Updated August 3
CEO Gary Knell visits NPR's offices after his hiring in October. "I made diversity a key part of my pitch to the NPR board," he said then. (Video)
Saying he is "delivering on our promise for NPR to look and sound like America," Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of NPR since December, announced Thursday a $1.5 million, two-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting "to launch a major journalism initiative to deepen coverage of race, ethnicity and culture."
A six-person team will "deliver a steady flow of distinctive coverage on every platform. Reporting will magnify the range of existing efforts across NPR and its Member Stations to cover and discuss race, ethnicity and culture. NPR will also create a new, branded space within NPR.org," NPR said in an announcement at the Unity '12 convention in Las Vegas.
"This is really important," Knell said at a reception at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the convention headquarters. "We want to make a statement about the changing demographics in this country, and we need to be better at what we do so this is everyone's public media."
Knell has said he made diversity a key part of his pitch to the NPR board when he was hired. Joseph Tovares, senior vice president for diversity and innovation at CPB, told Journal-isms at the reception, "When Gary came in, he announced that his No. 1 priority was going to be diversity." He called Knell "a breath of fresh air" and said Knell had approached CPB about the project.
Hiring is under way for the six-member team. Matt Thompson, an editorial product manager at NPR, will supervise the team, working with Ellen McDonnell, executive editor of NPR News programming. Luis Clemens, NPR's senior editor for diversity, will be senior editor, and Karen Grigsby Bates, Los Angeles-based correspondent, will also be part of the team.
Still to be hired are a blogger on race, ethnicity and culture; a digital journalist; and two reporters. NPR's diversity issues stretch back more than 20 years, with the NPR corporate culture seen as a chief impediment to greater diversity. But also important, Knell has said, is diversity at the independent, NPR member stations. Keith Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity, has been working with the local stations as part of his portfolio.
Gregory H. Lee Jr., president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told Journal-isms he met with Knell about diversity. Lee "said he recognizes it takes time to change a culture," Suzanne Gamboa reported for the Associated Press. "The grant will be a chance for NPR to hire journalists capable of working on the stories that will reach more diverse audiences. . . .
" 'I hope this project serves as an example that these issues should be discussed and covered,' Lee said. He added that he hopes to see the journalists and content integrated within the organization's overall coverage, not pushed to a corner."
Because African Americans and Latinos disproportionately use mobile devices, Knell said the initiative will take advantage of mobile platforms to reach these audiences, similar to the apps developed for "Planet Money," a multimedia show about the economy that has its own podcast.
As Gamboa noted, "NPR does not receive direct federal funding but it competes for grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from federal agencies, which annually total about $2 million to $3 million." Knell said the CPB grant was only "to get us going," that the project would exceed two years.
In another development, NPR officials said that "Tell Me More," the multiculturally oriented show hosted by Michel Martin, had grown to 132 from the 100 stations that carried it when Knell arrived. Recent additions include Miami, Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans and Savannah, Ga.
Onica Makwakwa, executive director of the Unity Journalists alliance, is leaving after six years to return to her native South Africa, where she plans to develop consumer advocacy on the African continent for the Pretoria-based Consumers International, she told Journal-isms on Friday.
"It’s the right time," she said. The new opportunity "is exciting, personally and professionally." Makwakwa said she had worked longer at Unity than at any other organization.
As Unity's executive director, Makwakwa was responsible for coordinating the activities of the coalition while board members held their full-time jobs as journalists. But she also bore the brunt of criticism for any administrative shortcomings, which became a factor in the pullout of the National Association of Black Journalists last year.
NABJ officials cited lack of timely information as one of the reasons for their decision to leave. Makwakwa disputed NABJ's statements.
Unity President Joanna Hernandez announced Makwakwa’s departure, scheduled for early September, on Friday at the Unity convention in Las Vegas, its fifth and its first without NABJ.
"While we are sad Onica is moving on, she has accomplished much in her six years as UNITY executive director," Hernandez said in a statement.
"She is the only UNITY executive director to have helmed two conventions, both very successful conventions, and she always saw every challenge as an opportunity. Her next employer will be lucky to have her. And we wish Onica the best success. She is the most phenomenal leader and utmost professional. I have learned so much from working with her and will miss her tremendously.
"UNITY will immediately begin work on hiring an interim executive director. Hernandez will appoint a committee to search for a new permanent executive director."
Consumers International announced Makwakwa’s appointment on Wednesday.
"For CI, Onica will lead and support the development of consumer protection and empowerment in Africa by supporting CI members in the region; implement the CI Africa strategy; and enable the Africa consumer movement to further join forces with the worldwide consumer movement to deliver change for consumers,” the group said.
Makwakwa was director of development of the YWCA USA when she joined Unity in 2006.
She worked with the late civil rights leader Dorothy Height in the National Council of Negro Women, working to improve the lives of women and children in Africa. "I credit her as the person who jump-started my career," Makwakwa told Journal-isms.
Before working for YWCA, Makwakwa held director positions at such other organizations as the Black Women's Health Imperative and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Her introduction to the United States came in Iowa. She received a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Iowa.
While a permanent resident of the United States, Makwakwa retained her South African citizenship. [Added Aug. 3]