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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

Bumping Up Against the Glass Ceiling   

News director jobs still prove elusive for African Americans and other ethnic minorities.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

More ethnic minorities and people of color are working as reporters and anchors in local television nowadays, but a significant obstacle remains for those same minorities trying to become news directors.

The proportion of minority news directors at network-affiliated stations has remained steady for a decade, hovering at about 5 percent of the industry workforce, according to the latest survey by the Radio-Television News Directors Association. During those 10 years, the percentage of minorities working in various news jobs at those stations climbed about 2 percent, to 16 percent in the fourth quarter of 1998.

"I think it's worse now for minorities who want to be news directors," says Tom Jacobs, a former middle manager in broadcast news who now studies and writes about minority hiring. "The pressure is on so much for ratings at any station that the time to do 'social experimenting'--which is what GMs consider this--is over. They don't think minorities can handle the job. It isn't any easier for those who move into assistant news director or executive producer positions.

"When the news director job opens at their station, they don't get the job, and they then have to go to a much smaller market to become a news director--if at all," Jacobs says.

Gary Wordlaw, president and general manager of WTVH in Syracuse, was a news director for 15 years in Baltimore and Washington and is one of the few minority news directors to become a general manager. He laments that too few minorities are being hired as executive producers and assistant news directors "who could move up" into news directors' slots. And if they are hired for those jobs, they find it difficult "to get to that next level," Wordlaw says, because their professional network isn't as strong as it could be. "A lot of minority people don't know the general managers, news consultants or headhunters involved in the hiring. And there aren't many general managers or consultants from similar [minority] backgrounds, so they don't know where the people are who are qualified for the job."

Jacobs and Wordlaw are African Americans, but they say the problem affects all ethnic minorities. Janice S. Gin agrees. She is the executive producer at San Francisco's KGO-TV and is one of the few Asian Americans in an upper-management TV news position. She points to the San Francisco affiliate stations as an example, saying she knows of only one other minority manager in news higher than a show producer. "Of all the states and of all the cities in the country, I am really dismayed that there's no diversity here in broadcast management other than the ethnic media and the public station."

Gin and others realize the problem extends to the young people entering the business. Most want to be on the air and have little desire to work behind the scenes. "You don't have as many people moving into a management pipeline," Jacobs says. "You need to do the grunt work to learn all phases of the business, and there are a lot of people who don't want to do that."

Wordlaw says this aspect isn't race-specific. "Generally, the kids are coming out of college thinking they are better than they are," Wordlaw says. "When they find out nobody else thinks they are that good, many of them leave the business because there are other opportunities out there."

Jim Willi, president of Audience Research & Development, says many stations make a strong effort to find minorities for management positions but discover the pipeline is too short. "The one thing I hear from television stations a lot is that it's very difficult to hire minorities for producer positions, which seem to lead to management more often than a reporter or anchor position," he says. Willi also blames the stations for offering low salaries to beginners--often in the mid- to high teens. "This affects everyone, and not just minorities," Willi says. "The entry-level positions pay so little that if you're smart, you're going to go to work for some other company that's going to pay you twice as much money as you would get for working at a television station. That certainly affects minorities, because they're heavily recruited by other companies, coming out of college."

However, Gin says stations need to be more active in their pursuit of minorities. "I'm not saying they need to fill quotas or hire one of every color because that meets some politically correct agenda, but I'm talking about an affirmative step to look for people to make your staff diverse."

Jacobs says stations need to do that for their own survival. "People are not watching the news the way they used to, and the percentage of audience made up of whites is shrinking while the percentage of minorities is growing," he says. "The country is changing. The industry needs to change, too."