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1995 Managing Change Optimas Award ProfileBRThe Seattle Times Co

July 1, 1995
Related Topics: Managing Change, Diversity, Featured Article
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Imagine trying to create a family-friendly work environment without knowing anything about your work force other than that you employ both men and women. Chances are, you'd write the company's policies around this issue from your own perspective, with perhaps some input from trusted sources. And, chances are, because you don't know the perspectives of your workers who may be parents, who may be gay or lesbian and in nontraditional families, or who may have responsibility for parents or disabled siblings, you'd end up making assumptions, perpetuating stereotypes and neglecting the needs of many of your workers.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what has been happening at the country's newspapers. A homogenous group of reporters write the news about the communities in which they live mainly from their perspectives, with input from trusted sources. Although these reporters may know the demographics of the areas about which they write—such as the percentage of minorities who live there, the average family sizes and so forth—they may know little about the perspectives of people within these groups. The news, therefore, often perpetuates stereotypes, scratches only the surface of a story and inadvertently neglects the needs of, and stories of interest to, many readers.

How could this happen? Easy. The demographics of the nation's newsrooms simply haven't changed as rapidly or dramatically as have the country's. Just look at the figures. Minorities now make up approximately 24% of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Yet, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), minority representation in the nation's newsrooms is only 10.91%. In fact, the ASNE calculates that nearly 46% of the country's daily papers don't employ any minorities at all. The question of whether this failing in employee diversity stems from newspaper companies dropping the ball in the past on recruiting from a diverse set of sources, or from the fact that the job of reporter traditionally has attracted mainly Anglos, is under debate. What's certain, however, is that things need to change.

And, fortunately, they are changing. The ASNE reports that although minority representation in the newsrooms is behind the population at large, it has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. This can be credited to efforts, mainly by the nation's larger papers, to make a change—not just in numbers but also in how those numbers affect their products.

One company recognized as an industry leader in this area is The Seattle Times Co. Last year, for example, the National Association of Minority Media Executives awarded The Seattle Times Co.'s Publisher and CEO Frank A. Blethen its Distinguished Diversity Award for Lifetime Achievement. This award recognized the family-owned business's efforts at embracing "pluralism," defined, in part, by The Times Co. as "the existence and preservation of groups within a society distinctive in ethnic origin, cultural patterns, religion or the like."

The Times Co.'s commitment to this philosophy shows up in a work force currently comprising 21% people of color and 33% women. The makeup in the newsroom is similar, with 21% of the reporters and editors being people of color and 44% of them being women—placing The Times in the nation's top 20 large newspapers (with circulations greater than 100,000) in terms of minority representation.

But even more than that, such initiatives as diversity training, a companywide diversity newsletter and a diversity council have ingrained pluralism into the company culture. And specific newsroom activities, such as minority intern programs, the creation of a diversity reporter and coach, and a newsroom diversity council, ensure that not only the company, but also its products, represent the community which it serves.

Diversity is a business goal for The Seattle Times Co.
The Seattle Times Co.'s diversity efforts began at the top with Blethen. In a statement to The Times Co.'s work force back in 1992, Blethen said: "The Times recognizes that its work force and the communities and customers it serves are changing. Because of these changes, achieving and managing workplace diversity is fundamental to maintaining our three core values: Staying independent and privately owned; maximizing journalistic quality; and maximizing employee workplace satisfaction."

A lofty commitment, but one backed up by specific objectives:

  • To communicate the company's workplace diversity commitment to all employees, with emphasis on why it's important to The Times Co. and what it means to the company
  • To establish departmental employment/development goals, timetables and action plans to ensure the work force, at all levels, reflects the diversity of the communities the paper serves
  • To develop companywide assessment and evaluation systems to monitor progress throughout the organization toward attainment/retention of a diverse work force and a work environment that supports pluralism
  • To implement a cycle and procedure for reviewing with department managers and interested employees results from the previous year
  • To develop ongoing communications systems to create and reinforce a high level of employee awareness of the importance of diversity to The Times Co.

These objectives have manifested in a variety of ways, beginning with the distribution of Blethen's statement of purpose and diversity definitions to employees companywide. These things have then been reinforced in diversity training programs. Ten times a year, for example, the company holds a two-day training session called Exploration into Diversity. The training is mandatory for managers and voluntary for all other employees. It's the only training available to everybody in the company.

The company purposely doesn't engineer the makeup of the training groups, so, although key issues will be covered, conversations are dictated by the diversity mix at each session. This includes not only representation of both genders and different ethnic groups but also a mix of manager/non-manager personnel, union and nonunion workers, people from various shifts and people of varying ages.

The training program begins by repeating the philosophy statement and going over definitions, such as diversity, multiculturalism and pluralism. "We make sure everybody has a common understanding of what the terms are," says Diversity Manager Phyllis Mayo, who facilitates the training sessions with a consultant. Then, the training participants explore why they think The Seattle Times Co. is focusing on diversity issues. "A range of things come out, all of which are true to some degree," Mayo says. These include statements such as: "Because it's the right thing to do;" "Because it's the law;" "Because of the changing demographics;" and "Because if people can work better together, there will be better productivity."

Once the group has established reasons why diversity awareness is important, it identifies obstacles to creating a pluralistic environment. Workers talk about their past experiences, about stereotyping, about some people's prejudices and about how some people just don't care.

The workshop's next step is to focus on what can be done to overcome those obstacles. What can individuals do? What should managers do? What needs to be done companywide? Then Mayo helps the participants learn skills for staying aware of stereotyping and for looking at situations individually. "One of the things we talk about is avoiding knee jerk reactions," Mayo says. To help people remember this, Mayo distributes little business card sized pamphlets depicting a knee jerk within a red "not" circle. "These serve as visual reminders people can look at frequently."

So far, about 400 people have graduated from the workshop, and there's a waiting list for future sessions. "People go back into their work areas and say, 'you know, it wasn't bad, it was pretty good, you ought to check it out,'" Mayo says.

Supplemental projects ensure training takes hold.
In addition to the two-day workshop, the company offers two-hour follow-up sessions every two months. The agenda for these vary: sometimes they're training sessions, sometimes they highlight speakers. For example, recently, a graduate of the Explorations in Diversity workshop solicited a survivor of the holocaust who the paper had written about to speak at a follow-up session.

To supplement the training, the company publishes a "Diversity Works" newsletter six times a year. The publication, edited by Mayo and another HR person, reinforces Blethen's message and the diversity definitions. It also lists upcoming training dates, offers games and puzzles that focus on diversity issues, and reproduces a diversity calender created by Diversity Tool Box Inc., which includes such highlights as the beginning of the Islamic New Year on June 21 and the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26.

It was through the newsletter that the company announced a survey it would be doing to evaluate where the company is in terms of diversity and how far it still needs to go. The survey is based on research by Bailey Jackson and Evangelina Holvino, who have identified three levels of evolution that organizations experience: monocultural, nondiscriminatory and multicultural. Within these levels, the researchers have identified stages they call the White Male Club, EEO Compliance, Affirmative Action, Redefining and Multicultural.

The survey, being taken by all employees anonymously, will be used as a baseline for planning. At press time, Mayo hadn't yet received all responses, but she did have some conclusions based on those she had received. Responses evaluate work units, which, depending on work distribution, can be full departments or units within departments (larger departments have as many as 30 work units).

So far, only one of the company's work units has reached the level of multiculturalism. But, there's now only one unit identified as still in the White Male Club or single-standard stage. "The bulk of the units are somewhere in the Affirmative Action stage, but we've also got pockets in the EEO Compliance area and pockets in the Redefining stage," Mayo says. "Even within the same work units, some practices would be at the White Male Club end, and some practices would be considered Redefining and Multicultural."

The survey has sparked some controversy within the company. One employee, unhappy with the term White Male Club, called a local radio talk show and generated a heated conversation that, according to the "Diversity Works" newsletter, "lambasted this company for its bigoted stand on diversity." Another employee responded by writing a letter to "Diversity Works" that states, in part, "I don't believe for one minute that our (The Seattle Times Co.'s) stand on diversity is bigoted. I do believe discussion and open dialogue

on diversity leads to self-examination, deep thought and growth. It certainly has in my case."

Which is exactly the point, says Mayo. "I was thrilled with both comments," she adds. "The most valuable piece of the Stages of Diversity survey is to establish a common frame of reference from which we can start talking about what it's like to work here."

Indeed, though the company has taken responsibility for grooming the culture of diversity by training employees and raising their awareness, it expects everyone in the firm to carry it out. "Our diversity efforts definitely are two-pronged: top down as well as bottom up," says Mayo. "For example, the Explorations in Diversity workshop is a top-down mandate designed to put strategy into place, educate people, expose people to the concept of diversity and get them thinking about it." But individual initiative must keep the ball rolling.

That's precisely why the company recently created the Diversity Council, a group of 13 volunteers from throughout the company whose role it is to enhance communications and keep the issue of diversity alive among the people at The Times Co. Although newly formed, the plan is for the council to help identify information to go into the "Diversity Works" newsletter and to create projects that get workers involved with diversity issues. For example, the council's current—and first—project is putting together banners that the work force will decorate. "We're asking employees to contribute anything to these banners that represents for them one of their best moments at The Times," says Mayo, who's the council's only permanent member. Items for the banners may be written messages, photos, drawings or pretty much anything the employee comes up with. The only criteria is that the items aren't disrespectful and don't hurt anyone. The Times Co. will unveil the banners in August—at its 100th birthday celebration.

Diversity awareness has sparked grass-roots innovations.
Employee participation in moving the company toward a pluralistic environment doesn't stop with special projects, however. The company has pushed the responsibility for diversity planning down throughout the work force by instituting a formal diversity planning process for departments. "Instead of being a process whereby the managers go off and make a plan the way affirmative action planning used to happen, we take it to the grass-roots and have people look at what it's like to work here and what things we can improve," Mayo says. "Our feeling is that grass-roots really works. It hooks into what people are most interested in and what they're willing to do first."

According to Jim Schafer, VP industrial relations, the plans may be specific to hiring objectives, or they may be as general as educational objectives. "It requires each major department to set out what it intends to accomplish in terms of furthering our transition from diversity to pluralism," he says. "There's a whole range of things that might be taken into consideration, but they're specific to where the departments are."

Some departments, for example, focus primarily on mentoring new and existing employees. Others create career-development strategies that include having people from different work areas come to regular meetings and talk about skills needed for their jobs, about the department's direction, and about any open positions.

Many departments create their own newsletters, which they use to talk about diversity issues. Sometimes they highlight individual employees, let them talk about what it was like growing up in a Jamaican family or living in an ethnic neighborhood. "Whatever they're willing to do first is a good step," Mayo says. "We don't evaluate whether one person or department is doing less than another person or department. Any first step is wonderful because then you just take another step."

Some of those first steps include participating in the speakers' bureau and talking to school kids about diversity. For others, whose jobs may not permit them to take time away, first steps may be engaging in pen-pal programs with children of ethnicities different than their own. "We added kids to our strategy because we realized that most people like kids, no matter what kinds of kids they are," Mayo says. "So some people have gotten through their stereotypes by working with children rather than adults."

Some employees have gone beyond what's expected of them and started their own grass-roots initiatives. Mayo says much of what the company does started at a grass-roots level. For example, two early graduates of the Explorations in Diversity workshop created a Diversity of Thought library at the company's headquarters. Struck by the idea of having an onsite library that contained materials focused on diversity, the two approached Mayo with it. Although Mayo believed it was a marvelous idea, she informed the workers that there wasn't a budget to do it as a corporate initiative. So the workers went to the art department and made up some posters asking employees to donate books that reflect their interest. Today, the library contains approximately 300 books. Four or five employees volunteer as librarians, keeping a list of available books on E-mail and sending requested books by interoffice mail to employees at other locations.

Another group of employees expressed their belief that it's important for people to be able to meditate for religious reasons. So, once a week, the company makes space available for just this purpose. "We have a practice that says we'll give any group, as long as it isn't hurtful to others, time and meeting space," Mayo says. "They just need to make sure that whatever they're doing isn't interfering with their jobs."

Other groups formed at The Times Co. include the GALA group, which stands for the Gay And Lesbian Association, and a child-care committee known as Family Connections: A Seattle Times Committee for the Enhancement of Family Life.

Diversity awareness has boosted The Times Co.'s employee retention and reputation.
Being able to form groups according to their interests has been an important employment factor to many people at The Times Co. "We have folks who seem very willing to give the organization an opportunity to change, to make mistakes, because they have a sense of acceptance, a sense of belonging," Schafer says. Indeed, all of the diversity activities have contributed to turnover lower than the industry average. They've also earned The Seattle Times Co. a reputation as a great place to work.

But, these activities have also created unique challenges for the company. "It's kind of a double-edged sword," says Mayo. "When you raise people's consciousness about diversity and you say that it's one of your values, perfection is a tough status to achieve, and there's always something that someone can point to as a deficiency." Recently, for example, three minority reporters left the company for varying reasons. "The cry was, 'look at all of these people of color leaving. There must be problems in the newsroom,'" Mayo says. "Some Caucasian reporters left also, but no one was counting and saying, 'The whites are fleeing.'" She adds that this reaction is OK, because it means people are paying attention.

The Seattle Times Co. hopes to keep people paying attention by continuing to add people of color to its staff, as well as help improve the number of people of color in the industry as a whole. Part of the strategy for doing this is through a number of intern programs specifically for minority students. One such program provides juniors and seniors in high school the opportunity to produce their own newspaper, called the Urban Journal. "It's specifically targeted for students of color because there are so few people of color in the newsrooms," says Mayo. "We've been criticized for that, and some teachers won't support it. But we've resisted opening it up to all students because white male students have lots of other avenues for getting into this industry, and do get in."

However, The Times does have several other internship programs open to students of all ethnicities, including some that give journalism students repeated summer experiences. Many, though not all, of the students from all the internship programs stay on at The Times. Those who do, especially those from the minority programs, help maintain the newsroom's diversity balance. But, as has been demonstrated throughout the organization, numbers alone aren't enough. It's by talking about diversity issues, making diversity a priority, and taking an active role in ensuring that pluralism takes place that positive results concerning diversity occur.

Attention to the human issue of diversity affects the company's product.
Because the idea of diversity has permeated the company culture so profoundly, it has begun to affect the products that the company produces. To be exact, it affects the news.

In a statement carried in "Diversity Works," Blethen confirms the relationship between the company's diverseness and the product it sells: "The world is rapidly changing around us. Both our advertising customers and, more importantly, our readers, have become more diverse in ethnicity, lifestyle and family definition. If we expect to maintain our circulation readership and our position as the area's leading information provider, our news and editorial content must reflect the diversity of our readers. That will happen only if our newsroom reflects that diversity."

Adds Schafer: "This is a bit of a unique business in the sense that we're providing information to a lot of subscribers in this community, and for that information to be fair, appropriate and objective, it should be reported by essentially the same kind of population that's reading it."

Certainly, having a newsroom composed of 21% people of color and 44% women is reflective of the readership, at least in terms of numbers. In fact, according to the latest U.S. Bureau of the Census numbers, tallied in 1990, people of color represent just more than 13% of the Puget Sound region's population.

Though the newspaper feels it has gained positive results from its heightened newsroom diversity, this is more than just a numbers game. Several initiatives specific to the newsroom are aimed at guaranteeing those positive results are reflected in the newspaper. One such initiative is the creation of a Diversity Committee. Says Schafer, the focus of the committee, which was formed approximately seven years ago, is both on content and on education. Committee members—reporters, editors and photographers—meet bi-weekly to evaluate the paper's content and educate the rest of the newsroom staff about diversity issues. For example, the committee will lead a discussion as to whether a topic was handled appropriately, with the proper sensitivity and without being offensive. "It's primarily focused on the way in which information is gathered and communicated, rather than things like employment policies," Schafer says.

Alex McCloud, managing editor of The Times, says the committee has provided a constant forum for discussing what it is the reporters, editors and photographers are contributing to the newspaper, and also how diversity is effecting the newsroom itself. "We've created an environment in which people are free to express their opinions, even when they aren't shared by anybody else or only by a few others," McCloud says. "And, by having the committee, the watchdog responsibility doesn't fall to one or two people."

The newsroom further checks itself by performing periodic content audits of photographs. Instituted in 1988, the content audit evaluates the representation of women and people of color in The Times' photographs to see if the representation "reflects accurately their participation in the world around us," McCloud says.

By doing the audits, The Times' newsroom staff has significantly improved the content of its photos during the last seven years. "Early on, the representation of people of color in photographs was less than our population within the community," Schafer says. "And the photos of people of color were disproportionately associated with negative stories—articles about financial conditions and crime, for example." But today, McCloud says, women and ethnic minorities are just as likely to be portrayed in positive or neutral contexts as are white males. "It's a change that's been recognized in the community," he says.

How can he be sure? Well, the editorial staff periodically ventures out into minority communities and solicits feedback about how the newspaper covers them. The company also brings people from these communities to its offices and asks them to critique the paper and discuss with the staff their opinions on how issues important to them have been portrayed through words and pictures.

Gloria Trinidad, a multicultural education specialist with the city of Seattle's child-care and Head Start programs, reviewed something like 75 Times articles for a special outreach program designed to help teachers communicate diversity (see "The Times Puts Diversity Talks on Common Ground"). Discussions within her group helped the newspaper staff better understand how a news item can perpetuate stereotypes simply by not exploring deeply enough for the human elements. For example, the group commented that articles intended to be positive—such as ones about women who work their way off of welfare—could be richer and present a fairer view if they were more personal and focused on the situation's human rather than its economic elements.

Reporters learn to recognize diversity angles to news stories.
These are things that Aly Colón knows well. As diversity reporter and coach for The Seattle Times, it's his job to seek these angles out. When a murderous shooting occurred at a local Vietnamese nightclub, for example, Colon reported on a story behind the story. While news reporters simply reported the facts of the incident, Colón wrote an exposé on the clash of culture and crime—reporting on the challenges police had matching up statements because half of the nightclub patrons had the same last name; the difficulties involved with the language barriers; and the problems presented by the Vietnamese's distrust of authority brought with them from their home country.

In his year and a half in this job, Colón has focused his reporting on articles that, like this one, portray the intersection of where different people meet and how they react to that intersection—how it affects them, what it means to them, how they feel about it. "Everybody on the staff is tasked with trying to be more inclusive in their reporting in terms of diversity, but my job is to look at diversity in as diverse a way as possible," he says. For another article, for example, he visited a new immigrants' class for secondary school teachers at a local university and reported on what the teachers were learning about what being a new immigrant means to people, what kind of reactions the immigrants were getting from people and how immigrants are adjusting their cultures to fit with that of the United States.

For another article—which Colón titled "Speechless in Seattle"—the reporter, who is a native of Puerto Rico, walked around the traditional tourist sights of Seattle speaking only in Spanish. He then chronicled how people reacted to him and how they dealt with the difference. "What I'm trying to do is encourage a more diverse approach to the way that we look at the community around us," Colón says.

He does this through his own stories, as well as through his role as diversity coach. This is a unique position. Colón says The Times doesn't know of any other newspaper in the country that has a person on staff who is a combination diversity reporter and coach. The position came out of Diversity Committee discussions about the need for one person to be sort of the sounding board on diversity issues. But, says Colón, who got the position because of experience as both a writer and editor and because he's lived in and traveled most of the world: "I'm not a PC police or a guru in the sense of what I say goes. And, there's no requirement on my part to go after people, and no requirement that says they have to come to me. But I'm there as a resource for people who are trying to branch out into a variety of different areas, and who want to be able to turn to somebody who's attuned to the different groups of people out there."

In his role as coach, he advises reporters about diversity angles that stories within their beat can take, and provides them resources that may help them expand their perspectives. "People have a tendency to go where they're familiar, and that includes turning to a regular bevy of sources," Colón says.

Often writers and editors will seek Colón's opinion on whether the depiction of a particular group of people is fair and accurate. Sometimes, these discussions happen after the fact, when readers contact the paper with concerns over a particular portrayal. "I'll talk with the reporters and editors about how that came about, what the reasoning was behind that approach, and help everyone involved understand the different points of view," Colón says.

Whether these discussions happen before or after an article is written, the point is to get people thinking and talking about these issues. Another device that helps keep the idea of diversity in the reporters' and editors' minds is a diversity checklist. The checklist includes such questions as: "Have I sought diverse sources for this story?"; and "Am I furthering stereotypes as I seek diversity?"

"It's one of those tangible reminders to people, as they approach the work they do, to get outside their boxes and recognize there are diverse sources. To do our job well, we ought to think about these things in the same way we've always thought about who, what, when, where and why," says Managing Editor McCloud.

The Diversity Checklist, like so many other innovations at The Times, was created by a group of workers. It has proven a useful tool, and even has been reproduced in a publication by the ASNE on how to conduct newspaper content audits.

Says McCloud: "The most important thing is to have people thinking and talking about diversity. That's what our whole emphasis has been on: To have a diverse group of people who respect one another, who will listen to one another, and who will, in the end, produce a better product."

According to Schafer, the product has changed dramatically during the last decade, due in part to the diversity efforts. The paper has an excellent reputation in the industry and among newspaper readers. And its circulation has been steadily increasing. As of March, it was at 234,000.

The Seattle Times Co.—proof positive that human issues affect the bottom line.

 

Personnel Journal, July 1995, Vol. 74, No. 7, pp. 30-41.

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