Minorities Get to Class to Get a Leg Up

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

In his first year as a circulation zone manager for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, Wilbert Curtis spends most days working to motivate the many and varied types of workers who make up a typical newspaper-delivery force. But for nine days in January, and for nine more coming up in July, Curtis was on the campus of Harvard University, sitting in the classrooms used by Nieman Fellows, and learning about newspaper management from big-name publishers, media professionals, and Harvard Business School professors.

Curtis, an African American, and other new managers, are part of the latest newspaper industry initiative to confront a perennial problem: The failure of papers to retain many of the people of color it took them so long to recruit.

Newspapers have had a difficult time retaining black journalists in particular. According to the census released at the recent American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) annual meeting, the number of black journalists working at dailies increased by a net of only 34 between 2001 and 2005. By contrast, the net increase of Asian Americans was 365, and 259 for Latinos.

Black journalists, says Herbert Lowe, Newsday reporter and president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), exit for all the usual reasons their white colleagues do ? but they are also far likelier to leave newspapers because they feel stymied in their careers. “Everything comes back to the ability to advance in our careers as we had hoped,” he says.

That’s the aim of the Maynard Institute’s Media Academy that is putting Wilbert Curtis and 47 other newspaper professionals through their paces at Harvard and at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University this year.

Maynard has been running diversity and management training programs for the better part of three decades, but a few years ago they began doing an industrywide assessment of training. What they found was that no one was doing anything for employees, especially minority employees, stepping into their first management positions. “A generation or so ago that might be OK, but now managerial jobs require so much more knowledge and so many more tools, that we were really putting people in a sink-or-swim position,” says Dori J. Maynard, president and CEO of the institute named after her late father, Oakland Tribune Editor Robert C. Maynard.

There wasn’t much training available for employees with management potential, either ? and that often derailed efforts to keep minorities. “People of color were leaving because they could not see opportunities for advancement,” Maynard says.

As the Maynard staff chewed over ideas to train first-time managers, Knight Ridder Chairman and CEO Tony Ridder was making ambitious plans of his own. “Tony had just taken over the chairmanship of the NAA (Newspaper Association of America), and wanted to make a strong statement about the essential part that diversity plays in the industry’s future,” recalls Larry Olmstead, Knight Ridder’s vice president for staff development and diversity.

As Olmstead and Maynard tell the story, Ridder sold top industry executives on the idea, and with Knight Ridder as the lead funder, eventually convinced some two dozen companies and the NAA to contribute $1.3 million to get the Media Academy running for at least two years.

Maynard’s Media Academy is unusual not just for the focus on first-time managers, but for its outreach to the business side. While the news side had the most people, the first classes included an outside sales manager, a single-copy sales manager, a packaging center supervisor, a systems manager, a credit supervisor, and other operations and business-side supervisors. Jennifer Matts, who attended the Medill sessions and has been finance manager of the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., for less than a year, says she “learned so much from the people outside of my own department.”

The curriculum is “really the ABC’s of effective management,” Olmstead says. The nine-day sessions read like a Harvard Business School year on caffeine, with an emphasis on general management principles, skill assessments, and guides for managing a diverse workforce. While the program emphasizes managers of color, any new or potential candidates can apply through their newspaper, the institute says.

Perhaps as important as instilling management skills, the Media Academy aims to build allegiance to the industry among employees of color, Dori Maynard says: “We tell them a lot of CEOs put a lot of money on the line, and it helps build their loyalty to the industry because they get a different picture of how they are valued. Because these corporations do invest in them, they feel they owe something to the industry.”

It worked with Wilbert Curtis. “I was extremely pleased that senior management thought enough of me to send me there so I could be a change agent and help advance not only the Beacon Journal, but the newspaper industry,” he says.

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