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In 1982, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) held a memorable convention in Detroit. Participating journalists arrived at one of the convention’s events to find tables outfitted with Miller beer and cigarettes, courtesy of the event’s proud sponsors. People freaked. “Some walked out with [the products] and some said, ‘This is so inappropriate,’” recalls Wayne Dawkins, an NABJ member since 1981 and author of Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream. “When these instances would come up, when something did not look right, we’d go back to the sponsor and they would adjust.”

Yes, the adjustments have been made. Twenty-two years later, NABJ along with the organizations for Hispanic, Asian, and Native American journalists are pulling off their third joint production, Unity 2004, at the Washington Convention Center this week. And from all appearances, corporate sponsors have learned how to package their sponsorship in a journalist-friendly way.

The GM logos emblazoned on Unity 2004 badge holders are discreetly placed in a corner, only partly obscuring badge data. And over-the-top signage promoting sponsors doesn’t crowd seminar and meeting rooms.

Yet it’s tough to locate sponsor-free territory at Unity 2004. The Oasis Lounge, complete with plush brown sofas, comes courtesy of Fannie Mae. The Career Resource Center belongs to the Tribune Co. Unity’s educational programming is also for sale: There’s a session titled, “Investigative Business Writing: Hunting Down Suits and Corporations.” Sponsor: Time Warner.

An all-day seminar on Wednesday called “Non-Linear Editing” looks innocuous enough, but it’s sponsored by Apple and drills attendees on the glorious features of the company’s Final Cut Pro HD video-editing program.

The everything’s-for-sale MO brings in bucks. According to Anna Lopez, executive director of Unity: Journalists of Color, sponsors have kicked in about $2.2 million, supplemented by another $1 million in proceeds from exhibit floor space, where media companies try to poach each other’s talent. Much of the sponsorship haul comes from media companies, such as Knight-Ridder, the New York Times Co., and Gannett, but the event gets big contributions from businesses whose main interest in the news is being in the news: GM, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and more than 15 others.

The little guys get pinched a bit, too. Nonprofits and nonsexy entities eager for foot traffic on the expo floor paid $1,000 for spots in promotional Unity 2004 mass e-mails that went out to participants before the conference. Sherrie Edwards, who manages a Unity booth on teenage drug use, said she got a discounted fee after preregistered attendees complained that the e-mails were coming too frequently. In all, she says, “It was a smooth process.”

Unity 2004 hopes its various revenue streams will feed a $1.7 million profit, which will fund the associations’ scholarships, internships, and other activities. That’s a nice take for a multiday party with about 7,000 preregistered attendees, not to mention speaking appearances by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and President George W. Bush.

Lopez reports a dribble of complaints about the profit’s corporate provenance. However, she says, media companies have cut back on their outlays for convention activities, spawning a greater reliance on the Coca-Colas and GMs. “We are trying to really diversify our funding,” says Lopez.

The Washington Post doesn’t go for the funding-diversity thing. Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says the Post has “not allowed corporate involvement” in the activities it supports, such as a seminar on feature writing. “We generally do not co-sponsor with people who are not journalism folks,” says Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman.

But sponsorship at Unity 2004 is a bargain for any forward-looking corporation. You get exposure to the White House occupant over the next five years plus face time with the country’s top editors and a whole army of frontline journalists. Even though they carefully parse their pronouncements, PR reps for Unity boosters aren’t shy about what they expect to get out of the conference.

“Our interest is one of dialogue….to get face-to-face with working journalists.”—Dana Bolden, media-affairs manager for Philip Morris USA

“It’s an excellent opportunity to exchange thoughts with a powerful alliance of journalists.”

—Xavier Dominicis, national manager of media relations for Toyota Motor Sales

“It’s just a great opportunity to get out and get face-to-face with journalists.”—Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesperson

“It’s a good opportunity to interact with the media and for them to get to know who we are on a personal level.”—Mitch Johnson, Ford Motor Company’s multicultural public affairs chief

“This is such an opportunity for General Motors. It’s just an extension of how we’re building relationships with journalists of color. We want more coverage. Everybody does.”—Andrea Clark, a GM communications staffer.

But according to Unity journos, flacks hoping to make friends and influence people have alighted on the wrong profession. Enterprising scribes from all over the country are laying down the law: We’ll sit on the Fannie Mae sofa, but we won’t write fluff about corporate America. Just check out their quotes.

Would Unity 2004’s corporate presence tilt your coverage?

In my day-to-day coverage, it wouldn’t affect me at all.”—Diane Boozer, assignment editor, ABC News

“I really didn’t think about it. I didn’t notice.”—Paul Gutierrez, sports reporter, Los Angeles Times

“No, it wouldn’t change anything…because personally I know how to separate the two. You appreciate and take advantage of it, but…you have to learn to separate the two.”—JaTika Hudson, associate editor, Atlanta Tribune magazine

“You’ve got to follow your own morals and ethics. You are not supposed to be influenced by the sponsors.”—Mingxia Xu, journalism graduate student at New York University

“I don’t really run into these companies where I’m from. I’m from a small town on a reservation.”—Annette Martinez, news director at KCIE in Dulce, New Mexico.

—Erik Wemple and Mike DeBonis