Online news organizations refuse to disclose diversity numbers, raising questions about staffs

The Huffington Post is one of several online organizations that refuse to disclose how many people of color work there.

But pictures tell the story.

For at least the last two years, Arianna Huffington’s pioneering, buzz-creating website has posted photos of its staff holiday party, and a casual glance shows few people of color.

That might explain the skepticism that greets declarations of commitments to diversity from HuffPost and others that won’t say exactly how diverse they are. They don’t seem to believe that the old Ronald Reagan line — “Trust but verify” — applies to them.

Asked to name the one or two staffers in last month’s photo who appeared to be African American, Mario Ruiz, spokesman for the operation, replied by e-mail, “sorry, cant identify folks for you.”

It’s 2011, and online is where they’re hiring. Will the new year be just like the old one?

In April, the American Society of News Editors completed its second attempt at measuring diversity at online news organizations, but the Huffington Post did not participate.

Neither did AOL, MinnPost.com, Salon.com, Talking Points Memo (TPM Media LLC), the Daily Beast or Yahoo.

Bloomberg and Politico also say that their policies are not to disclose such information, even though Politico’s editor-in-chief, John Harris, sits on ASNE’s board. So does Anthony Moor of Yahoo, another non-discloser.

Why the numbers matter

ASNE decided back in 1978 that head-counting was the best way to measure progress.

Richard Smyser, of the Oak Ridger in Oak Ridge, Tenn., chaired ASNE’s Minorities Committee. He recommended “at least an annual accounting by ASNE of minority employment, including not just total jobs but types of positions held.” ASNE’s board agreed, though not all of ASNE’s members were enthusiastic about being called to account.

Part of  the ASNE board’s justification was the history of the news business. In 1968, the Presidential Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, found, “The journalists profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training and promoting Negroes. …”

ASNE set a goal “to try to achieve the minority percentage in newsrooms equal to the minority proportion of the total population before the year 2000.” It missed that target date, and in 1998 set a new one: “parity by 2025 or sooner,” with three-year benchmarks.

Last year, ASNE added “online-only newspapers” to its annual accounting.

Why the numbers are hard to come by

But the mainly print-oriented group ran into a new-media culture with no history of having to deal with diversity. The online operations never faced community groups demanding to see the editor, or citizens publicly burning their product and harassing their reporters at meetings. As a result, they didn’t invest the effort in inclusion, and aren’t eager to broadcast that fact.

Many of the bigger operations aren’t even journalism organizations, but “content providers.”

Consider Yahoo, one of the most-visited news sites on the Web.

Last year, it introduced an apparently all-white team of editors and reporters for the newly renamed “the Upshot.” “The Upshot’s” team was monochromatic, though Yahoo’s vice president of news and information, Mark Walker, is African American – a Stanford Law School graduate with degrees in mechanical engineering.

His company provides an example of the lengths to which new media will go to resist accountability on diversity.

The Labor Department confirmed last year that Yahoo, Google and three other Silicon Valley companies felt so strongly about not disclosing their diversity information that they persuaded federal officials to block public disclosure — and that the Labor Department agreed that to be forthcoming would be revealing “trade secrets.”

The refusal came during an investigation of Silicon Valley diversity by the San Jose Mercury News.

Reporter Mike Swift wrote that in 2008, the paper had sought federal employment data for Silicon Valley’s 15 largest companies through the Freedom of Information Act. “Following an appeals process that stretched over nearly two years, five of those companies — Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials — convinced federal officials to block public disclosure,” Swift reported.

Swift nevertheless concluded that “Hispanics and blacks made up a smaller share of the valley’s computer workers in 2008 than they did in 2000, a Mercury News review of federal data shows, even as their share grew across the nation.”

Veterans weary of the fight for diversity in the traditional media have taken to saying, “Welcome to the new media — just like the old media.”

What we can learn from the information we have

The American Society of News Editors received only seven responses last year after saying it asked 28 online organizations to respond to its annual diversity survey. Some, such as Slate.com, protested that they never received the questionnaire, so ASNE conducted a second survey.

Questionnaires were sent to 58 sites, and 27, or 47 percent, responded.

Upon questioning, some of the sites were quite forthright in their resistance.

AOL Patch even issued a statement saying, “We do not focus on race or ethnicity in the hiring process,” before a negative reaction forced it to backtrack.

When it announced PatchU, “a new network of partnerships between local Patch publications and journalism schools,” and none was at a historically black college or university, an AOL spokesman said in response to an inquiry, ‘”PatchU will continue to expand and work with additional schools across the country, including black colleges and universities.”

Bloomberg, which provides many of its services via desktop, was not asked by ASNE for its figures. But in December it responded through a spokeswoman, “While it is our policy not to disclose private information about employees or our workforce, Bloomberg LP is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and we have dedicated diversity efforts across the company.”

When Pulitzer Prize winner Robin Givhan jumped ship at year’s end from the Washington Post to the merged Daily Beast and Newsweek, spokesman Andrew Kirk denied that Givhan would be the first black journalist at the Daily Beast, but would not say who the others were.

“As you know from earlier correspondence on this topic,” he said by e-mail, “we do not divulge information regarding our employees externally. If you spend some time on our site, I am sure you will get a sense for the diverse backgrounds of our staff.”

This reader did just that after the new year. The Daily Beast reflected on “The 20 Smartest People of 2010,” and African Americans were represented by rapper Kanye West.

In March of 2010, a crew from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” took cameras to an editorial meeting at Politico and showed what CNN contributor Roland S. Martin described as “all white folks at the table deciding the stories to cover. Not one African American or any other minority.”

Harris, the Politico co-founder and editor-in-chief, said the camera shots might have been misleading and that Politico is, in fact, committed to diversity.

“We are making strides that are gratifying to me, even as I have always considered this a long-term project,” he said. “We have racial diversity in most of the most important positions in our newsroom — on the White House team, on our photo team, on the copy and production desks, and on our congressional team.”

However, Harris told Journal-isms, “our corporate policies don’t allow me to release numerical data.”

How to assess diversity in the absence of data

Short of public shaming and attempts at persuasion, there is little that can be done to bring the world of new media up to speed on diversity.

Ronnie Agnew, executive editor of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and co-chair of ASNE’s Diversity Committee, tried reason.

No one should dispute that companies, such as AOL Patch, should seek to hire the very best talent available to ensure success of new initiatives,” Agnew told Journal-isms then. “But in saying it wants to hire the best, AOL Patch could not have constructed a better job description for recruiting and employing a significant number of journalists of color possessing skills the company says it wants.

“I go on record as saying that ASNE will be vigilant in pointing out to the nation’s media companies the importance of diversity as a business imperative. Our industry is falling short. America has too many newsrooms that lack journalists of color, passionate journalists who are passed over because of systems of meritocracy that work against them.

“It is an unfortunate truth that ASNE’s annual census and other independent studies have exposed the industry’s shortcomings. … As AOL Patch seeks to hire the best, which we support, the company should consider the makeup of America and consider that communities of color do not feel news organizations speak to them or care to understand issues of importance to them.”

ASNE president Milton Coleman made this argument in urging the new media world to participate in the ASNE survey:

“The American Society of News Editors believes that newsroom diversity is essential for the accuracy of coverage on whatever platform that news is presented. We cannot cover communities well if those communities are not represented among those who decide what news is, report and edit it, and present it to the public.  Newsroom diversity is therefore an industry imperative.

“Since 1978, we have conducted an annual census of daily newspaper newsrooms and have in recent years begun to invite online news organizations to participate in the survey. All the numbers reported to us by hundreds of newsrooms each year are voluntary disclosures, and the census we release to the public reports only the percentages of women and journalists of color in individual newsrooms, not numbers. Those are kept confidential. In this way, concerned journalism organizations can monitor the news industry’s progress in this very critical effort.”

Coleman will have another chance to make his pitch this year.

Portions of this article appeared in Journal-isms, published by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

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  • Anonymous

    Prince’s findings are very troubling given the demise of MSM .