware of other ethnic news outlets there.
The irony, Zaheer said, is that NCMR aims to empower non-corporate media in the country, like the small Pakistani-language weekly that he works for. But because of the conference’s peripheral treatment of media in native languages, he felt like an outsider at the conference.
"When NCMR first started, I received e-mails from them. They offered scholarships to ethnic media to defray some of the travel expenses," he said. "That’s not happening anymore."
His invitation to this year's gathering, he added, came from New York Community Media Alliance and G.W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism in San Francisco, the groups that spearheaded the panel that he was on, and not from NCMR.
According to its website, NCMR is "the biggest gathering of media makers, educators, journalists, policymakers and people from across the country." The conference looks "at the policies and politics shaping our media, and discuss strategies to build the movement for better media." Josh Silver, out-going president and CEO of Free Press, the organizer of NCMR, defended the organization, noting the "ethnic media are very well represented at the conference." The conference's official Presenters list includes several representatives of ethnic media, primarily from African American media.
He acknowledged the critical role that the ethnic media play in media reform. "The ethnic media is central to the movement," he said. "They are right next to all kinds of independent media." He added that the group intensely reached out to the ethnic media in the months leading up to the conference.
"We had local and national channels that made the calls, making sure that we have engaged women, youth, media and the community in the conference," said Misty Perez Truedson, NCMR’s associate outreach director. "We absolutely don’t want anyone to miss out. I believe we got a lot of ethnic media outlets here, especially the local ones [from the Boston area]."
When asked why the session on ethnic media was scheduled at 7:30 p.m. on the first day of the conference, which may be late for some attendees and dinnertime for others, Truedson admitted that scheduling a session had been challenging for NCMR organizers, as "speakers are saying that they are competing with other great sessions."
The schedules, she added, had been based on "value sessions," which means what the attendees value the most.
The round-table on ethnic media that night, however, drew interest from a large crowd, packing up the room.
"Ten minutes before the session started, I was worried because we only had three people in the room. Then people started coming in and it turned out to be a wonderful discussion," said Mohammad Jehangir Khattak, communications director for New York Community Media Alliance. He added that NCMR is an important platform for ethnic media to be a part of national discourse on public policy.
"Of course, the ethnic media should be at that conference. Why not? We're talking about policies – and they impact us greatly," he said. "As you know, one-fifth of the U.S. population is immigrants."
If the conference is not open to opinions of ethnic media, Khattak said, then the solutions that media makers may come up with at the conference will not be inclusive and representative of an increasingly diverse audience.
"NCMR should involve the ethnic media not just by giving us a panel on the side, but most importantly to bring some ethnic media representatives to the table and be a part of other panel discussions," he said. "That way our opinions and ideas will be shared in bigger debates."
As for Zaheer, he still sees himself coming to the next NCMR but hoping that the conference organizers would make journalists from the ethnic media more visible.
"With everything that is happening around the world, and the economy is hurting the media, this is the time that the ethnic media sector needs support and attention the most," Zaheer said. "A conference like this is where we gain strength. Otherwise, our publications will soon die."