January 9, 2018

The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s college newspaper and one of the oldest dailies in the country, is experiencing a bit of a racial reckoning. The last article my co-columnist and I wrote in the opinion section comes with an editor’s note: “The Crimson is not, and has never been, a perfect institution.”

The piece outlines the ways we, two Latinx students on substantial financial aid, and other students of color who came before us have struggled in our own newsroom because of racial micro-aggressions, push-back on pitches and an environment that siphons writers of color out of the organization.

In a letter to the editor, which she withdrew for a variety of reasons, one of the co-chairs of our internal Diversity and Inclusivity Committee criticized the editor’s note and laid out the way the organization’s leaders have dragged their feet on issues of diversity. The steps taken to make The Crimson a more welcoming place for editors of color, she writes, were “originally met with hesitation or disapproval.”
One of our black editors is currently reworking an op-ed piece that expresses the sense of powerlessness that she felt as she participated in the process to select next year’s leadership. In 145 years, The Crimson has had only two black presidents. Neither of them were female. And though this year’s applicant pool for president included a black woman for the first time in our organization’s history, she was not chosen. The editor is writing and reporting about how unfair the whole process felt.

A few weeks ago, one of our most dedicated news reporters, and a black man, took to Twitter to ask for advice from professional journalists of color. “I so desperately want to pursue a career in journalism,” he writes, “but the severe lack of diverse newsrooms — and that trauma that comes of being a POC in a predominantly white media organization — is a big turnoff. Any POC journos have advice for navigating this?”

Many editors from underrepresented backgrounds have a complicated relationship with The Crimson. The organization and its institutional weight empowers us to do important work that polishes our skill sets. Simultaneously, we experience undue stress because of who we are, where we come from, and the way the world views us.

When you throw class into the mix, the sense of discomfort increases. Journalists of color may be passed up because their parents couldn’t afford a New York Times subscription. Newspapers are not a cultural staple of all households, but editors coming from these homes may be passed up for opportunities when a learning curve is interpreted as a lack of dedication or ability.

These are the problems that plague The Crimson, and their stakes span further than simply improving experiences of students of color like myself.

The Crimson, like many well-respected college newspapers, is a critical pipeline for young journalists seeking to break into the industry. The Crimson’s alumni include 25 Pulitzer Prize winners and scores of well-known media hotshots, including Jeff Zucker, David Fahrenthold and Nicholas Kristof. Crimson alums work at the New York Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO, NPR, and dozens of other well-respected outlets.

When we, at The Crimson, fail to account for the experiences of students of color, we contribute to a national crisis. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune all have staffs that are proportionately more white than the cities in which they are based. Nationally, newsrooms are still overwhelming white, with black reporters accounting for only seven percent of the staff at The New York Times, five percent at the Wall Street Journal, and 6 percent at the Boston Globe. Even more troubling, black employees represented a higher percentage of these newsrooms in 2001.

There’s little hope for equity in professional newsrooms if college newspapers don’t seriously address the way race, class and gender affect the experiences of their staffers. It’s easy to point to successful alumni who’ve ridden the pipeline to prestigious bylines. It is much harder to acknowledge that, even with its success, the pipeline has leaks that may require a complete overhaul instead of half-hearted repairs.

The Crimson has to be held responsible to ensure that our journalists of color are given support, fruitful beat assignments, a fair shot at leadership positions, internships and the resources to improve their skills. But, on top of that, if the journalism industry is serious about its commitment to diverse newsrooms that produce fair and representative coverage, it must turn its attention to college papers.

Professional journalists should regularly do what they can to offer opportunities to talented editors of color working out of the newsrooms that nursed their skills. News organizations have to invest in internship opportunities specifically designed to empower underrepresented minorities. This work needs to be done as early as possible, with tailored outreach efforts that can instill hope before the problems within their own paper can discourage journalists of color.

Professional newsrooms need to turn to college newspapers as an overlooked source of their own racial inequity. National disparities are sustained by much more than a simple pipeline problem, but the pool of talented journalists of color brimming with potential will drastically shrink if we don’t strive for equity in college newsrooms. We must identify the paths that funnel people into the industry, and then acknowledge its flaws. The Crimson, like most news organizations, is not a perfect institution, but scrutiny and care might mend its imperfections.

Clarification: This story has been edited to reflect the current status of an op-ed piece submitted for publication to The Crimson by a black editor.

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