What I wish I had told Dori Maynard in our last conversation
The last time I saw Dori Maynard was in September at the American Society of Newspaper Editors-Associated Press Managing Editors summit in Chicago. We tended to meet at the alphabet soup of conferences that is the life of a minority journalist and media manager: NABJ, AAJA, NAHJ, SPJ, SABEW and on and on.
At ASNE-APME, as it’s known, I was speaking on a panel titled, “Creating a Culture of Innovation: How to Just Do It.” Dori approached me afterward and told me she was proud, that I’d come a long way from when she first met me at Unity '94, the historic gathering of all four minority journalist groups in Atlanta. And then as happens when two journalists of color get together, we lamented how little real progress the industry had made, how pathetic the latest newsroom diversity figures were, and pondered what could be done to fix it. We talked a lot about digital and its lack of diversity. Neither of us had a ticket for the awards luncheon, so I bought us two and we sat down together. It was, as I look back, a depressing conversation and probably one Dori had with countless journalists like me every conference, every summer, every day.
Dori died yesterday. She was only 56. I don’t feel like I knew her well but when I heard, 20 years of flashbacks hit me and hit me hard: of business card exchanges and dancing with Cornel West, brainstorming reporting fellowships and that recent luncheon-turned-therapy session. My greatest regret is that I never conveyed to Dori—and to so many others who overtly or covertly work in this space—my gratitude for all they have done to make my career possible, for their advocacy of a certain type of storytelling on communities that is finally gaining traction, for their creation of parallel media structures that have actually permeated the mainstream and can no longer be ignored.
A prime example: Frustrated by seeing the same old names in Jim Romenesko’s column, once housed here on Poynter’s website, Dori tapped Richard Prince to write the online Journal-isms, starting in 2002. Richard is a must-read for me, whether it’s a roundup of #OscarsSoWhite or the latest comings and goings of minority talent at CNN. “I was so disturbed by Romenesko. There was [rarely] any notice of people of color,” Dori said, explaining why she launched Journal-isms.
Indeed, as we watch (mostly white, mostly male) colleagues highlighted or celebrated in gossipy media blogs, Prince writes about the rest of us. It was he who broke the news of my move to Quartz, for example, announced at a South Asian Journalists Association dinner in Washington, DC. The goal of work like his, and of the Maynard Institute more broadly, does make us feel less invisible.
The institute was named in memory of Bob Maynard, the African-American founder of the Oakland Tribune. Dori took over as president in 2000. Her obituary recounted that she kept up the fight for diverse newsrooms till the end, having a conversation yesterday morning on what else could be done: “New programs are empowering community members to voice the narrative of their own lives.”
Ironically, I read those words from a hotel room in Lagos, Nigeria. I’m here to speak at a conference and work on plans for Quartz’s expansion into Africa. Yesterday, to a crowd of tech entrepreneurs and journalists, I detailed our approach to coverage. Places like Nigeria are often presented as emerging, developing, up-and-coming. The reality is they are here. I talked about how interesting stories can serve a few audiences at once, preferably told from the inside out. That doesn’t mean only positive stories, but it might mean focusing more on what unites the global economy, the sameness versus the difference. The old model of foreign correspondence, of casting "otherness," doesn’t really work for a digital outlet like ours.
This is a mindset that Dori and other newsroom-diversity advocates spent decades pioneering. She wrote in August 2013, “The nation and its news media are going in opposite directions, and the public is paying the price. To tell the stories of communities of color, we're relying increasingly on people who may have little or no knowledge about them. No one would suggest that these journalists wake up with the goal of distorting the lives of communities of color, but sometimes you don't know what you don't know. A dwindling number of journalists and media managers of color means that fewer resources are available to help complete the picture.”
The good news is that digital journalism is forcing and allowing for more diverse models. Yes, it took mainstream media a few days to fly out to Ferguson, Missouri, this past August. But had the outrage (and images of Michael Brown’s body, left for hours) not been tweeted and retweeted, would it even have become the national story it did? Once, would we have seen it as too local?
Demographics, too, are on our side. How did the whitest Oscars in recent history force a national conversation about race and representation? Because my Facebook wall and Twitter feed (and probably yours) and columnists everywhere demanded it to be so. There are a lot more watchdogs now.
I didn’t talk to Dori about any of this when we last met. Dori died before the mission could be declared completed, but her death is forcing me to rethink progress. I was wrong in my depiction of newsroom diversity being in its worst state ever because I only used one metric to evaluate it: hires. Those stats indeed do harken the abysmal representation in the 1960s, when a Kerner Commission report concluded “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective." But I am heartened by the broadening definition of media, of the call for diversity that is not just trending but resulting in new voices, distinct coverage. In her last column posted on Jan. 26, Dori herself alludes to this grassroots potential:
“Now that people of color are the fastest growing demographic in the country and are overrepresented on influential social media sites such as Twitter, they have power. Use those social media skills to lift up the stories of average black men, such as those contributing to our society. Get to know members of your local media. Remind them to include black men in their reports about Father’s Day, Christmas and business matters. If you notice that crime coverage always focuses on men of color, tell your local news organization that you will be voting with your eyes. When you see coverage ignoring black men, point this out on Twitter and to representatives of your local media.”
Our numbers might be dwindling in newsrooms. But the eyes are everywhere. Forcing us and them to change, to include, to represent. We are here. Thank you, Dori, for being there for so many of us.
S. Mitra Kalita is the executive editor at large for Quartz, the Atlantic’s global economy site. She is an adjunct faculty member at Poynter and past president of the South Asian Journalists Association.