What Works?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2004

What Works?   

Burlington, North Carolina’s Times-News and Colorado’s Greeley Tribune have similar circulations and hometown demographics. Yet while the staff in Burlington’s newsroom is practically all white, Greeley’s is diverse. What does Greeley do that Burlington doesn’t?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


In his two stints at the Times-News in Burlington, North Carolina, Editor Lee Barnes has hired two black journalists. It's a small number that makes up a large percentage of the African American journalists who have worked there in the past 25 years. One longtime employee can only remember three others who were full-time staffers in this, one of the country's many starkly white newsrooms.

The Times-News narrowly avoided being listed in a Knight Foundation report among the 374 daily newspapers that lacked a single journalist of color. Last year, the paper hired an experienced hard-news cops reporter who was black. She left in mid-May. In June, Barnes brought in the paper's very first Latina reporter. But these few-and-far-between hires aren't considered progress.

Barnes openly discusses his difficulty, frustration and, ultimately, embarrassment in not being able to diversify his newsroom. The 28,000-circulation paper is in an area that's 20 percent black, 6 percent Latino – officially – and 2 percent Asian, Native American and multi-racial. Barnes and other staffers say with diversity, the newspaper would better cover its community, and they believe their current situation hampers their ability to do so. But Barnes says his recruiting efforts have failed. His recent minority hires either walked through the door or came to him via word-of-mouth. "I've gotten tired of beating my head against the wall," he says of trying to attract minority candidates. "It's been incredibly time consuming, and the results have been zero."

The editor is at the point of believing there is nothing he can do to attract journalists of color to his small paper in nobody-wants-to-live-there Burlington. "I believe you could call other papers my size and get the same sob story."

You could.

But not everyone is sobbing over their staff lists. In Greeley, Colorado, the 25,000-circulation Greeley Tribune doesn't want to be put on any kind of pedestal, the paper's leadership is quick to point out. They struggle with the issue of diversity, and with turnover, just like everyone else. But in an area that's 30.8 percent nonwhite, the newsroom, according to the 2004 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey, is 22.9 percent nonwhite. It's not parity, but it's a high mark for the paper.

All of the all-white newspapers listed in the Knight report by Bill Dedman and Stephen K. Doig have circulations of less than 50,000, papers that often have recruiting and retention problems regardless of race (see "Vacancies in Vacaville," March 2003). With the full cooperation of these two community newspapers, AJR set out to find what they were doing to diversify their staffs, and what works. Why such success on one side of the Mississippi, and such dismal numbers on the other?

Burlington, North Carolina, population 45,000, is in the north-central part of the state, 30 miles east of Greensboro. The historic downtown is charming – but with many empty storefronts, almost a ghost town. The Holiday Inn just off Interstate 85 provides a list of area restaurants for its guests. Not one is actually in Burlington. "Sleepy" may be the most apt description for this small, southern city.

And as a southern city, Burlington's history has seen its share of racial strife. While tensions between blacks and whites eased over the decades, a Latino community began to grow. According to Census numbers, in 1990, there were 736 Latinos in Alamance County, where Burlington is located; in 2000, there were 8,835. Managing Editor Jay Ashley, a Burlington native, uses the following anecdote to sum up the changes the city has gone through: In the 1960s, he says, there was a large billboard at a local fork in the road, picturing a Ku Klux Klansman on a horse and featuring the slogan, "Fight Communism and Integration." Today on that site there's a Mexican restaurant.

As the racial makeup of the community has changed, the paper's largely hasn't. According to the ASNE numbers cited in the Knight report, the newsroom is 5 percent nonwhite this year and was 0 percent the two years previous. The Times-News, owned by Freedom Communications, reported a high of 10 percent nonwhite in 1995 and 1999. Today, with 30 full-time staffers, the paper would have to employ eight minorities to reach parity with its community.

About 20 years ago, Lee Barnes started at the Times-News as a reporter, working his way up to managing editor in his four years there. In April 2001, he came back as editor, and the scene in the newsroom remained just as it was two decades before: There was one African American. As part of his efforts to change that, he went to an annual minority job fair that fall sponsored by Raleigh's News & Observer, where he represented all six of Freedom's North Carolina papers. "The reality of my situation hit home," Barnes says. Everyone wanted to talk to the bigger papers or television stations, he says, and virtually no one stopped by the Freedom booth. "I maybe had two people come by, and I think they were doing it to be polite."

Barnes doesn't receive résumés from minority candidates, he says, and he once placed an ad on the National Association of Black Journalists' Web site, to no avail. The editor says he has also contacted local universities. Barnes, who is white, called the public relations person at North Carolina A&T State University, a predominantly black college and his alma mater, asking for those interested in journalism to be sent his way and seeking a candidate for a minority internship scholarship awarded to one student each year by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. SNPA awards the recipient $2,500, in essence providing the paper with a free intern. The woman Barnes spoke to "certainly expressed interest," he says. "But the fact remained that nobody, and I mean nobody, called me back."

Elon University, a local private school that sends interns to the Times-News, did have a candidate for the SNPA scholarship, but, Barnes says, she took another job. Barnes then decided to experiment and called Alamance Community College, seeking minorities who might be interested in interning at the paper. Again, he says, no one got in touch with him.

Beyond phone calls, though, the Times-News' leadership doesn't visit local campuses to meet with students, and the internship program is limited. The paper has up to two interns each semester, usually from Elon and the photojournalism program at Randolph Community College, or through a program Freedom participates in at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. Elon's Society of Professional Journalists chapter did host a workshop last fall for students of all races who worked on a newspaper at an area high school, and the paper publishes the work of about a dozen middle school and high school students, again of all races, on the features section front every Monday.

The regional human resources director for Freedom's North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio papers (10 dailies) also has an office at the Burlington paper. Norman L. Brenneman has gone to the Raleigh job fair and others, not solely geared to journalists of color, sponsored by Newsday, North Carolina State and Appalachian State University. He also sends out a packet of information about the Freedom papers to all colleges in North Carolina and visits some of them. But the message that diversity is a priority at the Times-News hasn't filtered its way through the paper's maze-like building. Brenneman says he hasn't told the colleges that the papers are particularly interested in minority candidates. "I haven't personally," he adds, "but I know the editors have."

The career placement people at Elon University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said they weren't aware of a push for diversity at the Times-News. But they're sympathetic to the paper's plight. Leah Kessler, a former director of communications internships and special programs at Elon, says of the 96 print journalism majors in the school, 10 are minority students.

Of about 840 juniors and seniors at UNC's school of journalism and mass communication, 134 are nonwhite. Of those, 19 are in the news editorial sequence. Jay Eubank, director of career services, encourages editors at small papers to identify students in high schools and keep tabs on them or to take chances on less experienced graduates. "The competition for really good people to work at smaller papers is really keen," he says. "And when you're trying to take what's probably a small pool and delve into an even smaller part of that pool, that's just a hard proposition."

Sharon Brooks Hodge, the Times-News' sole black reporter until mid-May, doesn't fault the paper for not attracting more journalists of color. "In this region, you don't have a lot of black reporters," she says. It's "definitely a supply problem."

But supply, overall, is not lacking. There are more than enough minority journalism graduates to meet the industry's demands, according to research conducted by Lee B. Becker at the University of Georgia's James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research. He also has found that enrollment of the nation's African American and Latino journalism students is more concentrated at historically black institutions or those affiliated with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. In yet another move to help editors tap these potential recruits, the Freedom Forum maintains an online Diversity Directory, which lists more than 200 schools with significant minority populations.

Chuck Stone, for one, is sick of hearing the supply excuse – or any others, for that matter. "I'm very intolerant of people who say they can't get diversity," says Stone, a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor who was the first president of NABJ. He suggests editors go to North Carolina Central University, a predominately black college in Durham, and other largely black schools; spend time researching who they should contact there; and look to the community itself for aspiring journalists. "When people say they have a hard time implementing diversity, they're not trying."

The fact that the Times-News' journalists are almost all white is not lost on the community – or the staff. Customer Service Manager Joyce Beasley is the highest-ranking African American at the paper. People in the community think she's the only black person in the building, she says, and she often hears comments about the coverage, such as "had to be a white reporter that did that."

City Editor Brent Lancaster agrees that the paper's coverage is hindered by not having black reporters on staff, though he adds that he's not sure if the problem is one of staffing or the fact that the paper doesn't write enough about black issues. Covering the Latino community is also a challenge. Lancaster, who graduated from UNC at Greensboro in 1995 and became city editor this spring, wrote an eight-part series last year on Latinos, a project that aimed to inform residents about the area's growing population. Lancaster says it was difficult to do the series since he didn't speak Spanish. "For a bilingual reporter to do it," he says, "it would've been much better." (Any coverage the paper has done on Latinos has attracted criticism, much of it inflammatory, Barnes says. The editor has fielded a number of phone calls from readers complaining that Latinos get a twice-monthly Spanish-language newspaper, La Voz, for free from the Times-News, while everyone else has to pay for their news.)

Reporter Isaac Groves minored in Spanish in college and has used his language skills to cover the community – he wrote a story on "tripas," cow intestines that are used in tacos for instance – but he'd like to tackle more adventurous pieces. "I haven't seen anyone in this newsroom shy away from stories" because they're white. But, Groves says, a diverse staff would bring new perspectives and new story ideas to the paper.

Barnes sees the limitations clearly. "It would be a more interesting paper" if the newsroom were diverse, he says. "We don't bring any great perspective to racial issues. How can we?... We are inherently one-dimensional."

The Times-News' first Latina reporter, Keren Rivas, heard about a job at the paper through an e-mail from one of her professors at Elon. Barnes held the position for her for three months, something he says he would not have done for an Anglo staffer. Rivas, who moved with her parents from Peru to the United States seven years ago, was the only Latino in her classes at Elon. There is a real supply problem with area Latinos, she says. Many college-aged people don't go to college because of language, legality issues or income.

Her beat is Elon and Gibsonville, two nearby cities, but she plans on writing about the local Latino community as well. Rivas says there is a large need for bilingual speakers in many industries in Burlington, and she wanted to help her now-hometown paper better cover Latinos. "I wanted to stay in North Carolina for a couple years until more people understand the culture," Rivas says.

As for the Times-News' next move in diversifying its staff, Barnes says there is no strategy. He'll go after journalists that he hears about in the community, but job fairs and such, he says, don't work for his paper. Does he think he'd have more success, I asked, if he had more time to devote to recruiting? "I honestly don't," Barnes answers. "The problem for me is I don't see that many minorities wanting to come to a paper this size as their first job. Actually, I don't see any minorities wanting to do that, and I don't think that's anything new."

Sharon Brooks Hodge believes that the paper legitimately doesn't know what to do. In 20 years in journalism, Brooks Hodge has worked for the Greensboro News & Record and the Chronicle in Winston-Salem, an African American newspaper, and freelanced. She came to the Burlington paper to polish her daily newspaper skills, she says, and to see if she wanted to get back into mainstream journalism. Being in an all-white newsroom, yet again, was the main reason she left.

Brooks Hodge says she had a great relationship with Barnes and Managing Editor Jay Ashley, but she was bothered by some insensitive comments, such as a colleague suggesting her children would get plenty of financial aid for college because they're black. She was upset that a much younger (and white and male) reporter was promoted to city editor over her. She didn't tell the paper's management why she turned in her resignation. "Pretty much most of my moves as a journalist have been based on race and gender issues," she says. It's "always a struggle for me to be a married mom, black woman and still be a reporter."

Publisher J. Stephen Buckley, who is also regional vice president for Freedom Newspapers, says the Times-News isn't looking forward to being the "bad" paper in this story, but he wants to find new ideas on how to tackle the problem. When he meets with other publishers, he says, there's "real angst" over the diversity topic. "We want a magic bullet," he says, but "that's not going to happen."

When I ask him what he thinks the paper could do to attract minority journalists, Buckley responds: "I'm hoping we'll learn from your article."

The Greeley Tribune and the Times-News have much in common. Editors at both say that journalists of color don't just walk through their doors; both feel that big papers swoop in to hire minority journalists; both say their parent companies – the Tribune is owned by Swift Newspapers – don't have corporate diversity initiatives; and both papers are in not-so-attractive cities, places where the few restaurants close at 9 p.m. and nightlife is nonexistent. Both pay entry-level hires about $25,000 a year.

Yet diversity at the Greeley Tribune is a reality. In the past 15 years, according to the Knight report and ASNE numbers, the percentage of nonwhite staff has fluctuated, with a low point of 3.6 percent in 1990. The Tribune's newsroom staff, at 22.9 percent nonwhite in 2004, is the closest it has been to parity with its 30.8 percent nonwhite circulation area. Latinos make up 27.8 percent of that population. (An indication of where this community is headed: The school system is 50 percent Latino.)

What is this paper doing that Burlington isn't? Plenty.

Every year, Editor Chris Cobler, who joined the Tribune in November 1995, visits area campuses and meets with students, including students of color, many of whom later come to the paper as interns. The Tribune has had as many as nine interns in one semester, each paired up with a reporter on staff who acts as a mentor. Most work part-time for credit, not for pay. It's a strategy that Cobler suggests other papers try. "Have interns and make sure they have a good experience," he says. "Because students talk."

Name an industry diversity directive and Cobler has most likely participated in it – or tried to. He was the first editor to sign up for the Freedom Forum's ASNE/APME Fellows Program, which places journalists of color at papers with circulations less than 75,000, awards them a financial scholarship and requires a two-year commitment. When he hadn't heard from the Freedom Forum for a while, he called it up with the name of a promising student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. About two months later, she was working at the paper. A number of minority interns have worked at the Tribune through the Freedom Forum's Chips Quinn Scholars Program, and one of the Tribune's staffers went from being a newsroom assistant to a reporter though the Diversity Institute, another Freedom Forum initiative that gives minority nonjournalists a three-month boot camp on the basics and sends them back to work at their community papers. Cobler contacted NAHJ about its Campaign for Parity, a project that, among other initiatives, partners with news organizations to help them achieve parity, but was told that it couldn't take on another paper right now.

In addition, the paper offers $500 internship scholarships for students of color at CU-Boulder and Colorado State University – the annual awards also include a part-time for-credit job. The paper reaches out to younger students of all races by sponsoring a high school journalism day at Greeley's University of Northern Colorado and bringing in 12 high school students to write a Summer Break page once a week.

Cobler and Managing Editor Randy Bangert, who's been with the paper for 30 years, say there's a snowball effect at work as the paper develops a reputation for nurturing young journalists and caring about diversity. Word gets around. "Once you do have some success, it's easier to build on that," Bangert says. One thing he says Cobler and Publisher Jim Elsberry have done to set the paper apart is to constantly recruit. Twelve months a year, openings or no openings, they're always looking.

The industry has noticed. I picked the Tribune for this story based only on its numbers – circulation, racial makeup of the community and staffing. It turns out the Tribune last year won a Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership and a National Association of Hispanic Journalists public service award for a 20-part series on the Latino community. Cobler says he's been surprised by the recognition the paper has received for its diversity efforts, when he really doesn't consider them to be that extraordinary. "So that tells me that other newspapers aren't doing much of anything."

For the Tribune, diversity is a very broad concept – it's not only about race. For "Time-Out for Diversity" days, an ASNE initiative, staffers have taken their colleagues on a tour of their neighborhoods or done something they normally wouldn't do – like go to a gay bar or even a church – and written about it. A recent diversity test quizzed the staff on how well they know their area. "The point," says Cobler, "is to show you can always be surprised by your community." (And some in this community, as in Burlington, react strongly and negatively to coverage of the burgeoning Latino population, he says.)

Cobler says the staff has "bought into" the push for diversity. But they've bought into it as a normal part of doing good journalism, not as a separate staffing issue. Sandra Machuca, the graphics and food editor, who joined the paper in 2000, says she didn't realize the paper was that diverse. But now that you mention it, she says, yeah, it is. "I really didn't know we were one of the newsrooms that made it work," says Machuca, a Denver native of Mexican descent. "It's more people respecting other people."

"That fact almost sneaks up on us," agrees Tom Hacker, the business editor, who came to the Tribune in September 2003. Hacker, who is white, says the diversity efforts at a few Gannett papers where he has worked seemed "artificial" and "contrived." "Here" – which he describes as the best newsroom he's ever been in – "diversity coverage is just a natural outgrowth of being reflective of the community."

Sportswriter Matt Schuman says it's clear that Cobler is focusing on this, but "I don't think he beats us over the head with it." Schuman, who is white and has worked at the paper for 18 years, has muscular dystrophy. Two years ago, he was given six months to work on a seven-part series on disability-related issues, which won state awards. "I'm here because I can do the job," Schuman says. "I wouldn't want to be the token handicapped person," and he thinks others feel the same way.

The paper's only black reporter, Millete Birhanemaskel, who is Ethiopian, met Cobler when she was a senior at Colorado State University. "Chris said, 'Hey, what are you doing?'" she recalls. He encouraged her to apply for the Chips Quinn Scholars program, and she was a scholar at the Tribune. A year later, she became a full-time staffer. The color of her skin, she says, "may be why he approached me," but it's "not why he hired me."

The Greeley paper has some inherent advantages over Burlington. There are 40 full-time equivalents in the newsroom, 10 more than in North Carolina. Colorado, geographically, can be a draw. Cobler says recruiting here is easier than it was at his last paper, in Denton, Texas. And the Tribune has built quite the reputation for itself.

Paul Voakes, dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder's School of Journalism & Mass Communication, positively gushes about Greeley. "Semester after semester, students return from that internship with a greater excitement for a journalism career than when they started," he says. And that's despite the commute. "They say..it's well worth the hour drive each way." (Minority enrollment is a similar issue here: There are 14 nonwhite students in the print sequence at CU.)

The Tribune's summer Chips Quinn scholars, Bianca Prieto and Yasmin Aboytes, agree this is a nurturing environment where they get to do everything, including write for the front page and scoop the Denver Post. "They trust us so much, and it's been a shock," says Aboytes, who in the fall will return to the University of Texas and her job as a part-time photographer at the El Paso Times. Prieto, who grew up in Weld County, where Greeley is located, is another CU student who was encouraged by Cobler to apply to Chips Quinn.

Employees give many examples of how a varied staff has affected the paper's coverage and newsroom discussions. Diversity and journalistic excellence have gone hand in hand: Diversity can create a good paper, but being a good paper attracts diversity. Publisher Jim Elsberry says simply, "If you build it, they'll come."

Journalists of color at the Tribune have mixed opinions on whether they would be comfortable working in an all-white newsroom. Millete Birhanemaskel and Mandi Torrez, a sportswriter, had worked at newspapers where they were one of the very few minorities. Both had bad experiences and are very happy to be in Greeley – but the defining issue wasn't the racial makeup of the newsrooms. It's the environment, the communication, the mentoring they get at the Tribune. Birhanemaskel says she came close to quitting journalism altogether when she worked for a small paper in California. She recalls telling Cobler in a phone conversation, "I feel the emphasis [in California] is, 'Give me 20 inches, who cares if the quality is there.'.. I don't feel that I'm making an impact at all." She was on the verge of joining the Peace Corps when Greeley called with an opening.

Despite its relative success, the 26,000-circulation Tribune, like most papers of its size, faces turnover. It recently lost its assistant managing editor, Tom Martinez, the highest-ranking minority on its staff, who became the top editor at Swift's paper in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Cobler says he would never say he's succeeded when it comes to diversity – it's something you have to work at forever.

He feels the industry can best improve racial diversity by focusing on the smaller papers. By working at metro papers early in their careers, Cobler believes, young journalists can get lost and disillusioned. The industry should do more to steer young staffers to small publications. The Freedom Forum's ASNE/APME fellows program funded 50 journalists and will soon come to an end. Seventy-one other papers are on its waiting list, and 32 are waiting to get a Chips Quinn scholar.

Lee Barnes in Burlington said he hadn't heard of these programs, and Kate Kennedy, director of Partnerships and Initiatives at the Freedom Forum, acknowledges that editors aren't aware of all the organization has to offer. Chairman and CEO Charles Overby has been traveling to state press association meetings to tell them. The Freedom Forum encourages those on its waiting lists to consider finding a candidate for the Diversity Institute.

What else does Cobler suggest? Big papers should build relationships with small papers in their areas and feed them candidates who aren't yet ready for a metro. Cobler knows the big guys will be raiding his staff one day. "I guess," he says, "I'd like something back in return."


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