Minority Writers Seminar

This page was current during summer 2016; AOJ is merging into the American Society of News Editors by Jan. 1, 2017.

The 2016 seminar was conducted at, and in partnership with, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. As part of AOJ's merger into the American Society of News Editors, the seminar and about $430,000 of endowment earmarked for it, are being transferred to Poynter.

2015 participants placed at least 3 pieces done on-site in major media.

What, How, Why details
Background, reasons, history...
Past participants' praises 
John Seigenthaler and the seminar

For the first time, during AOJ Symposium 2015 at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the participants got to mingle with AOJ members and were AOJ's guests at the Saturday night dinner event. They also are eligible for a free one-year membership and for access to the members-only AOJ discussion-list.

The 2016 seminar will again be at Poynter, Nov. 3-6, and the application process is underway until Aug. 15 at 

The AOJ board, with the unanimous agreement of the ongoing faculty, has voted to turn site management of the program, including its endowment of investments, over to Poynter, and to continue the service as a co-branded event.

Article and photos are at

(updates posted 7/6/2016 JM)

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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 Seigenthaler that 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.

Applications for the 2015 seminar, due by Aug. 15, were handled via Poynter's website: http://about.poynter.org/training/in-person/aoj-mws

This page (posted 9/24/14, updated 5 times through 7/6/2016):

Symposium Presentation 9/23/14
    introduction - what, how why
    founding mission - dire need, still
    what it is not and is - job placement, no; career paths, yes!
    the program - mentoring with a bit of boot camp
    seminar future - continuing, new leader, values

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 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. (top of article) (top of entire page)

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…) (top of article) (top of page)

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.

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Slideshow from minority writers seminar

excerpts from show presented at AOJ Symposium 2014
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 Minority Writers Seminar: Participant Quotes

Here’s a sampling of participant comments about the Minority Writers Seminar, drawn from their individual evaluation reports:

2012 (2013)(2014)

  • * The writing sessions were intense and exciting. I enjoyed the deadline pressure, also the process we used to make a decision on a topic. (Stan Donaldson)
  • * Would love to participate in the program in the future, even on my own time. I will recommend this program to my peers. (Stan Donaldson)
  • * Sybril Bennett's presentation was excellent, informatively guiding participants through the current innovations in digital media. (Vivian Lingard)
  • * It was great to write under deadline pressure. (Vivian Lingard)
  • * The critique sessions were very helpful because I work mostly in broadcasting where our approach is a little different. So the tips and suggestions were very helpful. (Ray Metoyer)
  • * I thought all of the speakers were great and I learned from each one. (Ray Metoyer)
  • * Dr. Sybril Bennett's presentation resonated with me the most. I really appreciated her passion for technology and pushing us to step up our reporting and analysis around the evolution of technology. (Tamika Smith)
  • * Speakers were great, not only as presenters but talking to them in more informal settings. (Luis Carrasco)
  • * Our group leader (Ricardo) was generous with his praise and gentle with his criticism, but he was rigorous as an editor and made excellent points on how to improve our writing. (Luis Carrasco)
  • * Ricardo Pimentel and Rick Horowitz are a great tag team on the discussion of "voice" and their presentation styles match their subject matter. Gene Policinski is a fantastic speaker and his First Amendment presentation was energizing. (Luis Carrasco)
  • * A wonderful opportunity to learn and discuss the craft of opinion writing. The faculty was knowledgeable, willing to share their experiences and offer advice. Tommy Denton and Joan Armour put on a great seminar. (Luis Carrasco)
  • * I learned so much from the four-day experience. I was taken out of my comfort zone as a writer, but given very helpful tips and suggestions from my mentor and critique sessions. (Danielle Hester)
  • * I appreciated the session on social media because it gave me an opportunity to see just how fast things are changing. (Richard Koonce)
  • * I like how the class size was kept small, which allowed for personalized attention. I also was impressed with the fellow attendees, whom as I got to know, all share a common idealism for using journalism for a greater social good of spreading information and promoting civic dialogue. Also, we shared a common perspective of navigating this world as minorities, and it was empowering to be around other journalists with shared experiences. (Sachi Fujimori)
  • * Two things happened with me during the workshop: The curtain was pulled back on the editorial process. I better understand how these pieces are done. But I also have a greater understanding how important they are to civic understanding, and the expanding importance of well-argued opinion writing as journalism changes. (Sachi Fujimori)
  • * I think this is an amazing seminar and definitely helped me in so many ways. Especially as someone who didn't study opinion writing in school and finds himself in charge of a column for the first time, I now feel like I have the tools necessary to succeed at opinion writing. (Dwayne Steward)
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 2013 (2014)

  • * I'm thankful I was chosen to attend. It's an experience I'll continue to cherish. (Evette Brown)
  • * This was one of the best writing/journalism seminars I have ever attended ….The experience made me excited to get back home and put some of my newfound skills to work and to learn even more about opinion and editorial writing. This is a MUST experience for any journalists seeking to expand their skill set. (Starla Muhammad)
  • * Most valuable: Listening to Andre Jackson's perspective about editorial writing and journalism…, the intimate settings of our groups. (Will Brown)
  • * It was awesome! I learned so much. It challenged me and took my writing to another level. I would definitely recommend it to others. (Tonya Sam s)
  • * I loved it! I'm so happy to have attended and learned new skills. (Cambrey Thomas)
  • * Andre was very helpful in helping us structure our arguments on paper and grasp the format of opinion writing (as opposed to feature writing.) (Ashley Calloway)
  • * The speakers were empowering. (Yvonne Senkandwa)
  • * I had such wonderful experience with instructors and scholars with vast knowledge. It was exciting being part of it all. (Yvonne Senkandwa)


  • * I have been writing opinion pieces for my college paper for the last four years. This critique session truly helped me refine my writing for a broader audience. (Kendra Farmer)
  • * The speakers were very inspiring and educational. They gave a new writer like me perspective on how to develop and maintain a career in editorial writing. (Kendra Farmer)
  • * I feel so blessed to have been invited. (Kendra Farmer)
  • * I was stretched as a journalist....loved it. (Davina van Buren)
  • * Thank you so much for the opportunity to learn more about opinion writing. I didn't think I would enjoy it so much, but now feel like it will open a whole new world of outlets for me as a freelancer. (Davina van Buren)
  • * I would never have considered myself a potential opinion and editorial writer if not for this very valuable seminar. I now have a much greater appreciation for the art and craft of thoughtful editorial writing, as well as the urgent need for greater gender, racial, ethnic, and political diversity among the nation's editorial pages. I've already encouraged a few colleagues to apply for next year's class. (Janet Cho)
  • * I cannot say enough about the beauty of learning at the First Amendment Center. It's a life-changing experience. (Jenee Osterheldt)
  • * Writing sessions: I thought they were great. Very challenging, which is hard to find at a conference. (Meredith Rodriguez)
  • * Vanessa Gallman is a skillful instructor. As our coach, she offered our group a useful template for editorial writing. That helped tremendously. Vanessa led great critique sessions. She knows how to discuss weaknesses and strengths in a constructive manner. (Lillian Williams)
  • * This was a valuable seminar for college journalism instructors. I hope that more journalism instructors will take advantage of this program. (Lillian Williams)
  • * Loved it!!! One of the best seminars I've ever attended. Well-run, good content, interesting speakers, challenging writing sessions and useful critiques. You walk in as one kind of a writer and walk out as another -- a better one. (Marilyn Garateix)
  • * I had never been a part of an open-discussion critique session before this seminar. I loved it! (Gissela SantaCruz)
  • * I am so grateful for the experience and the connections that I made through the seminar. I feel that I have a good foundation to build a career (with practice) in this branch of journalism. THANK YOU!!!! (Gissela SantaCruz)
  • * The diversity of the "faculty" was very impressive. All had great information to share with us. Each individual speaker brought a particular strength to the seminar. The mix of their personalities was very refreshing. (Gissela SantaCruz)
  • * My mentor (Andre Jackson) brought a level of real-life editorial experience that was invaluable. (Suzette Hackney)
  • * Most valuable: One-on-one feedback with my mentor. (Suzette Hackney)
  • * A valuable experience for newbie editorial writers. It's a great way to learn from some of the best in the business. (Suzette Hackney)

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Seigenthaler and Minority Writers Seminar

The late John Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and was a strong advocate of and frequent speaker at the AOJ & AOJ Foundation Minority Writers Seminar there. He spoke again on May 2, 2014, just weeks before his death at 86 on July 11. His former desk mate at the Tennesseean and fellow seminar organizer, Joan Armour, was with him in this photo, as were some continuing faculty and the 2014 attendees.

group photo outside Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt
Participants, including speakers and hands-on learners, from left:
Back Row: Tommy Denton, Chuck Stokes, Rick Horowitz, Andre Jackson.
Third Row: Janet Cho, Marilyn Garateix, Donavan Wilson, Suzette Hackney, Vanessa Gallman.
Second Row: Davina van Buren, Jenee Osterheldt, Lillian Williams, Kendra Farmer, Erika D. Smith.
First Row: Gissela SantaCruz, Meredith Rodriguez, John Seigenthaler, Joan Armour, Ricardo Pimentel. (Photo by Jan Stinson)

AOJ members laud John Seigenthaler

Partnership with him via First Amendment Center
continued until shortly before his death

Published July 11, 2014, on opinionjournalists.org by J.McClelland
Republished 8/24 on aoj.wildapricot.org; relocated 10/4/14

John Seigenthaler, legendary journalist, chairman emeritus of The Tennesseean, first opinion editor of USA Today and a conscience of the Gannett newspapers, founder in 1991 of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and staunch supporter of the NCEW-AOJ Minority Writers Seminar, died Friday, July 11, 2014.

Praise came rolling in immediately on the AOJ members-only discussion list, as elsewhere in the country and on the web.

Writers and editors from across the land told of inspiring encounters in a career that had multiple accomplishments, any one of which could have been called grounds for greatness. He was for a while a confidant of the Kennedys, John and especially his friend Bobby, but left politics soon for a return to journalism, where here later said he truly belonged.

For some time, he ran the editorial pages of both the new USA Today and the Nashville Tennessean -- and well. He often said doing good journalism in a democracy is difficult and expensive.

His First Amendment Center made a point of the fact, as a bumper sticker says, "Freedom Isn't Free."

He spoke still with vigor despite his age (86) and health at the May 2, 2014, seminar in Nashville, said fellow seminar speaker Rick Horowitz.

Support for the seminar over a period of several years was one of his contributions to racial equality in society and diversity in journalism.
Link to: USA-Today's thorough story (For an account of his role in creating an editorial agenda of public service, scroll or search to the "Newspaper's legacy" sub-hed.)

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