Who would have thought that 150 newsrooms and 43 AP bureaus would all commit to a week of journalistic soul-searching in the cause of diversity?
It might have seemed unrealistic when this bold idea emerged at a December 1998 diversity roundtable in San Antonio. But by May of the next year, “Time-Out for Diversity” was underway, engaging more than 2,000 journalists in newsroom and community discussions that coupled two issues often spoken of separately. Diversity. Journalism.
“Time-Out” was important because it focused newsrooms on the “why” in our pursuit of diversity. Its goal was to deepen the understanding in our newsrooms that diversity is about more than the percentages of journalists of color. It’s about the relevance and credibility of our journalism.
To appreciate the emergence and the role of the “Time-Out”, it’s important to understand the context surrounding diversity at the time.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors had led the charge to track minority numbers in newsrooms through an annual census that began in 1978. Over the years, publishers, journalists of color, and others in the news business worked to increase awareness and chart action to achieve the goals. The quest for diversity grew into one of the most collaborative efforts in our industry.
But 1998 was tense. The 20-year quest for parity in the number of journalists of color in newsrooms had failed. We weren’t even close. Those who had worked hard on the issue were frustrated and disappointed and those emotions permeated ASNE and its spring convention, where the goal to reach parity was extended well into the 21st century. Those emotions were still high over the summer when African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American journalists gathered for their conventions.
For journalists of color there were doubts that newsrooms would translate goals into reality. For leaders there were concerns that we hadn’t unlocked actions that would make a difference. For everyone there was the possibility that diversity fatigue would drain commitment.
The San Antonio roundtable took place amid this turmoil. It was one of three around the country that attracted news leaders, journalists of color, educators and foundations. But by December, disappointment had turned to tough, targeted questions. What was it going to take to not give up, to push forward even more determinedly? What were we missing that would move us toward the goal?
The roundtable participants were challenged to dig deeper, to think harder and to look for bold, different ideas.
I attended the roundtable held in San Antonio. I was executive editor of the Arizona Republic and president of Associated Press Managing Editors. I hadcommitted APME to partner with ASNE on the diversity effort. The two organizations of editors who run newsrooms had to assume even greater responsibility – together – to help find new and productive paths to diverse newsrooms and relevant journalism.
David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and the APME diversity chair, was also there. Yarnold deserves much credit for pulling everyone together to create the national “Time-Out for Diversity and Accuracy”.
To gauge how journalists saw diversity and journalism, the newsrooms that participated were asked to focus on this premise:
“We want to accurately reflect life in our communities. If our newspapers are not inclusive enough to regularly portray the diversity of those communities, then we are presenting a fundamentally inaccurate report. That lack of accuracy undermines our journalist credibility”
Of the 96 newsrooms that reported back, 92 agreed with the premise.
That was a surprisingly high number in agreement, given the debate leading into the ‘Time-Out” about whether “inaccuracy” was too strong. Would it cut off discussion rather than inspire it?
The outcome demonstrated a depth of recognition that diversity is about more than numbers. It is about our journalism and truly integrated coverage that helps our communities see themselves accurately depicted in their newspapers.
“Time-Out” succeeded and moved forward because of partnerships among key players, including:
• ASNE’s Diversity Chair in 1999, Wanda Lloyd, who was then a managing editor at the Greenville, S.C., News, partnered with Yarnold in the planning and execution.
• The presidents of NAHJ, NABJ, AAJA and NAJA and UNITY: Journalists of Color — where those four organizations intersect — lent their support in many ways.
• The Freedom Forum, a consistent force in the diversity quest, funded packets about “Time-Out” that were sent to the top editor at every newspaper in the country.
• And The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education provided content audit materials, one of its signature programs for helping newspapers understand their communities.
That kind of rallying was not just for the “Time-Out”. There were other bold and well-targeted ideas that emerged from those roundtables – programs to help increase the number of incoming journalists and to retain those who are in our newsrooms. (See accompanying sidebar.)
These new or expanding programs and the “Time-Out” offer newsrooms multiple ways to bring diversity and journalism together. You can start next week with whatever conversation is right for your newsroom. You’ll be in good company — as newsrooms take “Time-Out for Diversity”.