For most of us, newsroom diversity is a fine idea, the fruit of a process few see the same way and many would rather not talk about. It works well for a lot of folks in the abstract, this notion of a multicultural mesh of thought and experience. But things get especially uncomfortable during times like these, when once-in-a-career jobs come open or the industry’s relentless retraction hits the headlines.
Here, where rubber and road meet, you get down to real people, real openings, real layoffs, real choices. Down here, you learn a lot about how deeply folks are thinking about these matters. Or not.
In recent months, the Dallas Morning News has laid off about 60 people. Newsday cut upwards of 50 newsroom jobs through buyouts. The Hartford Courant eliminated seven jobs as the year neared an end. One of the people cut helped the newspaper recruit racial and ethnic minorities. There were cuts at ABC News, at Hearst newspapers in Houston and San Francisco; at Tribune Co. properties across the country.
The losses weren’t total. Many people went to other news organizations. There are no reliable numbers to tell how many people of color were among those laid off or bought out, but any employment hit taken by journalists of color is significant, given their relatively small population in the industry.
Thus, alarm bells have sounded in organizations that advocate for journalists of color. After the October cuts in Dallas, Joseph Torres, deputy director of communications and media policy at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, called upon the industry to beware it doesn’t “reverse the modest gains being made in the push for newspapers to better reflect the communities they serve.”
At the National Association of Black Journalists, leaders urged decision-makers to remember that “Even during the toughest times, increasing and maintaining diversity must be paramount.”
While all that was going on, The Washington Post named a new managing editor, NBC Nightly News replaced Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather announced his upcoming retirement at CBS, opening a job for another network anchor. The first two big-time openings were filled by white men, and there’s strong reason to believe CBS will follow suit.
In times like these, the pressure to nurture and advance racial and ethnic diversity in journalism collides head-on with corporate pressures to cut budgets.
“…Doing the hard work before the openings and cutbacks: Recruit a larger pool of journalists. Build a diverse staff…” The pressures would be less crippling if newsrooms could address them with significant diversity already reflected in their ranks. Instead, many organizations are struggling with a perpetually inadequate career ladder that some call a meritocracy – one that functions badly even in good times. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to prescribe a painless way to emerge from such conflicts in the current environment.
As distressing as it is to witness the loss of black, Asian, Native American, and Latino journalists – especially when you recognize the names – it’s harder still to single out the white journalists whose jobs should be sacrificed instead. As tough as it is to see a black man, Gene Robinson, lose out in the running for The Washington Post’s No. 2 newsroom job, it’s tougher to declare that Phil Bennett should be eliminated from consideration because he’s another in a long string of white men. Here, diversity ideal meets workplace reality. Rubber, meet road.
Not everyone sees things in such black and white terms, and hardly anything is. When conversations get past the diversity ideal, down in the uncomfortable details of changing the culture and complexion of the news and news organizations, the road gets wide and winding. Listen in on a couple of listservs set up for journalists dedicated to talking about race matters:
- “If we (those in the minority category in a newsroom) were treated with more respect, and our concerns/interests given more credence on a regular basis, perhaps there would not be the threat of a mass defection when “the one black editor” is laid off. Perhaps we would feel more invested in the organization we’ve been working for.”
– Alysia Tate, The Chicago Reporter
- “My concern is not whether journalists of color will lose their jobs, but whether they will do so disproportionately. For a hyperbolic example, if a news organization decides to get serious about diversity and hires 30 minorities in two years … then has to lay people off on a “last hired/first fired” model, then those new hires will be most vulnerable.”
– Rafael Olmeda, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
- “Seems to me (that) valuing a diversity of viewpoints means being willing to surround yourself with people from different points of view. How about if we judge a hiring decision by that standard? Did the executive seek out someone outside his or her peer group? This does not help you with firing, but it could guide hiring.”
– Robert Smith, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
- “My answer is management should examine its mission statement. If the mission is to gather and deliver news from and to all communities, then laying off certain journalists could harm that mission. If the newspaper wrote a lot about science, it would protect its science writer from layoffs. If a newspaper wrote about classical music, it would protect its concert-pianist-turned-writer staff member. If a newspaper was finding it difficult to penetrate minority communities and to craft nuanced, compelling stories from within them – and almost all media outlets struggle there – it might consider the merits of developing and retaining minority staffers to help serve as a link to minority communities.”
– Martin Evans, Newsday
Opinions may range, but two things are irrefutable: Racial and ethnic minorities, once actively excluded from newsrooms, make up less than 13 percent of print journalism’s workforce and just more than 21 percent in broadcast. And when you look at top leadership of newspapers and television stations, it gets much, much worse.
Slash away with layoffs and buyouts and those numbers drop. Factor in the normal comings and goings of employment, throw in a little lingering suspicion that prejudice still informs decision-making in news organizations, and you end up with the unsettled air we’re now breathing.
If the industry’s intention is to correct for the injustices that made diversity efforts necessary; if it’s to live up to its promise of delivering a fuller report to the public by tapping into under-covered communities; if it believes that there’s some bottom-line value to delivering journalism to people once ignored by the media, then leaders have to stand up and make diversity count.
That means doing the hard work before the openings and cutbacks: Recruit a larger pool of journalists. Build a diverse staff. Improve the reporting and writing about the whole community you’re covering. Teach the entire staff how to navigate matters of diversity in craft and management. Give people of color assignments that cause careers to soar, then add the value of that diversity to the mix of merits when the so-called meritocracy is called upon to commend the next big promotion or guide the next round of layoffs.
The secret to avoiding the kind of paralyzing paradox that seems to pit one vision of fairness against the other in times like these is to work like hell to avoid getting to this intersection where values collide and diversity ends up as road kill. Read more