The Post and Diversity
Racial tensions will persist in America's newsrooms until diversity is seen as a business strategy rather than social engineering.
By Walterene Swanston
Walterene Swanston, a former print and broadcast journalist, is a consultant on diversity issues for media companies.
The Washington Post is caught up in a cruel irony in its struggle for newsroom diversity – the more successful its efforts, the more problems arise.
The problem is hardly unique to the Post. As long as newspapers continue to make diversity a stand alone issue rather than part of an overall business strategy, divisions will continue to be an unfortunate byproduct.
The cause of diversity is helped enormously when managers and employees understand the business advantages it can bring. They include helping newspapers reach new readers and advertisers, attracting talented employees who can bring new perspectives to reporting and editing the news, and increasing productivity throughout the paper.
When newspapers portray their diversity campaigns as a component of a business plan as opposed to a feel-good initiative, their staffs are more likely to accept them (this is the case at USA Today, for example). But when diversity is seen as social engineering, it is the source of considerable discord, as the Post experience demonstrates.
The tensions caused by the Post's diversity efforts became very public in The New Republic's October 2 cover story, "Race in the Newsroom," written by Associate Editor Ruth Shalit. The article touched off an emotional reaction at the Post, resulted in stories in the Post and the New York Times, and sparked heated discussions about diversity efforts at newspapers across the country.
Shalit's article portrayed the staff of the Post as deeply divided along black/white lines. She reported that some white staff members believe that standards have been lowered in order to hire and promote black staffers, while many black staff members feel they are held to a higher standard and have to work harder to have their stories accepted and their abilities acknowledged. Shalit also asserted that the Post has compromised its reporting of the black community, calling it "increasingly timorous and protective over the past decade."
She concluded that "despite real achievements, its well-intentioned efforts have gone awry, in ways that have implications for the politics of newsrooms across America and for the way that news is covered – and not covered – by newspapers in the future."
Soon after the story appeared, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. issued to the Post staff a blistering five-page denial of Shalit's charges. In his memo he wrote that "we have not adjusted standards in any way in our hiring of dozens of talented journalists of color who do distinguished work, and we know we will continue to attract many more of their caliber."
Downie also wrote that the Post has never pulled punches in its news coverage. "All of what we are now doing – improving how we manage and develop people, increasing our diversity, raising the level of our coverage with little increase in resources – is what we should be doing to publish the best newspaper we can every day and make this the best possible newsroom in which to work."
Downie and Washington Post Publisher Donald Graham wrote scathing letters to The New Republic, rejecting many of the allegations in Shalit's article. Both letters were printed in the October 16 issue of the magazine, with responses from Shalit and the editors defending the article.
The kind of racial angst that has surfaced at the Post is not new. The strife that diversity brings was recognized in the mid 1980s by the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation (now the Newspaper Association of America Foundation).
The foundation focused on finding ways to increase the number of women and people of color in the newspaper business. By 1987 ANPA Foundation minority affairs manager Terri Dickerson-Jones started offering newspapers diversity training, in part because racial tensions had started to surface and retention of women and people of color was becoming a problem.
Now nearly every newspaper that is working hard on diversity issues offers some kind of awareness training. That approach, if not built into overall efforts to improve the management skills of all managers and to empower all other employees, will continue to cause deep divisions in newspapers.
Downie said in an interview after The New Republic story appeared that the Post had already realized that few of the paper's senior managers had any formal management training, and that management training, not diversity training, had already been planned for senior newsroom managers. That training began shortly after the story ran. Downie says that after the training is evaluated, the Post will consider whether to offer management training in 1996 for all newsroom managers and editors.
This summer the Conference Board, a New York-based research and business membership organization, reported the results of a survey that showed that many businesses that conduct diversity training as part of strategic planning did so for business reasons: 47 percent to increase productivity, 38 percent to stay competitive. This approach makes good sense for newspaper companies as they begin reorganizing in the wake of downsizing. It would be useful in team building as well.
Çaking sure diversity training is provided to everyone in a company will lead to broader acceptance, particularly if staffers realize that diversity makes good business sense and can make their own
Newspaper companies that diversify their staffs should expect a backlash. But they can head off problems if they stop treating diversity as a separate issue and give all managers and employees the skills they need to perform to the best of their abilities. It's just good business. l ###