By: Shawn Moynihan
Diversity in newsrooms is one of those issues that even in the best of times, often gets short shrift. But these are not the best of times, and recent findings by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) provides a snapshot of just how racially diverse U.S. newsrooms are at the moment.
The statistics ASNE reported were drawn from its annual census, which for years has served as a yardstick for measuring the success of the organization’s goal of having the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms nationwide equal to the percentage of minorities in the nation’s population by 2025. Minorities currently make up approximately 33% of the U.S. population.
In the case of ASNE’s 2010 census, 914 of the 1,422 print and online newspapers contacted responded to the survey, representing 64.3% of all U.S. dailies. More than 450 responding newspapers said they had no minorities on their full-time staff. That’s a number that has been growing since 2006, when ASNE began listing the percentage for each minority group at each paper.
American dailies lost another 5,200 people in 2009, which brings the total loss of journalists since 2007 to 13,500. If that sounds like a lot, it is: That’s an average of 100 jobs lost per week. Among minorities, the newsroom workforce at U.S. dailies declined 12.6% in the past year, from 6,300 to 5,500.
The census also revealed that nearly two-thirds of minorities work at newspapers with circulations over 100,000. The percentage of minorities working at newspapers with more than 500,000 circulation is 18%; circ between 250,001 and 500,000, 19%; and 100,001 to 250,000, 29%.
“At this point the industry and the country are going in two different directions. The industry is getting whiter while the country is getting browner,” says Dori J. Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and an expert on the subject of newsroom diversity. “As legacy media struggles to remain relevant, it’s imperative that we step up our efforts to ensure that all news organizations have the staffing culturally competent to accurately and fairly reflect all segments of our society.”
Which is not to say there are not some success stories: The Arizona Republic, The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., The Washington Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel ranked among the top-rated U.S. papers for diverse newsrooms. The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press also made the list.
But not all papers could report such results. While some boasted a good number of African-Americans on staff, far fewer were able to report Native American or even Asian American reporters or editors. Which raises the question, with newsrooms shrinking across the board, is achieving true diversity even a top-of-mind issue any longer? Is industry will strong enough to make that a priority?
“Meeting the goal of parity with the percentage of people of color in the population is an attainable goal if the will is there and if editors and publishers realize the business imperative,” says Richard Prince, who pens the popular “Journal-isms” online column for the Maynard Institute. “The United States will change from majority white to majority brown in our lifetimes. Those who aren’t in touch with their changing audience will be left behind.”
Marty Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and former ASNE president, concurs. “Without diversity we will miss important stories in our communities,” he says. As far as the industry making it a priority, he adds, “I think there are editors and publishers who get it and editors and publishers who don’t. I am not sure that has changed.”
Surely, though, don’t many editors recognize the changing landscape of their readership? “Unfortunately, most of the evidence I see indicates that many editors and publishers don’t see the connection between their economic struggle and the changing
complexion of their audience,” says Prince.
Adds Maynard, “While I think for many industry leaders, survival has pushed diversity off the table, the issue needs to be reframed so people understand that diversity is the key to survival, meaning it once again needs to go to the top of the list of priorities.”
Another point to consider is the effect this lack of diversity has on young journalists of color who are entering the newsroom. “There is something of a brain drain among journalists of color, chiefly because newsrooms aren’t seen any longer as reliable places of employment,” says Prince. “That’s compounded when diversity isn’t seen as a high enough priority when cuts have to be made.”
Prince recalled that seven years ago, the Ventura County (Calif.) Star became one of the first newspapers to participate in the Parity Project, a partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to boost the number of journalists of color and its outreach to the Hispanic community. “In talking about the Parity Project, the editor, Joe Howry, told me this about diversity: ‘It’s not even on the back burner, it’s off the stove.’”