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Tapping Diversity in America's Newsrooms

November 1, 1994
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Last August, Amalio Carneiro attended a historic conference in Atlanta. It was the first gathering of 5,000-plus minority journalists under a single Unity '94 banner. After six years of planning, four journalists associations co-sponsored the convention to affirm their commonalities and consolidate a diversity agenda for the news industry. Carneiro, vice president of human resources for the Atlanta-based New York Times Regional Newspaper Group, recalls the opening ceremony: "Everyone walked in to the beat of drums—blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. It sounded beautiful."

But his story behind the story, he admits, took place during the rehearsal. Carneiro was standing on stage next to a Japanese American taiko drum player. The Asian drum somehow didn't sound like it was blending in with the other ethnic drums. So he turned to the Japanese American and advised, "Can you do it sort of like this—so it sounds a bit better?" The taiko drum player gave him a fixed stare and replied, "Why should I have to sacrifice my culture for yours?" Carneiro got the point: "This is what it's all about, isn't it? How different we are, but yet how we can work together. I wish I had gotten his name. I should write him an apology."

But the spirit of Unity '94 was hardly about apologies, blame or guilt. The gathering was prompted by several undeniable trends affecting the news industry: the changing demographics in America; mounting criticism of racial stereotypes and inadequate coverage of minority communities; media-industry surveys revealing sluggishness in meeting diversity goals; and the emergence of a whole new generation of professional journalists of color in print and broadcast—represented in Atlanta by the Asian American Journalists Association; National Association of Black Journalists; National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and the Native American Journalists Association.

Yet, according to an American Society of Newspaper Editors survey released earlier this year, 45% of the newsrooms still do not employ a single journalist of color. Today, the total newsroom work force—about 53,711—comprises about 5% blacks; 3% Hispanics; 2% Asian Americans; and 1% Native Americans. Is it any wonder, then, that newspapers can still run cartoons with captions using words such as nigger or jap? Or run stories with headlines such as "Donald [Trump] Says Ugh to Indian Gambling" or "Asian Invasion" or "The Dark Side of Islam?" Of those minorities employed by all dailies, 18% are in supervisory positions, compared with 24% of all white journalists. Those numbers, while increasing, still seem to lag behind the U.S. Bureau of the Census's projections that by the year 2050, Anglos will make up 52% of the nation's population. The rest will comprise 23% Hispanics; 14% blacks; 10% Asians; and 1% Native Americans (see "Who's Making News in the Newsroom?").

Some critics say that the media industry has trailed corporate America, describing the progress in diversity as glacial. More than 25 years after the Kerner Commission Report—issued in 1968 by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders under the Lyndon Johnson administration—many of the civil rights recommendations still hold true today. Among them: "Accelerate efforts to ensure accurate and responsible reporting of riot and racial news, through adoption by all news-gathering organizations of stringent internal staff guidelines."

"You don't have to want to get into management to get mentored. You may want to remain a reporter, but become a better investigative journalist."

Dorothy Gilliam, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a Washington Post columnist, says that her industry might be reluctant to diversify because powersharing can be a threatening process. "Newspapers don't produce widgets, but ideas. We don't tell people what to think, but what to think about. It's a battle to win the hearts and minds of the American people."

But even in an era of downsizing, diversity still makes good business sense. It's not just the right thing to do, says Marilyn Lee, vice president of employee relations for the Los Angeles Times: "It's still important to have a commitment. We partner with the newsroom on business goals, which includes diversity. We set recruitment goals, attend job fairs and set up management training." It's simple. If newspapers don't reflect and serve their communities, readers and advertisers won't support them. The businesses will eventually die. Adds Jon Funabiki, director of the San Francisco-based Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism: "The [newspapers] making progress are those looking at potential markets and saying, 'The world is changing.' "

Within the last decade, newspapers have made their greatest strides toward diversity in entry-level recruitment. Yet attitudinal surveys conducted by the ethnic journalists associations, the ASNE and others, indicate that one in five racial minority journalists has considered leaving the industry. What are their major concerns? Inaccurate portrayals of minorities, lack of training and promotions, and the lack of em powerment. Although whites also express dissatisfaction, news executives and HR professionals are concerned that a 20% loss of minorities is a greater proportionate loss for the industry. As one management consultant put it: "Minorities no longer need a boarding pass. What they need is an upgrade."

For HR professionals, that means grabbing the bull by its horns. Although newsrooms have historically operated as intellectual domains unto themselves—separated from HR like "church and state," as one professional put it—the walls are crumbling as HR assumes a more strategic role in planning and supporting diversity efforts. In some cases, HR has even initiated the programs; and some former journalists like Larry Olmstead and Yvonne Lamb also have, respectively, assumed HR functions at Knight-Ridder, Inc. and The Washington Post.

Among their challenges as human resources professionals: to help tap and retain the talent pool through aggressive training and promotions into management. By diversifying the highest levels of management, newspapers will improve their coverage of minority communities—an important factor for journalists of color and the general public.

HR initiates diversity efforts in the newsroom.
In order to document why journalists are leaving the industry, where they go and how to retain them, the Reston, Virginiabased Newspaper Association of America has commissioned an industrywide departure study. Former journalists of more than 500 dailies will be interviewed, says Toni Laws, NAA's vice president of diversity. A pilot survey conducted among 15 newspapers already has indicated findings similar to those of other professional surveys. "The newspaper industry will be competing with others out there for the talent it wants. So we want to understand the dynamics that inhibit attracting and retaining that talent," says Laws. The final study—inclusive of journalists of all backgrounds—also will determine if there are special factors affecting groups such as minorities, women, gays and lesbians.

Only by infusing the ranks from top to bottom can the content of news be changed and news organizations remain competitive. This has been clear at the Los Angeles Times—whose market is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse in the nation. Lee says that HR initiated the two-year Minority Editorial Training Program (METPRO), which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. The parent group, Times Mirror Co., selects and trains 10 racial minorities as reporters and photojournalists at the Los Angeles Times and eight minorities at Newsday's copyediting program. More than 150 minorities have graduated from METPRO, says Lee, proud that HR took the lead to launch the program and help diversify America's newsrooms. Of those 150, 95% are still working for dailies—most of them hired by Times Mirror.

When newspaper executives complain that they don't have any money to hire additional minorities, Knight-Ridder, Inc. (whose 29 dailies include the Akron Beacon Journal, Miami Herald, and the Philadelphia Inquirer) provides monetary incentives for its individual news organizations. Olmstead, assistant vice president of HR and diversity at the Miami-based headquarters, says that when a promising candidate is identified, the corporate office eliminates any excuse not to hire. "We'll make the money available (salary and benefits) to hire above budget. But they have to absorb the person within their own company budget within a year," he says. Knight-Ridder's Minority Hiring Program began in the '70s, and more than 900 minorities have received funding since the program's inception. "Now, we're using some of that money for a two-year minority-management program," Olmstead says.

Some newspapers, such as The Washington Post, have promoted former journalists like Lamb into HR-related positions with training responsibilities. Lamb initially was hired at the Post as a district weekly editor in 1986. In the fall of 1989, she completed the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education's newspaper management-training program in Evanston, Illinois. She came back to the Post as an assistant metro editor for staff development. That paved the way for her current position as director of training for the newsroom, which is part of the newsroom personnel group established last January. "We're separate from the paper's human resources department, but we work with them," she says. The group grew out of a task force that recommended it as one way for the Post to seriously address the hiring, mobility and professional career development of minority journalists. "We felt the paper needed to do more with its primary resources—people."

Following the lead of corporations such as Avon, Xerox and Digital Equipment, the Post has brought in outside consultants to provide diversity training for its managers and employees. Training in such matters as diversity is relatively new for many newspapers, she observes. "It's not something we focused on. Before, it was on people doing the work. We were hiring good people to write stories and put the paper out. But journalists are now saying, 'Give us that additional training. Help us to get better at what we're doing.' " Before, newsrooms were more fluid. Journalists came and went. Today, with downsizings, they want to get better where they are. Like their colleagues, minority journalists also want more training in computer-related skills. But many are concerned that they may not have automatic access. According to a survey conducted by the Post and the research consulting firm Frank M. Magid Associates—under the direction of the Unity '94 steering committee—access to computers and new technology were viewed by minority journalists as an important way to help level the professional playing field. Sharon Warden, senior polling analyst for the study, says that unequal access isn't always obvious. For example, some journalists may enter the newsroom from community colleges that have fewer computer resources. Entry-level reporters may not own a computer or modem at home, may not be trained on both MS-DOS and Macintosh systems, nor be familiar with a variety of software programs. Moreover, many aren't adept at accessing online services, creating and using spreadsheets, interpreting data and networking on the Information Superhighway. These skills often give journalists the cutting edge in communicating to their sources and readers. After all, computers are changing the way journalists write, report, edit and display the news. But if newsroom managers and HR professionals aren't mindful of some reporters' lack of skills, they may be overlooked when special training opportunities occur. The key is to train all journalists, in all respects, then see how far they can climb.

Newsrooms parlay internships, mentoring and training into success.
Training can begin very early in the game. For Don Flores, it began at age 12. He recalls his stint as a sports correspondent for his hometown weekly in Refugio, Texas: "Mostly, I covered Little League scores," he says. He parlayed that success throughout his school career—as editor of his college newspaper and later as a reporter for the San Marcos Daily Record, among others. Today, he's one of two Hispanic publishers in the United States and sits at the helm of the El Paso Times in Texas. Flores doesn't believe that the media industry is necessarily lagging behind corporate America. Newspapers lie "somewhere below the middle," he says. As publisher and editor of a newspaper whose readership is 70% Hispanic, he constantly thinks about whether his paper is reflecting the changing community. So far, minorities comprise 60% of the news staff, and 50% of the managers. "That's inclusive of women, gays and racial minorities," he says. But Hispanics, overall, have been largely considered as an afterthought. "I don't think that we've moved up as fast as blacks and women. But by the turn of the century, we're going to be the largest minority population in this country."

Has the newspaper ever faced a backlash? "More than what you'd see in the Midwest," says Flores. "It's a serious issue—particularly in communities where you've got a minority population that will become the majority in a few years or a decade. Or when those in other communities see their influences or power drifting." That's why Flores and his news staff make an effort to provide training for all employees, become visible in the community, conduct focus groups to receive feedback on the paper's news coverage and encourage his staff to tutor youth in the local schools. "With my arrival [in 1993], I've brought a different passion or commitment to the table." HR, he notes, is active in training efforts such as providing English and Spanish-language lessons for reporters and employees in all departments, including production, circulation and distribution.

As more minorities enter the newsrooms, newspaper executives and HR professionals also are seeing the need for mentors. Carneiro, of the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group (it includes 29 newspapers with circulations of 125,000 or less), values employee buddy systems. "We've all had somebody who's helped us along the way," he says. HR has helped to establish a mentoring program by providing some guidelines for managers. Their objectives: To provide a vehicle that will enhance a new employee's chances of being successful in his or her new environment. Make certain that at least one experienced person is there for each employee to view as a mentor or coach—sharing the secrets of how to work the system productively. "You don't have to just want to get into management to get mentored. You may just want to remain a reporter, but become a better investigative journalist," Carneiro says. Hence, HR's role is to help "make sure that we treat our people fairly and maximize their potential."

Other newspapers, such as the Seattle Times, have tackled diversity efforts by empowering employees on various committees to oversee policies and coverage. Recognized as one of the most successful newspapers to make substantive changes, the Seattle Times will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. Its daily circulation of 237,000 encompasses Washington's greater Puget Sound area. Minorities comprise about 20% of its readership: 9% Asians; 7% blacks; 3% Hispanics and 1% Native Americans. Significant changes, HR professionals say, must be mandated from the top. Phyllis Mayo, manager of development and diversity in the paper's industrial relations department, attributes the improvements to publisher Frank Blethen, who took charge of the family-owned paper in 1984. "He was a pacesetter. This was a fairly hierarchical, highly structured operation before he came on board," says Mayo. "He's value driven and believes the work environment is a key component to success." Last April, the Reston, Virginia-based National Association of Minority Media Executives awarded Blethen the Distinguished Diversity Award for Lifetime Achievement for maintaining the multicultural composition of the paper's work force. Because of his leadership, HR has played a major role in developing a partnership with the employees' unions and supporting the important issues of the minority journalists, including women, gays and lesbians. For example, the Seattle Times has been one of the corporate pathbreakers for establishing policies and benefits for domestic partners.

Through its various entities, the staff is able to monitor the paper's diversity initiatives. A diversity committee, made up of reporters, editors and photographers, meets regularly to evaluate the paper's coverage of minorities. The paper also has formed a diversity council, which will be composed of representatives from all departments and reflective of the newspaper's diverse staff. Their mandate will be to evaluate the company's policies and pay continued attention to moving "from diversity to pluralism," says James H. Schafer, vice president of industrial relations. "We're moving away from numbers to helping individuals have a fuller understanding of our differences."

Content audits ensure quality coverage and a solid bottom line.
The Seattle Times also was one of the first newspapers in the United States to conduct a content audit. A content audit is a thorough review of how a newspaper covers all aspects of the community, including minority and non-minority groups, women and men, traditional and non-traditional beats. It involves more than counting numbers. A staff may want to study story angles, play, selection, sources, pictures and graphics. In short, it's a way to update newspapers and connect them with the changing face of America. The ASNE issued industry guidelines in 1992, and they have since been used by newspapers such as The Detroit News, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Boston Globe, Gannett Co. Inc., Kansas City Star and Sacramento Bee.

"It presents a snapshot and points a direction," says Karen Brown, associate director and dean of the faculty at St. Petersburg, Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "They can have some degree of inaccuracy, but even then, it tells people a lot more than be-fore." Newspapers, she says, have progressed from their initial concerns about hiring. "Now there's concern about how we can document and quantify our coverage." In every study Brown has conducted, she has found the coverage of minorities to be less than what's perceived by editors and reporters. Among seven papers serving predominantly African-American communities, Brown recorded a low 30% figure for coverage. Worse than the figures was the fact that most of the stories were about crime, entertainment and sports. "The snapshots," she says, "can set a benchmark to remeasure a paper's progress at least a year or two later."

The first step, however, is to establish a baseline from previous issues. Using certain clues, newspapers and publications can surmise the racial background of sources by the photos, a reporter's memory, surnames (in most cases), location, quotes or affiliations. But when you measure progress against the baseline, Brown suggests that reporters ask their sources to cooperate in the subsequent content audit by identifying their racial or ethnic background, but not ask such information for inclusion in a story—unless it's absolutely necessary.

By evaluating a newspaper's coverage quantitatively and qualitatively, the portrayal of minorities is bound to improve. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, editors at the Los Angeles Times made significant additions to the newspaper: a Monday section called Southland Voices, which allows individuals from the community to submit essays and articles; features interviews with various members of the community; and publishes excerpts from local ethnic community newspapers that otherwise may not be read or subscribed to by non-minority readers. The newspaper also established City Times, a weekly tabloid that features news from the various racial and ethnic communities in Los Angeles.

Likewise at several Knight-Ridder, Inc. newspapers in North and South Dakota and Minnesota, several editors launched discussions with corporate HR to help design a plan that would improve the coverage of Native Americans. Olmstead says a meeting is planned for November to hammer down a program that will include a recruitment effort. "We need to partner with people in the community, instead of starting work by ourselves," he says.

Successful recruitment, training and promotion of minorities does pay off in ways beyond profit. Professionally, it improves the depth and quality of the newspaper's coverage. Earlier this year, for example, Knight-Ridder's Akron Beacon Journal—headed by publisher John Dotson—received a Pulitzer Prize for public service for its year-long project called "A Question of Color" that examined race relations in Akron, Ohio. Also, Isabel Wilkerson, Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Winning praise were her stories about the Mississippi River during last year's floods and an article about a 10-year-old black youth who bore responsibilities for his four younger brothers and sisters. Both are examples of African Americans whose talents were tapped early on. Reporter Ying Chin, after spending 13 years at Chinese-language dailies in New York, was hired by the New York Daily News. In 1993, the trilingual and biliterate journalist received the George Polk Award for her groundbreaking stories about the Golden Venture trawler from China that brought over 300 undocumented refugees to the United States.

"I often feel like I'm walking a fine line between serving as an ombudsman and advocate or just a conduit of information." —Gina Rojo Meyer, Mail Tribune

So whether a newspaper is large or small, well-endowed or strapped in its finances, situated in the Midwest, Northeast or South, it behooves news executives and HR professionals to continue encouraging diversity efforts, particularly its employees' professional growth. And it's never too late, as Gina Rojo Meyer has discovered. Meyer, HR manager at the Medford, Oregon-based Mail Tribune is the only human resources professional at the 30,000-circulation newspaper. The majority of the readership is white, but the Hispanic population is growing, she says. Her role will be to develop a diversity-training program—first for managers and then for the employees. "Working for a newspaper," she says, "often makes me feel like I'm walking a fine line between serving as an ombudsman and advocate or just a conduit of information." The challenge, she adds, is that everyone is a customer. Or as Gilliam of The Washington Post puts it: "When communities read and see the news reflective of themselves, they respond. They buy the paper."

Personnel Journal, November 1994, Vol. 73, No.11, pp. 104-111.

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