The annual honor is given to an individual who has made outstanding efforts to make newsrooms and news coverage more accurately reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. It is named in honor of Ida B. Wells, the distinguished journalist, fearless reporter and feminist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University co-curates the award with NABJ.
“I am honored, humbled and encouraged by this recognition. I see it not as a reward for what I have done in the past, but encouragement to stay on track in the future,” Watson said. “It’s recognition of the fact that everyday people like me, someone who does not have the impressive public profile of prior recipients, have an important role to play in expanding newsroom diversity. It’s not only a noble crusade, it’s an every-day professional duty for us all.”
Watson, whose professional career spans more than four decades in journalism – including reporting, editing, teaching and mentoring – teaches journalism ethics and communication law at American University.
“NABJ is pleased to highlight the work of Dr. Watson,” said NABJ President Sarah Glover. “His career is a testament to the impact of diversity and inclusion as he has shepherded the careers of hundreds of journalists as a newsroom manager and now he works to train the next generation as an educator.”
Watson became an advocate for diversity when he became the first black reporter hired at The Jersey Journal in 1975. During his 21 years at the Journal, he would go on to become the newspaper’s first black city editor, recruiting and hiring dozens of journalists of color.
As a result, The New York Times would later describe the rival Journal newsroom as the most diverse in the NYC metro market. It didn’t stop there, as Watson also helped provide high school students with journalism scholarships through NABJ’s New Jersey chapter. During that time he also taught at Rutgers University and what’s known now as New Jersey City University.
“It is that record of achievement that makes Dr. Watson a very worthy recipient of the Ida B. Wells Award,” said Charles Whitaker, interim dean at the Medill School of Journalism.
Gilbert D. Martinez, an assistant director and senior lecturer at Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Watson has been there for him throughout his journalism and teaching career. Martinez recalls that when he was a young reporter at the Journal, Watson helped him with a feature story about a young couple battling the odds.
“The additional element to the story was that the young woman had AIDS, and they didn’t know how long they would enjoy their marriage. This was in the mid-1990s when a stigma still attached to those having AIDS, so this feature story required empathy and sensitivity,” Martinez said. Watson “helped me focus on the humanity of the couple, and not the disease. He helped me write with the compassion and authenticity that the story required. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Watson has “immeasurable impact,” inside and outside newsrooms, said Margaret Schmidt, the Journal’s current editor. Schmidt said Watson, who had moved on to teaching, was the impetus for a Knight fellowship that the Journal and American University received in 2001. She said Watson’s emphasis on newsroom diversity still resonates with her.
During Watson’s first year teaching at American in 1998, he noticed that he was the only African-American journalism professor on tenure track and that he rarely had students of color in his classes. As a result, he became a trainer in the highly regarded Chips Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity in Journalism, providing hands-on training and mentoring to minority journalism students across the country.
“John makes a tremendous difference, and we are glad that the world gets to see it,” said Amy Eisman, the director of the Journalism Division at American University.
Eisman further describes him as someone who has “devoted his professional life to ensuring journalists of color not only have a seat at the table, but a voice and support. John has made this effort his focus, regardless of whether he was a reporter, editor or professor.”
Watson will be presented with his award on Friday, Aug. 3 at the Hall of Fame Luncheon at the 2018 NABJ Convention and Career Fair Aug. 1-5 in Detroit.