In the news industry nowadays, if you talk about diversity in newsrooms, you're apt to get a shrug of the shoulders and a comment like, "We've tried it, and I don't know why it isn't working."
Why is diversity in the newsroom important?
To accurately and thoroughly cover our communities, we have to reflect them to a great degree.
Here's a sobering statistic from the latest American Society of News Editors newspaper census. Of the 38,000 full-time daily newspaper journalists, only 12.37 percent are minorities.
In a news release, ASNE said its goal is to have the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms nationwide to reflect the percentage of minorities in the nation's population by 2025. Currently, minorities make up 37.02 percent of the U.S. population; that number will increase to 42.39 percent by 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"It's terribly disappointing to learn that diversity in newsrooms remains stagnant despite the rapidly changing landscape of America," said Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group, Rochester, and co-chair of the ASNE Diversity Committee. "If we are to accurately reflect and authentically cover the communities we serve, we must do much better as an industry or we risk becoming irrelevant to news consumers of the future."
The highest level of minorities was 13.73 percent in 2006. We're doing a lot better than in 1978, when the number was 3.95 percent.
Diversity was a key discussion point in both the Minority Leadership Institute I was part of and a greater ASNE session.
Longtime diversity champion Keith Woods said we've lost 2,700 minority journalists in the past five years. That wiped out about 10 years worth of gains.
Why does that matter?
"Content can grow from the audience if the audience is included in the conversation," said Woods, NPR's vice president for diversity in news and operations.
Without diversity on its staff, a newspaper can lose track of, or never hear about, valuable stories in the community. Minority communities won't trust us. And without a diversity of stories, a newspaper will lose readership. Readers will go elsewhere, and we'll become irrelevant.
"We all know that being diverse, inclusive and accurate is not just our obligation as journalists, but also a smart business survival imperative," said Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al Día, Dallas Morning News, and co-chair of the ASNE Diversity Committee. "At ASNE we believe that one of the ways to contribute to the important crusade for greater diversity is to help train minority journalists and get them ready to lead news organizations that are increasingly coping with audience fragmentation and complex new layers of diversity."
Here in Victoria, we have an editor who gets it. Chris Cobler has championed diversity for a long time, and he's been honored for his efforts many times through the years.
Since he's been here, the Advocate's diversity numbers have exploded. We've had an Indian reporter, several African American reporters, many Latino staffers and lots of women hires (important because the latest ASNE census numbers report that men still make up about two-thirds of journalists). These hires have spanned the newsrooms and include reporters, photographers and editors.
Obviously, we want to hire great candidates who will come in and make a difference in the community. But editors I've known over the years stressed that we must be diligent in our job searches, turning over all stones, looking at and considering all minority applicants before making hiring decisions. That's sound advice.
As desperate as we become sometimes in job searches, we must never just hire the first, adequate warm body.
Woods thinks retention is a key issue. In the great newspaper layoffs since 2009, we've lost a lot of champions, he said. It's also slowed our momentum.
At a small community newspaper such as the Advocate, retention is even harder. And it can become cyclical, especially because oftentimes we are a layover for reporters and editors looking to make their mark and move on to a bigger newspaper.
A young reporter will come in, start to develop his beat, and a year later will be packing his bags ready to move. But that's barely enough time to really develop a beat and sources and really get to know a city and her people and stories.
Reporter X exit stage left, reporter Z enter stage right.
Some editors have had success at looking within the community for people who have skills and expertise to fill reporting jobs. People like that will have roots in the community, know its people and issues, and can bring some institutional knowledge with them. The newspapers can train them on the journalism nuts and bolts. Such a scenario can be a win-win if it works out. They don't always.
What's apparent is this: there are no easy answers. The solutions need outside-of-the-box thinking. Numbers don't lie; we are at a critical tipping point.
There are some success stories, ASNE reports. The organization will partner with the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri to take a closer look at where and how those success stories are occurring in the coming year.
"I'm sure that these numbers -- both the continued job losses and the stall-out of progress on diversity -- are very disappointing to ASNE. But credit to the organization, its collaborators and funders for going ahead with the census and publishing the results," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute. "We need to know where we stand."
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