Reaching for Diversity
Editors say they want the percentage of racial minorities in the newsroom to equal that of the general population by the end of the decade. Given the results thus far, critics call it "mission impossible."
By Katherine Corcoran
Katherine Corcoran is a freelance writer inthe San Francisco Bay area who has worked in newspapers for 10 years.
Editors call it their top priority and their biggest challenge. Some even say it's the single most important issue facing American newspapers. During the last 20 years, it has been studied, market-surveyed, seminared, task-forced and brown-bag-lunched to exhaustion.
The issue is diversity, the idea that a newspaper's staff and coverage should reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of its market.
Diversity has been a major topic of debate since 1968, when the Kerner Commission, which was appointed by the federal government to report on racial unrest, criticized newspapers' hiring and coverage of blacks. Ten years later the American Society of Newspaper Editors set a goal for the percentage of minorities in newsrooms to match that of the general population by 2000. Today, 14 years later, newspapers are not even a third of the way there.
"Mission impossible. That's my term for it," says Sidmel Estes-Sumpter, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a news producer at WAGA-TV in Atlanta.
For years, practically every newspaper association and foundation has had internships, job fairs, scholarships, training programs and committees devoted to the hiring and promotion of minorities. ASNE spends more money and resources on minority affairs – nearly $400,000 a year – than any other issue.
So why are the numbers so slow to change?
According to critics, newspapers simply haven't taken action on ASNE's 1978 goal. As Ben Johnson, an assistant managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times, says he often tells his white colleagues: "Y'all ain't serious."
Other journalists agree.
"I go to all the conventions and task force meetings and it's the same people who show up – the people who are committed with a lot of energy and a lot of vision," says Jon Funabiki, director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University. "The vast majority of papers are only putting a small effort into the issue."
Diversity has become a fashionable subject, but it's a topic that some say is not widely understood. "Most people still see it as affirmative action or a quota program," says Estes-Sumpter. "There's a lot of resistance [to] affirmative action and quotas. That's the atmosphere in this country right now."
On the contrary, proponents say diversity goes beyond hiring. It's something to be incorporated into every aspect of journalism, from line editing to the definition of news itself. It means quoting minority sources. It means covering minority lifestyles and traditions as more than curiosities, and writing about all aspects of a culture rather than only its problems.
"It is a task better dictated by the codes of ethics and basic mission of a journalist, which is to tell the truth," says William Boyd, an associate at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "How can you say you've done a fair and accurate job when you present a picture that would lead a man from Mars to believe there are no blacks or Hispanics in your town, and in fact they make up 30 or 40 percent?"
In fact, says Boyd, if news organizations were more diverse and had been covering minority communities, they might not have been caught off-guard by the reaction that followed the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King. "For people who are supposed to be skeptical, [the media] all expected a conviction," he says. "Why weren't they prepared if there wasn't? They didn't ask the right questions."
Until recently, most editors could afford to ignore the call for diversity, which was largely promoted by champions of civil rights as "doing the right thing." Newspapers were enjoying hefty profit margins, and executives had a hard time believing they needed to change.
But now, as those margins have shrunk dramatically, industry leaders are pushing diversity as a matter of survival. The way to counteract flat circulation, they argue, is to target growth areas of the population. In the next eight years, minorities will account for 70 percent of the increase in U.S. population, according to census data.
"We cannot possibly hope to have a full future unless the [newspaper] staff and management reflect the whole of the community," says David Lawrence Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald.
Lawrence, who served as ASNE president last year, says he is encouraged by the most recent national minority-hiring numbers, which during his tenure showed a 0.7 percent increase. "We showed a gain despite the fact the economy was so lousy," he says.
In sheer numbers, minority newsroom professionals have increased significantly. In the last three years alone, the number of Asian journalists has grown by 48 percent, Hispanics by 23 percent, Native Americans by 17 percent and blacks by 13 percent.
But there is a grim side to the figures. In 1978, minorities comprised 4 percent of newsroom professionals, compared with 14 percent of the U.S. population. Today minorities make up a little more than 9 percent of newsroom staffs and at least 20 percent of the population. To meet the 1978 ASNE goal, the number of minority professionals would have to more than triple over the next eight years to reflect the projected 27 percent minority population by the end of the century.
In the broadcast industry, the number of minorities working in television news jumped from 13 percent in 1987 to 18 percent last year, while in radio, the number increased from 10 percent to 11 percent during the same time, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). But Estes-Sumpter says those figures are artificially high because they include clerks, secretaries and other non-professionals; the ASNE figures only include professionals. "The broadcast industry is actually behind" newspapers, she says. "There is no concerted industry effort to deal with diversity."
RTNDA President David Bartlett says the reason the broadcast industry has not talked as much about diversity is because the Federal Communications Commission requires stations to document their minority hiring efforts. "Newspapers have talked a lot more about it, but I talk more about results," he says. "The newspaper industry's results are lousy." He acknowledges, however, that broadcasters could do a better job hiring minorities for management positions.
In the newspaper industry, 51 percent of the 1,008 dailies participating in ASNE's annual survey on minority hiring still have no minorities on staff. They tend to be papers with circulations under 50,000, often in areas with largely white populations – the papers that traditionally provide training for young journalists.
Some of the newspapers with no minorities are not so small. The 87,000-circulation Torrance Daily Breeze in California told ASNE that it has only white professionals in its newsroom, even though the city is 34 percent minority, including 22 percent with Asian or Pacific Island heritage. In the area – Los Angeles County – whites comprise only 41 percent of the population.
Daily Breeze Managing Editor Jean Adelsman says the paper doesn't get applications from qualified minorities and doesn't recruit for positions. Yet she says she would "very, very much" like to have minorities on staff.
"We're in a state of high anguish. We're not sure how to fix it," Adelsman says. "We don't hire entry-level reporters..and the minorities of the skill level we would love to have go to larger newspapers."
The "none qualified" argument has been used for decades, at least since the Los Angeles Times sent minority advertising messengers to cover the 1965 Watts riots because it had no minority reporters. Managers in charge of hiring say that kind of recruiting doesn't happen any more. "Finding qualified minorities is not difficult," says Paul Salsini, staff development director at the Milwaukee Journal. "I think people make it difficult. There are lots of good minorities looking for jobs. If newspapers put the effort in, they will find them."
However, when newsrooms make a concerted effort to hire and promote minorities, it often provokes grumbling among white journalists who believe minorities with less experience are getting better opportunities.
David C. Hamilton, assistant managing editor at Newsday, says that "fast-tracking" seems to be an issue only when minorities are promoted. "When white people [advance quickly], it's okay," he says.
At the Austin American-Statesman, staff members were concerned about supposed pay differentials. Editor Maggie Balough says there was an "uneasiness" in her newsroom because white reporters thought their minority counterparts were being paid better, while minorities believed the opposite was true. She talked with her staff to dispel the rumors.
"A white male reporter said, 'I understand what we're trying to do and I think it's good, but I'm scared there's no future here for me,' " she says. "We ran into a lack of understanding... When the emotion builds, and it will, you have to talk about it."
Newspapers that hire minorities are still not doing so in large numbers. Some big-circulation newspapers, considered by many to be the leaders in the diversity movement, don't look quite as good when the makeup of their markets is considered. Of the 25 largest U.S. daily newspapers, only those in cities with minority populations below 15 percent are expected to meet the parity goal, according to a recent study by Dick Haws, an Iowa State University journalism professor. These dailies include papers in Boston, Minneapolis, Long Island and Portland, Oregon.
In Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., where minorities make up at least 40 percent of the population in circulation areas, newsroom employment lags far behind. Minority employees constitute 16 percent of the newsroom staff at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 16 percent at the Los Angeles Times, between 14 percent and 15 percent at the New York Times and New York Daily News, and 17 percent at the Washington Post.
Even the staff of the Oakland Tribune, the nation's only black-owned metropolitan daily, doesn't match the makeup of its market. The Tribune is 29 percent minority in a circulation area that is 45 percent minority.
Managing Editor Eric Newton says a newspaper can change only as quickly as jobs open up. "This is a process that has to be done incrementally," he says. Yet Newton argues that most editors have not made diversity a priority, noting that the financially troubled Tribune, which has cut staff dramatically in the last 10 years, still has tripled the number of minorities in its newsroom since the ASNE goal was set. "Most of the editors in America are not hiring people of color for reasons they're not admitting," he says. "And the main reason is that they don't want to."
The potential for minority recruits is there. A 1989 study by an American Newspaper Publishers Association-staffed task force projected that more than half of all workers entering the job market from 1989 through 2000 would be minority. Further, it noted that the number of minorities entering college increased by 32 percent from 1975 to 1985.
The problem for newspapers, according to the study, is that 96 percent of minority college students don't choose journalism as a career. Proponents of diversity argue that news executives have to take a more active role in developing a talent pool.
Minority journalists also say that the profession needs more minorities in decision-making positions if it hopes to attract new talent. Nearly 70 percent of newspaper editors at the city editor level and above are white males.
"Reporters who get into management, we all know those people are groomed. And the ones they always choose are the ones they can play golf with," says José McMurray, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
The ASNE numbers suggest the existence of a glass ceiling. Minorities make up 23 percent of new hires, but only 6 percent of newsroom managers. Sixteen percent of all minority employees are in management, compared with 25 percent of white employees.
Several recent surveys, including one for the Asian American Journalists Association and one for the California Chicano News Media Association, indicate that minorities are more likely to leave the profession at higher rates than whites because they believe they can't advance.
Erna Smith, a San Francisco State University associate professor of journalism and former Wall Street Journal copy editor, says that's the real issue. "Half of those young people they hire five or six years from now aren't going to be there," she says. "People don't stay because they don't feel valued."
For minorities who do stay, more and more are becoming columnists once they reach the upper ranks, says Alice Bonner, director of journalism education at the Freedom Forum. Bonner, who is black, says veteran minority journalists who are management material are being sidetracked. "They are people who, if they stayed on the news side, could be deciding what goes on the front page," she says.
News Through a White Filter
The content of most newspapers reflects the world view of the white males who edit them rather than the communities that read them, critics say. In fact, it's still difficult to find minorities portrayed in most newspapers as anything other than stereotypes, according to several studies.
Karen F. Brown, an associate at the Poynter Institute, recently looked at the news content of 18 newspapers for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. She found that only 9 percent of news stories during a week in July 1991 related to minorities in a region where the population is 38 percent minority. Nearly half of those stories either had to do with sports or the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown says that if she hadn't counted entertainment stories on Redd Foxx, Mary Wells and Gloria Estefan, there would have been hardly any coverage at all.
In general, white reporters and editors are not encouraged to learn about, much less cover, minority communities. The result is seen in newspapers around the country.
Examples of insensitivity that minority journalists have found particularly jarring include:
•A headline last spring in the New York Times declaring, "For Mayor Dinkins, No Black Magic" atop an editorial about racial unrest in Crown Heights.
•A Torrance Daily Breeze story last year about the growth of the Asian-Pacific population in that area under the front-page headline, "Asian Invasion."
•The San Francisco Examiner's Image magazine cover story on the "hot trend" of Asian women dating white men. The story played on images of Asian women as submissive and exotic and Asian men as celibate and sexless.
"It's as if the only time an Asian person gets on the cover of Image magazine is for dating a white person," says Smith. That implies that "people of color are of no value except in their relationship with the dominant culture."
Minority journalists have grown tired of all the studies, talks and good intentions. "We don't need more efforts," says Alice Bonner. "We need more results."
Last year, the minority journalists' professional associations threatened to quit ANPA's task force on minorities, which was formed in 1985 and included 44 national and regional newspaper-related associations.
"Our organization didn't see the task force as being effective. We were revisiting the same issues, going over the same reports, with no tangible results," says NABJ's Estes-Sumpter.
In January, ANPA held a conference of 38 newspaper industry leaders in New York to address the minority journalists' concerns. Attendees drafted the Diversity Action Plan, which has been adopted by ANPA and ASNE.
At first glance, it looks like more of the same: more committees, seminars, mentoring programs and recruiting videotapes. But the plan does add minority representation to the board of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), the new industry group that was recently created by merger of ANPA, the National Advertising Bureau and six other organizations. It also calls for the NAA to add staff to "elevate diversity to a status equal to other key industry issues."
The Miami Herald's Lawrence, one of the plan's proponents, says some publishers now are making a commitment to change. "We need to have people in charge insisting that progress be made," he says.
Estes-Sumpter is encouraged. "We talked in depth about diversity to the people who are able to change something," she says. "The fact that they came up with a statement is an accomplishment. Now we have to wait and see if there's a willingness to implement the [changes]."
The plan calls for newspapers to set their own timetables for achieving diversity. According to editors and academics working on the issue, there are many ways to do that. Some are expensive; all take time.
At the Poynter Institute, William Boyd is researching ways to institutionalize diversity – in other words, to make it part of the newspaper's corporate structure so that it remains a priority no matter who's in charge. "The hope is that if [the people working on diversity] get hit by a car, the efforts would still go on," he says.
Most of the ideas he is studying have been attempted at various newspapers, but in a piecemeal way. They include:
•Having all managers, including the publisher, attend cultural awareness seminars that deal with the value of diversity.
•Making progress toward diversity a factor in job evaluations, raises and promotions.
•Having at least one minority among the finalists for all job openings.
•Including minorities on planning committees on design, reorganizing the newsroom and other issues.
•Sending all reporters and editors, not just minority affairs writers, into minority communities to get to know the people and issues.
Boyd's laboratory is the 345,000-circulation St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute. The newspaper hired a black assistant managing editor, Ben Johnson, to increase diversity in the newsroom along with his other duties. The paper has put managers through day-long cultural awareness seminars and this month will do the same for all employees.
The Times recruits nationally for job openings and has a policy that managers filling vacancies must come up with a list of three or more finalists for each job. At least one finalist must be either a woman or a minority or both.
Those are the recruiting methods small newspapers cite as too expensive and time-consuming when they explain why they have no minorities on staff. But there are ways to accomplish the same goals on a tighter budget. Randolph Brandt, managing editor of the Merced Sun-Star in California, has increased the number of minorities on his staff from 4 percent to 20 percent since he took over more than two years ago.
Like editors at the St. Petersburg Times, Brandt tries to have at least one minority among finalists for every job. But instead of recruiting nationally, he drives to job fairs in San Francisco and San Jose. The cost? Gas and lunch money.
Now that the 25,000-circulation Merced paper has become known for seeking entry-level minority journalists, applications have increased. And Brandt takes time to encourage and keep track of his better applicants, whether he has job openings or not.
For Brandt, diversifying the staff was essential to being the community newspaper in a town that is 51 percent minority. Editors in Merced are responsible for making sure all stories reflect the population, which is 30 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 6 percent black.
To achieve diversity, however, newspapers sometimes must change their definitions of news.
At the 173,000-circulation Austin American-Statesman, Editor Balough until recently held semi-weekly meetings for her top managers to talk about diversity in coverage. She hired University of Texas associate journalism professor Mercedes de Uriarte, now on a fellowship with the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, to act as both a critic and teacher.
Balough found that multicultural stories don't always fit the traditional criteria for news. For example, in the Austin area, a minority business raised several thousand dollars for charity. The newspaper didn't cover it because the dollar amount wasn't spectacular enough, even though it was an astronomical amount for that business.
Journalists who are working on diversity issues agree that more than the definition of news must change. But they also see reasons to be optimistic. "A substantial percentage of both younger people in newsrooms and interns are minorities," says Lawrence. "You'll see a faster rate of progress in the years ahead."
Ben Johnson says it's ultimately an issue of life and death for newspapers. "If we don't work harder to be relevant to our readers, we will be irrelevant," he says. "And you'll find all the irrelevant ones in line at bankruptcy court." l