What Does the Future of Diversity Look Like?

Whither goes diversity in the age of layoffs?

Even in this season of conventions featuring journalists of color, the question seems overshadowed by the rising ranks of the unemployed. People who have spent decades advocating for justice, fairness and accuracy in U.S. newsrooms are preoccupied with cutting staffs, rethinking coverage, or knitting their own parachutes.

And in the enterprising universe of dotcoms dotting the landscape of journalism's uncertain future, the spirit of diversity is taking a beating. So we're left to ponder a different question with new urgency: What does diversity look like going forward?

Given what's happened to mainstream journalism, I know this much: the answer has to be different than it used to be. In more optimistic days, we'd focus our attention on traditional newsrooms and push for greater hiring and broader coverage. Neither is likely to happen in the immediate future, if ever because the losses in newsrooms are the result of transient economic volatility and permanent, seismic shifts in how -- and how much -- people consume news.

So not only is it not enough -- and it never was -- to recruit at minority job fairs or add extra slots in the internship pool to bring more white women and people of color into the fold, there's no money to do it anyway. It's hard to add when you're subtracting.

The newspaper industry has shed roughly 8,300 jobs in the past two years, according to the latest survey of the American Society of News Editors. That puts newspapers on pace to close out the decade with as many as 14,000 jobs lost. A census of top managers in local television conducted by the National Association of Black Journalists found 65 people of color among 548 employed by some of the top broadcast organizations.

And now, on top of the mountainous task of getting journalists in the mainstream to grasp the complexities of differences that divide, obscure and distort, there's even more work. Like the country itself, drawn into backbiting and backstabbing by an economic crisis, newsrooms are seeing the resurrection of barely dormant animosities.

In the management-bashing fray after spring layoffs at The Miami Herald, readers of the Daily Pulp blog saw a hint of those tensions when former South Florida Sun-Sentinel writing coach John deGroot, playing to old fears of Cuban favoritism in the region, implied that a reporter wasn't safe from the ax because he "wasn't born in Havana." He later apologized.

The leadership at ASNE crafted a proposal this spring to run regional workshops to help editors with some of those issues over the next year:

  • Hiring and retaining people of color in budget-cutting times
  • Wrestling with rising tension in the newsroom when diversity seems to threaten the jobs of white men
  • Harnessing the strength of the community to make up for inadequate diversity in the newsroom and stories
  • Staying true to your values in newsrooms where labor unions follow strict seniority guidelines that easily wipe out diversity achieved in more recent years

That aspiration stands in meaningful contrast to the earlier cancellation of ASNE's 2009 convention and the subsequent announcement that the organization would cut its Diversity Director position.

No one, thus far, will fund the idea.

It's hard to see hope in the emerging sphere of journalism upstarts, which look technologically like journalism's future but demographically like the best-forgotten past. I scroll the leadership and reporting staffs of Politico, Pro Publica, the Huffington Post and just about any of the biggest staffs of the online independents and find few people of color and only a few more white women.

It took decades of heroic work by diversity's advocates to get ASNE and the Radio & Television News Directors Association to care enough to count the number of ethnic and racial minorities and white women who were getting jobs and getting promoted. Those numbers today are disheartening. Are we to start all over again with the dotcoms?

So another question: Without the leverage of organized pressure brought to bear on an industry, how do diversity's advocates push this new class of independent news organizations to live by the values espoused, if never fully realized, by the old?

Some will say that the answer lies in ethnic media, a corner of the old industry that has actually grown in recent years. Stop waiting for the others to get it right, I hear. Let's create media of our own.

Is that the answer?

At the Asian American Journalists Association convention in Boston this week, the last of the four gatherings of journalists of color, a group of people will gather to figure out what the right questions are and what answers they might have. I will moderate the discussion. Among them will be leaders from UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., from leading news organizations and associations. Among them are people who can claim credit for getting us to the modest gains in hiring and coverage now threatened by buyouts, layoffs, and the reporting holes they leave behind.

What they need is a new set of ideas for a problem that is very old and morphing by the hour. What they need is a way forward. What do you suggest we do?

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.

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