Losing Ground  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2001

Losing Ground   

The newspaper industry, which has long fallen short of newsroom diversity targets, experienced a decrease in the number of minority journalists last year. Why are so many leaving the business, and how can the trend be reversed?

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      



ANN-MARIE ADAMS was tempted.
The Hartford Courant education reporter was offered a job earlier this year as the site director of a local after-school program. The job offer--with its obvious perks of less stress and more money--came just as Adams was questioning her place in the newsroom.
As the only African American reporter in a suburban bureau of 16, Adams says she was feeling alone. After a year at the Courant, she was discouraged from pursuing stories that mattered to her. She felt ignored by her editors. Other journalists of color seemed to be leaving the business in droves. There was little discussion of race at the newspaper.
Adams says for the first time in her career, she was feeling like a minority, and it was starting to show.
"When you're sitting at the computer trying to come up with a fabulous lead and all of these things come up in your head, eventually it affects your work," says Adams, 31. "You realize how powerless you are.... I thought maybe I should leave."
In the end, Adams turned the job offer down, realizing she was not ready to abandon journalism. But over the last year, about seven journalists of color at the paper had made the decision to leave--some to other papers, some out of the business. "I said, 'What's going on?' " she says.
Nationwide, the number of minority journalists working at daily newspapers dipped slightly last year, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. For the first time in the 23 years that ASNE has been keeping records, more minority journalists--one out of every 10 reporters, editors and photographers of color--left for jobs outside of newspapers than were hired.
The numbers are disappointing, but not a surprise, says Tim McGuire, editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune and president of ASNE. The percentage of minorities working at daily newspapers has been stagnant--hovering between 11 and 12 percent--for more than five years.
"In truth, we've seen it coming," says McGuire. "We are profoundly concerned. But the alarm was sounded two years ago, and we have been hard at work."
The news comes just as the latest U.S. Census figures describe a nation whose nonwhite population is more than 30 percent. But in newsrooms the percentage was 11.64 percent, falling from 11.85 percent in 1999. African Americans remain the largest minority group with 5.23 percent (2,951 journalists), followed by Hispanics with 3.66 percent (2,064 journalists), Asian Americans with 2.3 percent (1,299 journalists) and Native Americans with 0.44 percent (249 journalists).
Though there are many initiatives to bring more minority journalists into the business, there is little understanding of why they leave. Do journalists of color feel unwelcome in newsrooms? Did the dotcom explosion help lure them away? Does the lack of minorities in management positions signal there is no room for advancement?
"People are perplexed by what's happening," says Carolina Garcia, managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News and head of ASNE's diversity committee. "Are they being driven away? Is it because there's something better out there? Or is it because there is something they don't like here?"
In April, ASNE launched a study of newsroom management and practices to learn what helps and hurts the retention of minority reporters. The results will be used to develop a plan to help newspapers hold on to the 6,563 journalists of color currently working at daily newspapers.
Garcia says her own newsroom, which is more than 28 percent minority, recently lost several good staffers to dotcoms. Those departures appeared to be simple career moves, but it remains a mystery how and why so many minority journalists chose to accept a job in another field.
"One of the proposals is to find the 698 who left and interview them," Garcia says. "At what point do they decide to leave?"

FOR PASCALE ETHEART, her decision to leave the Miami Herald came after several long years of covering night meetings and community news as the South Miami/Dade County neighborhood reporter. Etheart--who had previously worked for papers in Rochester, New York, and Boca Raton, Florida--said her supervisors at the Herald told her they thought her work was improving. Yet, she kept getting passed over for promotions. Even her request to fill an open position as a neighborhood reporter in North Miami/Dade County was denied.
"I was still stuck in the same beat and I couldn't get out of it. Everything I did to get out of it didn't work," Etheart says. "There was an opening closer to home, a lateral move. When I didn't get that I thought, 'You know what, these people aren't interested in investing in me.' "
Etheart, who is of Haitian descent, let her sources know she was looking for a new job. A police contact in North Miami told her about a new position as a crime-watch coordinator for the city. Etheart landed the job in December 1998 and loved it. In January of 2000, she moved to a job in the mayor's office, working as a liaison to constituents.
"I don't miss the paper," Etheart says. "I like working in government. You're making a difference.... You have access to fewer people. But it's more hands-on."
Bonnie Newman Davis also left journalism--for the second time--in 1999. Nearly 20 years after she started her career at the News Leader in Staunton, Virginia, Davis had been a business reporter, a freelance writer, a fashion reporter, a features writer and an editor. After three years in her latest job, as assistant features editor at the Richmond Times Dispatch, she began to wonder if she could move any higher. As an African American woman, she was happy at the paper, but a look at the entrenched editors above her told her she would have to wait a long time for an opening.
"I started to get restless. Once I learn a job I have to move on," Davis says. "I didn't see any opportunity to move on there."
Davis, who didn't want to uproot her family to move to another city, took a public relations job at Virginia Union University, a historically black university in Richmond. She says she enjoys her work, but is conscious that she left the newspaper business once before to do some public relations and freelance work, only to get pulled back into newspaper work. She says that may happen again.
"I think about it from time to time," Davis says. "I love journalism."
Richard Prince says he sees fellow African American journalists leaving newspapers because they feel they've hit a dead end. He can rattle off a half dozen who have done so off the top of his head.
"It's more than just natural turnover. There is not the commitment to keeping people," says Prince. "And a lot of it has to do with more money being offered outside."
Prince left New York's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, where he was op-ed editor, for a job in Washington, D.C., with Communities In Schools Inc., a national group focused on helping students. "I wanted to go to Washington, but there were no opportunities with Gannett," he says.
Prince eventually landed a part-time copy editing job at the Washington Post and now also edits the The Public i, an online investigative newsletter published by the Center for Public Integrity. Prince says he found the online world has different opportunities than the traditional print industry.
"This is a journalism job," Prince says. "We consider ourselves definitely part of the business."
University of Southern California journalism professor Alice Bonner, a former recruiter with Gannett, says she understands why more minority journalists are leaving, as she did in the mid-1980s. Newsrooms are changing and losing the allure they held for people looking for a career in which they made a difference and helped illuminate racism, she says. "It was a potent equation, one that lifted our sights beyond our individual careers to a sense of duty to the profession," says Bonner.
That sense seems to be missing among many of the new generation of minority journalists, who seem quick to discard newspaper work for other careers, she adds. Minority journalists no longer view the business as one in which they could help solve the nation's racial and social problems.
"I think one of the enduring needs of journalists is a sense of purpose and mission in their work--and minority journalists generally need this more than others," Bonner says. "That need has not been well-tended in recent years--maybe even sacrificed to technological and other improvements. I'd like to see it revitalized in journalism education and reinforced as an element as fundamental as how to write a lead."

THE NEWSROOM DIVERSITY issue is not a new one. This latest round of reports and initiatives to bring diversity to newspaper staffs resembles similar calls dating back at least three decades. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, concluded there was racial bias in media coverage and hiring. By the mid-1980s, studies were concluding that newsrooms were revolving doors that had serious problems retaining minority journalists.
In 1978, ASNE called for racial parity with U.S. Census figures in newsrooms by 2000. With that deadline come and gone, the new goal is 2025.
"I just wonder if 20 years from now another study will be done with the same conclusions," says Pamela Newkirk, a former reporter and an associate professor of journalism at New York University who has written about diversity in the newsroom. "So many of these issues are nothing new. We're at the same place.... Every 10 years, every 20 years we're feigning the same sort of shock, dismay."
All along, journalists of color struggled to get out of the role of being seen as reporters who could only write about their own race or who were being stereotyped. That is still happening today, says Newkirk, who has talked to many reporters about why they leave the business. Newkirk, who is African American, says many are open about racial tensions they experience in the newsroom.
Some Hispanic reporters say they feel like they were hired as translators to go into Spanish-speaking neighborhoods for white reporters. Young African American editors report feeling like they don't get respect from white reporters who know they got their jobs in part because of diversity quotas. Talking about race in the newsroom is largely taboo, though newspapers report on racial issues all the time.
"It is almost like you have to start from the ground floor in setting the parameters in talking about race," says Newkirk, who ended her decade-long reporting career at the now-defunct New York Newsday. "It is ironic. In the newsroom, on the issue of race there is this awkwardness. That was my experience during my entire time as a daily reporter."
Beyond newsroom tensions, other factors seem to be at play. There are the traditional reasons that drive anyone out of journalism: low pay, long hours, too much stress. There is the feeling that there's no room to advance. But there also seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the state of the business and the type of reporting they can do.
At the ASNE conference in Washington, D.C., this spring, the National Association of Black Journalists distributed a 22-page booklet of anecdotes of African American reporters and editors dealing with race in the newsroom. Most wrote frank admissions of their frustration about the lack of change across the industry.
"Personally, I'm sick to death of the striving and struggling our generation of journalists has to deal with and in some ways we're no better off than in the '70s," wrote Delma Francis, an associate editor at Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "Worse maybe because we had our hopes up that if we worked hard and climbed the ladder rung by rung we'd eventually make it to the top. Well, guess what? Most of us are still stuck in the middle rungs. That's why people are leaving the business."
Dena McClurkin, a senior at Clark Atlanta University, wrote about the racism she encountered on her first internship. "I was in a small town that had a minority population of 0.2 percent, and I was one of two minorities at the entire paper.... At first, I had no problem, I went in there and tried to be a team player. But I had an editor who made racist jibes to the other minority reporter, such as 'Chinky Chan,' across the newsroom. I found those statements to be very offensive," McClurkin wrote.
NABJ President William W. Sutton Jr. says the cause and solution to the diversity problem lie with newspaper editors, many of whom he believes would lose their jobs if they had to meet diversity goals the same way they are asked to meet circulation and profit goals.
"Folks, we're going the wrong way. We're watching our nation become more diverse, not less," says Sutton, deputy managing editor at Raleigh's News & Observer. "Either you've done your job and contributed to the solution by bringing in more journalists of color...or you're part of the problem."
NABJ proposed a dozen ways for newspapers to solve the retention problem (see "Retaining Staff," page 43). The Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association all released similar statements expressing frustration with the lack of progress.
Cecilia Alvear, president of the Hispanic journalists group and a producer at NBC News, says the news business is an industry "in crisis." "We believe the lack of Latinos and other journalists of color working at daily newspapers continues to undercut the industry's credibility with the communities they serve. It is clear the industry has not made diversity, including intellectual diversity, a priority," Alvear says.
Darci McConnell, a reporter in the Detroit News' Washington bureau, has a Rolodex full of friends who have left journalism for public relations posts, lobbying positions and other jobs that made them happier. She understands why they leave.
"Some of that has to be about not making as much money as you could. Or you're still not able to do the kind of reporting you want to do," says McConnell, former head of the Detroit chapter of NABJ.
But she also senses a frustration with the corporate side of newspaper companies creeping into the newsroom with budget cuts, shorter stories and tighter management. McConnell says she is not hopeful young black reporters will stick it out when higher paying jobs in other fields beckon them. "I do think this is a generation who are less inclined to deal with all the corporate stuff," McConnell says.

THE NEWS IS SOMEWHAT better on the broadcast side, where television seems to be having less of a problem creating and keeping diverse newsrooms.
In 1998, the Federal Communications Commission abolished affirmative action rules governing television and radio stations. That left the broadcast industry to monitor diversity on its own. Most stations simply kept their same policies, and the numbers have not shown any significant reversal.
According to a survey due to be released by the Radio-Television News Directors Association this summer, the percentage of minorities in newsrooms was at an all-time high of 24.6 percent last year. Even when the nation's Spanish-language television stations are taken out, the minority rate is still nearly 22 percent. The traditional belief is that television stations are more likely to pay attention to diversity because, unlike print and radio, it is a visual medium in which viewers see reporters' and anchors' faces every day.
Compared with newspapers, television news operations have about the same percentage of Asian and Native American employees, but nearly double the percentage of African American and Hispanic staffers.
The radio news industry, however, remains largely white. The nation's radio reporters and editors are 90 percent white, and the percentage of minority radio news directors fell from 6 percent in 1999 to 4.4 percent in 2000.
RTNDA is running diversity programs and minority training sessions, and looking to expand other diversity initiatives for both television and radio. High turnover and the loss of minority employees to other industries is also a nagging concern, says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran.
In newspapers, many minority journalists had taken the traditional path of starting at small publications and moving to larger ones. That isn't happening the way it used to, says ASNE President McGuire.
According to the ASNE study, only a third of minority journalists work at newspapers with circulations less than 100,000. Newspapers with circulations between 5,000 and 50,000 lost the most minority staffers. And the number of newspapers with all-white newsrooms is on the rise. This year 422 newspapers, or 44 percent, did not employ a single minority in a newsroom position, according to the survey.
McGuire thinks that the lack of minority journalists at smaller papers is at the root of the problem. Without them, it is difficult for larger papers to find qualified minority applicants for their open positions. "Reporters aren't coming up from small papers," McGuire says. "We think that's what's going on."
There is no shortage of initiatives to bring more minority journalists into the business. Knight Ridder, the Scripps Howard Foundation, Dow Jones, the Ford Foundation and other groups have invested millions in various projects to train minority journalists, find them jobs or encourage more diversity in news coverage.
There are also several initiatives underway to attract more minorities to smaller papers. The Knight Foundation's High School Journalism project is offering university journalism courses to more than 200 high school journalism teachers this summer. The Freedom Forum has run a program placing minority college students at newspapers for about a decade.
Last fall, the Freedom Forum decided to take diversity efforts a step further and announced plans for the Institute for Newsroom Diversity at Vanderbilt University to train home-grown minority reporters, photographers and graphic artists. The institute will offer free training for nonjournalists to fill jobs at small and mid-size newspapers. After taking a crash course, the students will be placed in jobs at their local newspapers.
The Freedom Forum will follow up with coaching and training where needed. The first class of up to 20 students should arrive in January. "Because we will train nontraditional students--people coming from other careers and life experiences--we will be adding a new group of people to the pipeline," says Wanda Lloyd, who left her position as managing editor at South Carolina's Greenville News to head the new institute. "And by sending people back to their communities we are addressing the issue of retention. We believe our graduates will be committed to staying in their newsrooms and in their communities, where they have family and social ties, for a long time."
Diversity in the newsroom has an effect on both the atmosphere at a newspaper and the coverage it produces, says David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News. In the mid-1990s, the Mercury News made a commitment to better reflect the racially complex Northern California community it covers. The newsroom staff is now about a third minority, making the paper one of the most diverse in the country. Yarnold says he senses a change.
"We're at 16 or 17 percent Asian American. That's a critical mass where people who are Asian American don't feel they are islands adrift in a white sea," Yarnold says.
Having nearly half the faces in the daily news meetings be faces of color "on our best days" has also helped shape coverage, he says. "It helps us avoid stereotyping, especially subtle stereotyping," Yarnold says. "Also it's been my experience that people of color are more likely to work harder to have sources of color.... In the end that's what the community should see."
What effect a downturn in the economy and the collapse of several new-media companies may have on diversity remains to be seen. A weak economy may sway some minority journalists to stick with their newspaper jobs. But a downturn in profits has already prompted several newspapers to institute hiring freezes and lay off employees, which will be reflected in next year's statistics on new minority hiring.
Hiring freezes also mean several newspaper minority internship programs are on the chopping block. In mid-March, the Oregonian in Portland put its highly successful minority internship program on hold when the paper tightened its budget. The nine-year-old program brought in three minority journalists each September for two-year internships. Seven of the 11 interns who went through the program were eventually hired, helping bring the Oregonian's newsroom up to 17 percent minority (in a readership area that is 17 percent minority).
But with one exception, this year's interns were told there were no jobs for them at the end of their terms because of a hiring freeze, says George Rede, the Oregonian's director of recruiting and training. Rede says the program is on hiatus this year, but hopes it will resume in 2002 if the economy gets better.
Lloyd of the Freedom Forum says she sees a positive in this year's largely negative statistics because they got people talking. "More people than ever are talking about ways to improve newsroom diversity," says Lloyd. "In some small way, the trend reversal was a blessing in disguise because we are more committed than ever to finding solutions."
Back in Hartford, Adams is trying to find a way for minority journalists to talk publicly about their frustrations in the newsroom. As president of the Connecticut Association of Black Communicators, she helped organize a conference in April for management and reporters to talk about diversity in the newsroom. She was surprised and pleased people from around the state gave up a Saturday to attend.
"Just to hear them get out their frustration. It was cathartic," Adams says. "It felt great."
Adams says talking about the problems in the newsroom has given her hope and a reason to stick with journalism. Although she fears that being vocal about diversity will get her labeled a troublemaker, she believes it needed to be done. "It's like pulling the scab off the sore," she says.
Though she is still tempted to leave the business, Adams says she can't see it happening anytime soon. It took almost quitting her job for her to realize how much she enjoys it.
"Even if the future looks dim," she adds. "I'm not leaving.... I think I'm needed. And I realize how much I love it."

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