Trying to Resolve a Rocky Situation
A Hispanic journalists’ group helps diversify a Denver newspaper.
By Lucy Hood
Cesar Chavez, who championed the rights of migrant farm workers, was born on March 31, 1927--a day now celebrated nationwide, particularly in cities such as Denver, where more than 35 percent of the population is Hispanic. Yet not so long ago, the day typically came and went with little notice from one of the city's two major dailies, the Rocky Mountain News. On the 76th anniversary of Chavez's birth, the paper's only reference to him was an announcement that government offices would be closed and parking would be free in downtown Denver.
Lucy Hood (email@example.com), a former reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.
That was 2003, shortly before the paper launched a new effort to diversify both its coverage and its newsroom. In April of that year, the newsroom staff met with leaders of Denver's Hispanic community. During the meeting, one of the community leaders showed a copy of the newspaper with the lone reference to Chavez to Editor, President and Publisher John Temple.
"That was a kind of wake-up call," Temple says.
It was a heated gathering, one that revealed a longstanding gulf between the newspaper and a large part of the community it covers. But it also was a turning point, one that would convert the Rocky Mountain News into a flagship for the Parity Project, a two-and-a-half-year-old diversity program run by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
The News is also the flagship of the E.W. Scripps Co., the first newspaper chain that agreed to participate in the project when it was conceived by former NAHJ President Juan Gonzalez.
"We'd been talking about diversity long enough," Gonzalez says, "and it was time for the industry to make real progress." Newspapers, he adds, had fallen far short of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' minority hiring goals, which initially aimed for parity by 2000. (The date now has been pushed back to 2025.) In many parts of the country, a large influx of Hispanic immigrants was changing the landscape.
NAHJ set its sights on the most egregious offenders of newsroom diversity and developed a plan to double the percentage of Hispanic journalists in a five-year period. It began with a strategy modeled after former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's approach to crime fighting. His administration conducted a precinct-by-precinct analysis in order to better deploy resources to high-crime areas. "They took the position that you don't fight crime in the general," Gonzalez says. "You do it in the specific."
NAHJ identified its own "high crime" areas, places where there were large gaps between the size of the Hispanic population and the number of Hispanics in local newsrooms.
The Scripps papers were among the worst offenders. The company, however, proved to be the most willing to change. Currently, 19 news organizations have signed up for the multifaceted program.
The process begins by taking surveys that gauge the Hispanic community's take and newsroom opinion on Hispanic coverage. Then there's an afternoon of diversity training, during which NAHJ brings in experts to discuss Hispanic trends and issues on local and national levels. Afterward, the paper has a town hall-style meeting open to the community.
Within a month or two of the meeting, NAHJ recommends that the newsroom form an advisory committee of people who represent the Hispanic community. In exchange for the newspaper's efforts, it gets priority treatment from NAHJ. "They become our first-class passengers," Gonzalez explains. "When they have an opening, we rush to help them fill that opening. When we have conventions, [their booths] get the best positions."
In essence, NAHJ becomes a recruiter, says Mike Phillips, Scripps' editorial director. "They know every Latino journalist in America," he says. "They know most of the kids coming up through the universities, and they have ties with every journalism program where there's a large Hispanic population."
The Parity Project targets newspapers in areas where at least 10 percent of the population is Hispanic. For Scripps, that represents 11 of its 21 daily newspapers. While it's much too soon to determine how successful the program is, Phillips says most of the papers are doing well.
At the Rocky Mountain News, the number of Hispanic journalists in the newsroom has almost doubled to 23 from 12 in the past two years, the result of recruiting efforts that include the creation of a two-year training program called the Scripps Academy for Hispanic Journalism. The program also is open to non-Hispanic journalists who speak Spanish or have the background to help improve coverage of the Hispanic community. Once the program reaches full capacity by year's end, there will be eight journalists working at the News in these early career positions.
"What we found when we began working with NAHJ is there are a lot of people trying to recruit the same pool of journalists," Temple says, "and we need to contribute to growing that pool."
As for coverage, there have also been improvements, but Temple admits there's more to be done. The paper tries to be more aware of minority events and concerns, he says, and exactly how to do that has evolved. The editors have created a new demographic beat to keep tabs on the city's growing immigrant population; the reporter is Hispanic. The paper continues to encourage all beat reporters--from religion to education to urban affairs--to incorporate the minority community into their coverage.
"To a great extent, Hispanic coverage is mainstreamed into the newspaper," Temple says, "and that's happened over time as we've built up better awareness of the community and sensitivity about what we're doing."
Members of the paper's advisory committee--once vocal critics--say its coverage of Hispanic issues has improved dramatically. Two years ago, "we were just plain sick of both papers," says Luis Torres, a professor of Chicano studies at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, referring to the News and the Denver Post. Both papers do a better job now than they did then, he says, but the News "is more in tune with the Latino community."
Another committee member, Ledy Garcia-Eckstein, a senior policy analyst for Denver's Office of Economic Development, points to the paper's stepped-up efforts to include Hispanics in its annual Father's Day awards. "It's a small thing," she says, "but it shows we feel more involved." ###