ASNE diversity survey: meager participation but progress among those reporting

November 16, 2018

After a month’s delay in hopes of getting better response, the American Society of News Editors has released its annual diversity survey, which looks at the demographic makeup of America’s newspaper and digital-only newsrooms. There’s good news if you look at some modest diversity gains among participants, but bad as an indicator that many editors seem not to have the time to provide results or don’t care.

Extending the deadline helped a little with responses among 1,700 organizations surveyed, rising from 234 to 293. That still is a rate of only 17.2 percent, and far below the 661 organizations returning surveys last year. As the ASNE concedes in its press release, the number is too low for the results to have much statistical validity, especially if you assume those with better results and commitment self-selected to respond.

More digital-only organizations participated 2018 than 2017.  And their percentages of minorities and women were better than those from legacy newspapers who have been the core members of ASNE for the 40 years the survey has been conducted.

Meredith Clark, lead researcher and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, summed up the mildly encouraging results from the organizations that did participate this way in the release: “In these newsrooms, journalists from underrepresented groups are closing the gap, and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds make up a big part of those gains.”

People of color represented 22.6 percent of the full-time workforce in U.S. newsrooms among newspaper-digital organizations responding, compared to 16.5 percent in the 2017 survey. For the digital-only newsrooms, the figure was 25.6 percent compared to 24.3 percent the previous year.

(In a June survey, the Radio and Television News Directors Association found 24.8 percent of local TV newsroom staff jobs go to minorities.  A study from the Pew Research Center earlier this month put the percentage in the entire news industry at 23 percent, compared to 35 percent in all industries).

Women were a rising percentage of newsroom employees (now 41.7 percent) and managers (41.8 percent) at both kinds of organizations.

Karen Magnuson, executive editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and co-chair of the ASNE diversity committee, commented in the release, “ASNE remains as committed as ever to the cause of advancing diversity, but the disappointing response rate puts us in a tough spot.”

She amplified in a phone interview, “So many people have worked so long on this. I really hope that editors will reflect (over the next year) on what they can do.” She added that quitting on the survey after this year is not on the table. “I still have faith that it can be a tool for measuring progress.”

Why did the response decline so far so fast?

“Editors are the busiest people on the planet. They set it (the survey) aside … then it’s not a high enough priority to get back to. All editors are working their hearts out in this era of digital transformation,” she said, but if newsroom leaders quit on diversity efforts “you do so at your peril.”

One premise of the survey is that a newsroom without enough minority representation will be out of touch with the community it covers.

ASNE president Nancy Barnes had a similar take.

“No one is talking about discontinuing it, but we may need to collect (the data) differently” to make participation simpler and the response rate higher.

Barnes, moving this month from being the top editor at the Houston Chronicle to a similar position at National Public Radio, said that she had taken her own soundings, asking non-participating editors why they took a pass.

There were various excuses, she said. “Some told me that they have been barely able to hire the last five years and were … embarrassed to show their numbers.”

Clark’s work on the survey includes analyzing responses to some open-ended questions together with focus groups and interviews with minority journalists. Neither are ready yet, but Clark said that she has reached two preliminary conclusions:

“It really boils down to political will. Editors who want to make it happen will … but it takes an actual investment of time and energy.”

There may also be a generational divide, Clark said, with some old-school editors looking to improve their numbers “but not attuned to what it takes” to satisfy and retain younger minority journalists once they are on board.

Clark’s contract to oversee the survey, underwritten by the Democracy Fund, Google News Lab and the Knight Foundation, is for two years. By intention, she made few changes in how it was conducted this time around. “To reinvigorate it, we needed to run it the way it has been, to see the process” and then look at how it might be improved.

An element of the survey from its inception in 1978-79, is that participating organizations not only identify themselves but also publicly disclose their numbers as of year end.

That section for 2018 shows strong participation by most larger papers and some chains like Gannett.  A notable absence, for the first time in years, is The New York Times, which chose to make its own public report in a different format last year and will again this year.

Among larger papers reporting, these were some of the results:

  • Wall Street Journal: 19.2 percent minorities of 891 full-time newsroom professionals
  • Washington Post:  26.9 percent of 664
  • Los Angeles Times: 36.1 percent of 424.
  • USA Today: 19.5 percent of 344.
  • Chicago Tribune: 20.1 percent of 263.
  • Houston Chronicle: 29 percent of 259.
  • Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News: 21 percent of 238.
  • Boston Globe: 17.5 percent of 228.
  • Dallas Morning News: 26.8 percent of 209.
  • Tampa Bay Times: 21.1 percent of 147.

Among digital-only sites, some of the largest have not participated, including VICE, BuzzFeed and Huff Post. Those reporting included SB Nation (24 percent of 104 in the newsroom) Vox (32.4 percent of 103) and ProPublica (23.4 percent of 77).

Interested readers can look up figures for their own newsrooms or others, and discern some trends by state.  For instance, four of six newspapers reporting in Tennessee had 25 percent or higher minority staffing; none of the five in South Carolina was as high as 10 percent.

Until 2016, the survey included an estimate of total newsroom employment at newspapers. At a peak it was more than 55,000, but about 32,000 of those jobs were lost over the last decade, according to  by the Pew Research Center. Among the limited sample responding, newsroom staffing had fallen 500 over the course of 2017, ASNE said. And there have been many more layoffs this year.

Through the years, the survey and a push for greater diversity in newsrooms has been one of the signature activities of ASNE, along with First Amendment advocacy. The aspirational goal for many years (never reached) was to have a percentage minorities equal to that of the nation’s adult population, which the U.S. census puts at 38.7 percent.

The project has particular resonance to me and a few senior colleagues at Poynter because it was initiated during the ASNE presidency of Eugene Patterson, editor of the then St. Petersburg Times and later chairman of the Institute. In his speech at the 1978 ASNE convention in Washington, Patterson explained:

“The Minorities Committee has completed a national survey on the hiring and news coverage of minority groups by newspapers. More important, it will recommend to us a program of goals to guide us as a profession in meeting the needs of American minorities, not waiting to be prodded, but acting because it’s right.”

Despite the assurances of Magnuson, Barnes and Clark, the ASNE’s commitment to accountability for newsroom diversity is looking pretty wobbly unless 2019 brings a turnaround.