Milton Coleman: Diversity Isn’t a Social Experiment; It’s an Industry Imperative

“The times are changing, but the mission has not.”

That’s what Milton Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post, has to say to young journalists of color in today’s rapidly-evolving news media world.

Coleman’s advice comes from his own experiences, from four decades of fighting on the front lines for diversity in newsrooms and in content, from never forgetting the mission.

He started his career in his hometown at The Milwaukee Courier, a weekly serving the African American community. After a few more jobs, he joined the Post as a reporter in 1976. He was assistant managing editor/metro news before being named senior editor.

Currently, he is vice president of the American Society of News Editors and treasurer of the Inter American Press association.

Coleman recently answered my questions via e-mail about why diversity is important to newsrooms in terms of staff and coverage. Here is our edited exchange.

Gregory Favre: Given your background as a long-time champion for diversity in the news business, do you think it will be possible to maintain diverse newsrooms in these days of cost-cutting and enormous changes, especially at newspapers? If so, what needs to be done?

Milton Coleman: It is possible and it is imperative that newsrooms retain as much as they can of the diversity we have built over the years. We are losing many journalists of color because of downsizing brought on by the new financial realities in our industry and the economic realities in our country.

We also continue to lose journalists of color for the same reasons that fueled a thinning of their ranks earlier, namely the feeling that there are glass ceilings in our newsrooms and that our organizations are less committed to the kind of journalism that brought many minority journalists into this business. 

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Some newsrooms have seen the current situation as an opportunity to expand diversity rather than merely a chore to preserve it.

UNITY: Journalists of Color
has called for a diversity summit during the Asian American Journalists Association convention in August to address these very issues, and I will be a member of a delegation representing the American Society of News Editors at this summit.

We also must not lose sight of the fact that the progress we have made to date is necessary and laudable, yet still insufficient. Most newsrooms are far from credible reflections of the communities they would serve, and now more than ever, we need more diversity at the top.

If we can’t retain the gains in diversity that have been made over the past quarter of a century, does that mean our mainstream news organizations will no longer truly reflect the rapidly growing demographic changes in this country?

Coleman: Could be. Mainstream news organizations are even more at risk now of losing communities of color than they were a short while ago. The same factors that frustrated journalists of color inside the newsrooms and have prompted them to leave the business are reflected in their respective communities. Many communities of color are disproportionately non-readers of mainstream newspapers.

The people in these communities don’t see themselves reflected in our output. The rise of digital media is lowering the barriers of entry into the news and information business and creating greater opportunities for successful niche operations. Mainstream news organizations will be increasingly challenged to capture the largest possible audience share in an increasingly diverse United States.

Given the push for immediacy in the media today, how do we deal with ethical and harmful issues, such as hateful language?

Coleman: Online media, I believe, will develop its own standards, influenced by the modulation of more and more traditional news practitioners with their well-reasoned standards and ethics regarding this evolving media. Just as we have developed certain standards of practice in the old ways, we will develop similar ones in the new modes. The past can guide us, but in some ways we will need to make it up as we go along.

In California alone, there are now about 1,000 minority media outlets. This reflects a trend that is happening across the country. What do you think this means for the future?

Coleman: As I said earlier, mainline news organizations of today will be increasingly challenged in their desire to have the same status in the future. Diversity is not a social experiment; it is an industry imperative.

Indeed, it may be that mainstream publications will give way to mainstream news organizations, in which there is not so much a flagship publication, but rather a flagship organization in which the whole is the sum of its parts — a collection of niche operations that collectively serve a large and diverse audience through multiple platforms.

But inherent in that is the likelihood that more smaller operations will succeed and flourish, as apparently is the case in California, and that can be as good for minority and other consumers as it is threatening for legacy providers.

Any advice for young journalists of color?

Coleman: This should be an exciting time for journalists of all colors. The toolbox of communications technology at our disposal is greater than ever before and there are great stories to be told.

As we old school folks work to find ways to preserve public interest, accountability and investigative journalism, our young ones need to be prepared to see journalism as probably a less lucrative profession in the short run but still an essential part of our democracy and a fun gig to have. The fundamental nature of the news business is still the same: get the story, get it right, get it first.

Young journalists of color need to throw themselves into their news time as we old heads did into ours, and press to be the best in the business and as often as possible strong representatives of their communities. The times are changing, but the mission has not.

You will take over as president of ASNE next year in what certainly will still be a year of chaos in the news industry. What do you see ahead for ASNE and for the newspaper industry?

Coleman: What has been the newspaper industry is evolving into the news industry. That is a major reason why the American Society of Newspaper Editors is now the American Society of News Editors.

ASNE can no longer be limited to the leaders of ink-on-paper dailies, but instead must be inclusive of a broader array of news organizations and professional newsroom leaders, and we have changed our by-laws to address that.

Yet we will maintain our commitment to lead the fight for freedom of information and for increased diversity in our industry, as these are among our core values. As an organization, we will be more oriented toward member service and less elitist.

You recently changed jobs at The Washington Post. What is the emphasis and direction of your new position?

Coleman: As senior editor, I will remain in the newsroom and continue to be involved in various operations. I will continue to be the liaison between the Post‘s newsroom and that of El Tiempo Latino, which the Post purchased five years ago and was again last year recognized as the best Spanish-language weekly in the nation by the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

Right now, my principal Post newsroom responsibility is to overhaul our ethics and standards, as well as our corrections guidelines and practices, including how we deal with these issues in a multimedia world. I am very excited about that challenge.

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