The Parity Project: Making a Difference, One Newspaper at a Time

February 17, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

I want to make a difference. Many journalists do. We view our words and images as tools for change.

We
persevere, in the face of many obstacles, because of our journalistic
desire. A desire to know what’s going on. A desire to gather
information. And a desire to tell stories.

But making a difference requires more than just desire.

It
also requires intentionality. It means more than wanting. It means
following through and making things happen. When it comes to making a
difference, intentionality recognizes that the emphasis needs to be as
much on the “making” as on the “difference.”   

The Parity Project, run by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists,
embodies that kind of intentionality. NAHJ started the project because
it saw a burgeoning growth in the Hispanic population in communities
around the country, but it noticed no similar growth in the number of
Hispanics in the newsroom. It sought to bridge that gap.

When it
comes to covering the Hispanic community, those involved in the Parity
Project believe that an increase in the number of Hispanics in the
newsroom can help make a difference in areas important to journalists:
knowledge, connections, sources, staff and coverage. The program helps
not only with hiring but also by building connections with the
community.

“The biggest thing we do is a town-hall meeting where
NAHJ and [a] news organization meet face-to-face to talk about
coverage,” said Parity Project Executive Director Kevin Olivas in a
phone interview. Launched in 2003, the project now includes 18
newspapers, four television stations and National Public Radio.

It all began with Juan Gonzalez’s desire to make a difference.

Back
in 2002, when he was elected president of NAHJ, Gonzalez ran on a
platform of change. At that time, he said, he knew of no significant
breakthrough that had occurred in the qualitative improvement of
minority coverage. The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ goal to
achieve some relative parity between newsrooms and society, he said,
had also not been reached.

“I ran on a platform that we had to move in new ways,” Gonzalez said when I called him recently at the New York Daily News, where he is a columnist. He went on to provide a historical overview of the project.

NAHJ
had already been working on a strategic plan when Gonzalez was elected.
He and fellow NAHJ officers decided to come up with a plan that would
increase the number of Latino or Hispanic journalists in American
newsrooms within a five-year period.

Gonzalez and Joe Torres,
now NAHJ’s deputy director of communications and media policy, began
research on Latino populations and on ASNE newsroom statistics. “We
wanted to find out where the highest growth in Latino population [was],
and [identify] those newspapers where hiring had not kept pace with the
population,” Gonzalez explained.

By December of 2002, NAHJ had
developed a list of the 57 worst-performing newsrooms at papers with a
circulation of 75,000 or more. Gonzalez attended an ASNE emergency
summit on diversity in 2003. He brought the NAHJ list and a
concept paper outlining the Parity Project.

Scripps and Lee
Enterprises were among the organizations represented at the meeting.
They signed on after seeing the NAHJ presentation. By January 2004, the
following newspapers joined: the Rocky Mountain News (Denver), the Ventura County Star (Ventura, Calif.), the Naples (Fla.) Daily News, the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News, the Times Record News (Wichita Falls, Texas), The San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times and the North County Times (outside San Diego). More followed. The Salt Lake Tribune recently became the twenty-third Parity Project partner.

Gonzalez
said he believes that sticking to three guiding principles enabled NAHJ
to succeed where many thought they would fail. Those principles
involved (1) doing systematic analysis and data research, (2) taking a
holistic approach aimed at the individual paper and community and (3)
setting goals everyone could measure their efforts against.

Rocky [Mountain News]
was an enormous success,” Gonzalez said, “because we weren’t there to
berate company for past problems, but to help them think about the
future.

“Our overriding goal is better journalism — not a
jobs program, or to hire less-qualified journalists,” he added. “And
because we knew the community, and we knew the industry, we were the
perfect bridge. We have a trust no one else does.”

Rocky Mountain News
publisher, editor and president John Temple said in a recent phone
interview that he saw the relationship as a cooperative one.  

“We
felt comfortable,” Temple said. “We didn’t have to agree on everything.
But we would work together. This is a non-adversarial partnership. They
came in not criticizing the Rocky, but working with the Rocky.”

What he wanted, Temple stressed, was to improve the accuracy of the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage of its rapidly growing Hispanic community and to diversify his staff.

As
a result of the Parity Project, the newspaper has a Hispanic advisory
committee and helps high school journalism programs with Hispanic
students. It also tries to identify Latino students who show an
interest in journalism and help them go to college and puruse a career
in journalism.

It has also paid off in other ways, with better
coverage and more bilingual reporters. Two projects made possible by
that improvement included a profile of a high school where Hispanics make up 87 percent of the student body and a report on the education gap between Anglos and Hispanic students.

“We
were able to do [those projects] at a more sophisticated level,” Temple
said. “…Now we have a better feel and connection to [our Hispanic
community]. And Hispanic leaders have a feeling the paper is listening.”

Janet Weaver, executive editor and vice president of The Tampa Tribune, favored joining the Parity Project. Tampa has a long history with Latinos, she said. But the Tribune has not always reflected that history, or the current influx of Latinos within its community, she said.

“I
saw it as blend of old and new,” Weaver said during a phone interview.
“This remains a very white, Anglo newsroom … This helps us build more
awareness for coverage and hiring.”

The Parity Project’s job bank resulted in the Tribune‘s hiring of USA Today baseball editor Cesar Brioso. “It’s a terrific idea,” Brioso said during a phone call. He is now the Tribune‘s team leader for baseball, college sports and auto racing.

“Employers
don’t know who the best Latino journalists are. What struck me is how
relatively few Latino reporters are sports writers. Yet many baseball
players are Latino. This is another way of getting the names of Latino
candidates to a wider range of employers.”

Another Parity Project hire involved Cristina De Leon-Menjivar. Parity Project director Olivas told her about an opening at The Napa Valley Register
in Napa, Calif. She became the first Latina hired by the paper. Now it
has three.  She’s a bilingual education reporter in a school
district where almost 50 percent of the students have parents who are a
mix of legal residents and undocumented workers, most of them from
Mexico. 

“The previous reporter couldn’t tap into half
the community,” De Leon-Menjivar said when I called her. “The editor
was excited because he wanted the paper to represent everybody, not
just Anglos.”

De Leon-Menjivar, a recent university graduate,
said she doesn’t believe she could have broken into journalism without
the Parity Project. “Now, I’m doing meaningful work,” she said.

She’s making a difference.

CLARIFICATION AND CORRECTION: An earlier version of
this article reported that almost 50 percent of the students in a Napa,
Calif. school district are Mexicans. After we received a question from
a reader, further checking indicated that it would be more accurate to
report that almost 50 percent of the students have parents who are a
mix of legal residents and undocumented workers, most of them from
Mexico. An earlier version of this article also reported that
Gonzalez and Torres both attended the ASNE summit on diversity, but
Torres did not attend.