Newsroom Diversity: Was It Just a 1990s Ideal?

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Are daily newspapers over diversity?

That’s one conclusion that can be reached from an analysis of daily newsroom diversity numbers that is certain to raise eyebrows when it is released on Wednesday.

The analysis of the most recent American Society of Newspaper Editors census also challenges the comforting notion held by many in the newspaper industry that progress on diversifying newsrooms may be slow, but it is steady and always moving forward.

In fact, the analysis for the Knight Foundation found that nearly three-quarters of the nation’s largest newspapers reached their peak of diversity at some point in the past — sometimes long ago.

Consider, for instance, the nation’s biggest daily newspaper, USA Today. It employed the most minority journalists as a percentage of its overall newsroom employment in 1994.

That’s the same year the New York Post had its most diverse staff. Its tabloid rival, the New York Daily News, peaked the next year.

The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times both peaked five years ago.

The report uses The Sun in Baltimore to illustrate the phenomenon among bigger papers. According to the 2000 U.S. census, minorities account for 33.9% of the people in the Tribune Co. newspaper’s circulation area. “In the Sun’s newsroom, meanwhile, employment of journalists of color peaked back in 1991 at 19.6% of the supervising editors, reporters, copy editors and photographers,” the report says. It notes that the percentage fell to 14.2% the next year, climbed back, to 18.0% by 1996, and “has drifted lower, settling this year at 15.9% of the staff.”

Overall, the industry is doing even worse than its biggest papers. Only 18% of the papers reported their highest percentages of minority journalists in the 2005 ASNE census released last April, while 44% fell back. Those figures do not include the 37% of newspapers that told ASNE they do not employ any minority journalists at all.

“Just looking at the raw numbers, the percentages, the newsroom is more white now than it used to be,” the study’s co-author, Bill Dedman, said in a telephone interview.

Dedman, a correspondent for The Boston Globe who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, conducted the analysis with Stephen K. Doig, interim director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University. This is the third year they have analyzed ASNE’s numbers but the first time they have gone back 16 years to chart diversity peaks.

The full report is available at

As they have in the past, Dedman and Doig calculated for individual newspapers and chains a so-called Newsroom Diversity Index (NDI), which compares the percentage of minority journalists in the newsroom to the percentage of people of color in the newspaper’s circulation area.

This latest report is likely to stir reaction on this topic, too, because it counters the long-held assumption that larger papers are making more progress on diversity than smaller-circulation dailies.

“Generally, the perception is, oh, OK, you can’t expect the Podunk, Iowa, paper to attract minorities … for a whole host of reasons we can talk about, but when you look at the biggest papers in the country — a lot of them aren’t adding any minorities, either,” Dedman said.

Overall, the study found that just 13% of the newspapers in the survey have reached ASNE’s goal of parity between newsroom and community minority percentage, the same share as last year.

Among the top 100 biggest papers, just 14 were at or over parity, while 25 had diversity indexes that were less than half of 100, the number that would indicate parity between newsroom and circulation area.

Among those with indexes less than half of parity are such big papers are the Los Angeles Times (NDI of 33); The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. (22); The Dallas Morning News (36); and the San Francisco Chronicle (36).

The Akron Beacon Journal led the list of big papers that have overachieved parity. Its NDI is 177. Other leaders include The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel (160); The Des Moines Register (148); St. Paul Pioneer Press (148); and The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. (127).

The highest diversity index numbers were found among mid-sized and small papers such as the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader (254); St. Cloud (Minn.) Times (342); the Reporter-Times in Martinsville, Ind. (698) — or the Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette (1,251).

Mae Cheng, president of Unity: Journalists of Color Inc., the umbrella organization of the four associations for black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American journalists, said the report shows newspapers of all sizes are not making enough progress on diversity.

“I’m really glad they’re picking apart the statistics and showing what each paper is doing, because it shows that each individual paper from the biggest to the smallest has a lot of work to do,” she said by telephone from Newsday, where she is assistant city editor. “I think this shows that the large papers have dropped the ball as well.”

The study found that ownership was a big factor in how diverse a newspaper’s newsroom will be.

“Gannett Co. continues to be the leader, measured by” the NDI, the report says. Gannett’s overall index is 89.

Gannett is followed by Knight Ridder (76); McClatchy Co. (71); The New York Times Co. (69); Cox Enterprises (66); Advance (Newhouse) (63); and Freedom Communications (59).

Among those with the lowest average NDIs are Ogden Newspapers (12); Paxton Media Group (18); Horizon Publications (19); Morris Communications (21); Hollinger International (22); and Journal Register (24).

Dedman and Doig say the ASNE survey paints a more optimistic portrait of newsroom diversity because of several factors. For one thing, the survey does not divulge the raw numbers of non-white journalists at individual papers. “So it’s difficult to know whether a paper truly increased its number of minority journalists, or whether just the percentage increased as white journalists left,” the report says.

Diversity numbers may look better because the industry’s journalistic workforce is shrinking, the report says. “Many newsrooms have contracted in recent years, by involuntary layoffs, voluntary buyouts or attrition,” it notes. “Those cuts would tend to affect an older, and therefore more white group of journalists. If the newsroom shrinks, and whites leave, the non-white percentage can increase without a single additional non-white journalist being hired.”

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