September 1, 2020

A small group of staff from The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune sat spaced apart in Boom Island Park. It was about two months after George Floyd’s killing, and the Tribune’s journalists of color were exhausted from daily protest coverage, a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people and a racial reckoning within their own industry.

Three staff members of color had collected thoughts from their colleagues and called a meeting with the mostly white management team. Rene Sanchez, editor and senior vice president, agreed to meet them at the park so they could look each other in the eye. “So much can be lost in the boxes of a laptop screen.”

Reporters pulled down their masks to voice their frustrations. They spoke frankly about how only 14% of hires in 2019 were people of color, about how often journalists of color are sidelined into night shifts, about how few are promoted into leadership positions.

“We said things in a very stark and blunt manner that we had not been able to say before,” said Tom Horgen, a digital editor who focuses on content strategy. “That was very cathartic and empowering.”

After two hours of conversation, everyone headed to their cars. Before driving home to digest all his employees had said, Sanchez was stopped by a small piece of paper sticking out from his windshield wiper.

“Several of us got parking tickets, but it was worth it,” Sanchez later explained. “We had to talk for a while. We had to talk deeply. Someone like me had to shut up and have humility, and make sure that (journalists of color) had the comfort to let rip. Otherwise you’re dancing around the issue.”

The issue at hand is twofold: diversity in newsroom culture and diversity in news coverage. How can newsrooms hire and retain journalists of color? And how can reporters, especially white reporters, connect with and serve communities of color? No newsroom has figured out how to sustainably address these questions, but progress is slowly being made at some local news outlets like The Star Tribune.

After a couple more talks with management and a couple more parking tickets, journalists of color at The Star Tribune released a document of diversity solutions. Their main goal is to level the playing field through transparency in hiring and retention, said photo editor Kyndell Harkness, the primary organizer of the document.

Last Tuesday, management officially responded with an action plan and agreed to many of their proposed solutions — Horgen also called them demands — promising to hire an assistant managing editor focused on diversity/community, a journalist of color as a contributing columnist, and another full-time reporter dedicated to covering race and equity in Minnesota. Editors will also conduct department-by-department assessments of coverage and sourcing and implement unconscious bias training.

Harkness and Horgen said diversity work in newsrooms has felt cyclical. In 1978, affirmative action initiatives sparked the American Society of News Editors’ promise of parity by 2000; a promise that was then pushed back to 2025. More recently, from 2007 to 2015, the number of nonwhite journalists in U.S. newsrooms fell from 7,400 to 4,200. The last time numbers were at that level was in 1989.

Yet Harkness is cautiously optimistic about 2020 and feels she has allies across races in the newsroom. One white reporter asked colleagues to join a book group, to do the personal work of understanding and combating racism in the workplace. Another, Randy Furst, a veteran who has been at the paper for most of his 45-year career, was outspoken in his support of the solutions document.

“It was just lovely to see people respond like, ‘thank you for doing this,’” Harkness said. “Because this is not just for the people of color in the room. This is for everybody. When we help the least of us, we help all of us.”

Support and allyship are necessary for lasting change, she added.

“We have to make this change bulletproof. It has to be structural and in the fabric of the walls in the room. It can’t be pushed away, even when the newsroom’s broke,” Harkness said.

“If there isn’t a deep strategy around recruitment, retention and paths to leadership, the gravity of white centering takes hold,” said Horgen, who’s more hesitant about the promise of change.

The San Antonio Express-News building (Philip Lange/Shutterstock)

One thousand miles south of Minneapolis, the San Antonio Express-News has begun to make structural changes by hiring columnists of color.

“Columnists of color are embedded all around the newsroom with very different perspectives and very different backgrounds, and even veteran voices,” said Francisco Vara-Orta, a San Antonio native and former Express-News employee. He’s now a training director at Investigative Reporters and Editors.

“Their photos (in the paper) matter. Seeing a brown or Black face, seeing a woman’s face, seeing someone that looks like you from your own community is important.”

Elaine Ayala is one of those columnists. She covers San Antonio and Bexar County, focusing on communities of color, specifically Latino politics and migration.

Ayala has an old school Rolodex filled with contacts from her 24 years at the Express-News. She happily shares her connections with her colleagues, providing them with contacts of color and promoting greater diversity in sources and stories in the paper.

Though the Express-News has never reached parity, historically, it has been more diverse than its counterparts, Ayala said. In 2019, the paper’s staff was 28% Hispanic. San Antonio, a city that is often called the most Mexican city in the U.S., is 63% Hispanic. Last December, the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists sent an open letter decrying these statistics to the paper’s owner, Hearst. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists also sent out a national message supporting that letter.

Despite the statistics, Ayala, much like Harkness, is optimistic about journalism’s current racial reckoning.

“In many ways, the Express-News has tried to further the cause of diversity, because the people in charge were interested in it,” she said. “But being interested in diversity is not the same as being committed to diversity and being committed to diversity is not the same as actually creating diversity in the newsroom.”

Much of the labor of diversity work falls on journalists of color, like those at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who have to advocate for themselves and their communities. To alleviate this added burden and create tangible change, Ayala said that managers need to tie their roles to diversity work. She suggested that bonuses and salaries should be assessed, at least in part, on diversity numbers and outreach efforts.

“You don’t get results if they’re just nice goals that are on your list. And I say that about all the executives in the country. At the end of the year, what do you have to show for all of your good intentions?”

Ayala is impressed by Marc Duvoisin, editor-in-chief of the Express-News, who has moved several people of color into columnist positions.

“My very first mentor was a white male who just took an interest in me and made it his business to keep up with my success,” she said. “So it’s very doable (to be a manager who supports diversity work), but you have to get out of and be willing to see beyond your comfort zone.”

Back in Minneapolis, Sanchez, the editor and senior vice president, is under no illusions that his newsroom’s decisions will have an instant impact, but he’s acting with urgency. He said he felt out of his comfort zone during the chats in the park, and fully concedes that there’s a lot of work left to do.

“People are just starting all of this work and I don’t think anybody gets it right right now,” Harkness said. “It’s going to take nationwide collaboration to see what the best practices are and see what works and what doesn’t, so we can so we can make it long lasting.”

Vara-Orta wants newsrooms to learn from one another, but expects to be dealing with issues of diversity in the media until he retires. Cathartic conversations for journalists of color won’t bring about concrete change, he said; only accountability will.

“(As reporters), our job is to hold institutions to account, but we can’t even do it within our own home — our newsrooms. That’s absolutely demoralizing. And that should be enraging to people that really care about justice,” he said. “We can call the federal government out, but it’s horrible to look at the mirror and wonder where you’ve been complicit.”

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at news@poynter.org.

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