As journalists head to Chicago this week for the UNITY '08 convention, the largest gathering of journalists of color, the Radio-TV News Directors Association releases some encouraging news.  According to its annual research, the percentages of women and minority journalists in local broadcast newsrooms increased in 2007.

The survey, conducted by Hofstra University's Bob Papper for RTNDA, found:

  • A record high percentage of women TV news directors: 28.3
  • A record high percentage of minority TV news directors: 15.5
  • An increase in the percentage of minorities in the broadcast workforce        
The overall diversity picture was better for television than radio, but even radio newsrooms reported increased percentages of minorities in staff and management. RTNDA has published the full report, complete with charted demographic breakdowns and historical perspective. There's also a comparison of diversity figures in broadcast and newspaper newsrooms, showing broadcast outperforming print: 23.6 to 13.5 percent.

While upbeat, the report also reminds readers that the percentage of minorities in newsrooms has yet to reach parity with minority population in the U.S.: 34 percent. And, as that population continues to grow, the minority workforce gains in newsrooms is not keeping pace.

What are the lessons from this study? I asked RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, who shared her responses via e-mail.

Jill Geisler: Percentages are up for women and minorities among the ranks of TV News Directors.  From your contact with so many local newsrooms, can you offer some thoughts on what's behind the progress?
Barbara Cochran: Growth like this doesn't happen by accident. It takes a deliberate strategy to hire, nurture and promote women and people of color into top management positions. Many companies make diversity goals an important part of their overall strategy. It's the right thing to do, and it also makes business sense.
As communities become more diverse, television stations need to serve all populations. That means covering news that is relevant and building a staff that reflects the communities. That, in turn, can have a positive impact on audience and revenues.
Another factor in the 2007 results is that long-standing commitments to diversity are paying off now. Past hiring policies have helped to create a situation where more women and minorities are available when a news director position opens up. With more women and minorities in positions like assistant news director, executive producer and managing editor, there are more people in the pipeline to fill the news director position.
Budgets are tightening in TV newsrooms and next year is projected to be a tough one for station revenues. Are recruiting and retention -- and the progress reported in this survey -- likely to be weakened by staff cuts or station mergers?
Cochran: To maintain and build on the 2007 levels of diversity, companies will need to keep a focus on diversity even as they tackle their business challenges. In a challenging business environment, if companies must reduce staff, they need to be sure reductions don't hit any one group disproportionately.
In the past, when reductions were based on seniority, this could affect diversity levels adversely because more minorities and women were among the employees most recently hired and more likely to lose their jobs. This year, some reductions have affected more senior employees, so the effects on diversity remain to be seen.
Recruitment and retention are also affected by how individuals view the industry and their own prospects. The state of the business and the perception of opportunity can have a profound affect on the choices individuals make. Journalism graduates may choose jobs that pay more or seem more secure, so recruitment could be affected. Likewise, talented professionals may get wooed away, or may decide to try another career path.
The industry needs to do more to promote the opportunities and rewards that come from working in broadcast journalism, and make sure they are reaching women and people of color with that message.
The RTNDA survey points out that broadcasters outperform newspapers when it comes to diversity. What advice do you have for the print side?
Cochran: Our colleagues in the newspaper business have had an historic commitment to expanding diversity in their newsrooms and haven't lost sight of their goals even though they have been difficult to achieve. With all the challenges newspapers are dealing with these days, it is still important to keep striving for diversity. One avenue for newspapers as well as radio and television stations to pursue is the increased participation of citizen journalists through Web sites and interactive media. This represents a new source of talent that comes from the community and that could bring in a much greater diversity of voices.