Getting Past ‘Groundhog Day’: Will Corporate-Speak Move The Diversity Needle?

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Rafael Olmeda took the words right out of my mouth. “Every year we see numbers, and every year we comment on them,” Olmeda, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) said on a conference call last Sunday. “It’s kind of like being stuck in ‘Groundhog Day’ for ten thousand years.”

That’s precisely what I was feeling as I was reporting again — for perhaps my 23rd consecutive year or so — the predictably dismal “progress” mainstream daily newspapers had made towards diversifying their newsrooms in the last 12 months. This year’s so-called progress, as documented in the latest newsroom census from the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNEP), was even more ironic than any in the 30-year history of the survey.

In an America in which people of color already make up one-third of the population, daily newspapers managed to increase the percentage of minorities in their newsrooms from 13.43% all the way up to 13.52%. And how did this industry accomplish that? By shrinking the work force over the year by a greater percentage than at any time in the last three decades. There is an ever-so-slightly higher percentage of minority among the journalists who were not canned or chased out of newspapers — but there are actually 300 fewer journalists of color working in newsroom than there were last year at this time.

There are two seasons in diversity every year. There’s the hopeful and revitalizing times in the stifling heat of summer when the minority journalists associations meet at conventions. Your heart leaps to see young people eager to give their all for journalism, and veteran journos who care enough to mentor and cultivate the future of a newspaper industry that they certainly owe no debt.

And then there’s the dispiriting season that comes — irony alert, again — in the spring (this year among the blossoming Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C.), when ASNE has its annual unhappy task of revealing just how little daily newspapers are doing about diversity.

In either season, I’ve often had the feeling that journalists of color and the powers that be in mainstream papers are talking past each other.

The corporate suits talk up diversity as a business strategy. “We believe in diversity not just because it is right, but because it’s right for the bottom line,” these types say when some industry occasion forces them to address diversity. They’ll inevitably pause, too, as if to give the audience sufficient time to appreciate this deep and original thought — and then they’ll fly home content they’ve done their bit for diversity for the year.

In my observation — the insight, I’ll hasten to point out, not just of a white male, but one now age-qualified for gated communities that don’t allow kids as residents — that diversity means something deeper to journalists of color. Its principal purpose is to ensure that not only that newspapers reflect the diversity of the community in their pages, but in some real sense live fully in the community, sharing its hopes and heartsick, dreams and disappointment.

Last Sunday, though, the conference call convened to share reaction to the census from the leaders of the black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American journalists associations diverged from the “Groundhog Day” metaphor. Or perhaps I should say, hewed closer to the theme of the movie in which the Bill Murray characters grows a little more every repeated day, eventually even learning French.

The association directors similarly vowed to speak a different language.

Karen Lincoln Michel, president of Unity: Journalists of Color Inc., and Madison bureau chief of the Green Bay (Wisc.) Press-Gazette, announced from the start that a new approach to diversity was necessary. “One thing that is clear is that our efforts to advance diversity in the newsroom are simply not working,” she said.

The associations said they would re-focus their diversity efforts on retaining journalists of color, and getting them into management ranks. Change must come from the top, they said.

It’s not so much an alternative strategy, as the only one left. As newspaper editors spend far more time figuring out who to let go than who to hire, diversity is unlikely to come in the form of a lot of new guys.

And so the journalists are also adopting the corporate-speak of diversity being good for the bottom line, etc. We’ve got to, Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) President Jeanne Mariani-Belding argues, not unreasonably.

“But given the reality of the difficult business situation in newspapers, we’d be remiss not to discuss it,” she said. “We know there are many, many reasons diversity is good for newspaper. This business model is one.”

In effect, journalists of color are calling the industry on their own rhetoric, says NAHJ’s Olmeda, early online editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

“Frankly, if people in this industry really believed diversity is good for business — it would have happened already,” Olmeda said.

The task of Unity and its four member-associations, then, is to make the business case for diversity.

It’s clearly there, as the hospital industry, for instance, has discovered. Hospitals that employ personnel in numbers that reflect their patients’ diversity report more patient satisfaction and higher rates of patient safety, according to the American Hospital Association-affiliated Institute for Diversity in Health Management.

So in the months ahead, we’re likely to hear journalists of color quoting more from “Who Moved My Cheese?” or “Good To Great” than the works of Cornel West or Dyson

And it will be the task for the newspaper industry — again, and as it has been for far too long — to take diversity seriously, and understand that it must be a priority in tough times, too.

After all, when the two biggest industry associations of publishers and editors met last week along with the industry’s largest equipment show, not all the talk was about the economic crisis of newspapers, indeed by some accounts there wasn’t enough of that talk. Still, they managed room for discussions about going “green” in pressrooms and newsrooms.

If there’s time for that, there’s no excuse not to redouble efforts on diversity.

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