Newsroom Diversity: A Casualty of Journalism's Financial Crisis

New numbers from the American Society of News Editors show that the progress of women and minorities in media has halted.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) recently released its annual study of newsroom diversity. The results only confirmed what many who have lived through the industry's deep recession have already experienced: a steady decline in minority journalists and stagnation in prior progress. Despite claims by news organizations that they value and promote diversity, the numbers in this year's study show 90 percent of newsroom supervisors from participating news organizations were white.

At a time when non-whites make up roughly 37 percent of the U.S. population, the percentage of minorities in the newsroom has fallen to 12.37 percent from its 13.73 percent high in 2006. According to last year's 2012 ASNE study, overall newsroom employment at daily newspapers dropped 2.4 percent in 2011, but the picture looked much worse -- down 5.7 percent -- for minorities.*

This means that fewer minorities are getting the opportunity to work in news, and news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and -- especially in cases where language ability is crucial -- even to report on minority populations in their communities.

Why have minorities been disproportionately hit by the state of the media industry? Two dozen industry leaders I talked to in recent months point to a series of mostly cost-saving decisions at papers across the country that had unintended consequences.

One piece of this puzzle is layoff policies and union contracts that often rewarded seniority and pushed the most recent hires to leave first. Many journalists of color have the least protected jobs because they're the least senior employees, says Doris Truong, a Washington Post editor and acting president of Unity, an umbrella group of minority journalist organizations.

asne1.pngAt the same time, minorities were disproportionately likely to take buyouts offered as incentives to trim newspaper payrolls, notes Keith Woods, vice president for diversity in news and operations at NPR and former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute. "When our industry looks as it has over the last 10 years, like it might not survive, people leave -- and the most vulnerable people are the ones most inclined to get out because they've got families to support, bills to pay," he says.

At papers like The Washington Post, which has had five rounds of buyouts since 2003, "You could see the writing on the wall: you take the buyout today, or face the layoff tomorrow," Woods says.

Any attempts that might otherwise be made to remedy the problem have taken a backseat to economic concerns. Newspaper advertising revenues are less than half of what they were in 2006, and papers once accustomed to healthy profit margins struggle to stay afloat. Journalist Sally Lehrman, a professor at Santa Clara University, says she has heard a news executive say that "wondering about diverse voices and perspectives is a bit like wondering about the fate of Mrs. Gardner's rose garden after a tornado has decimated the entire village."

The result is that Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, says she has watched journalists of color leave newsrooms at an alarming rate, even as the audience consuming news has grown more diverse. "The news media and the nation are moving in two different directions," she says. "News media is getting whiter as the country is getting browner." Journalists of color "feel their voice is not heard, their story ideas are not validated, and they don't see room for advancement."

With notable exceptions, minority journalists remain even more under-represented in leadership positions across newspapers and the broadcast news industry than in the newsroom in general. Particularly in broadcast, "the higher you get, the whiter it gets," says Felix Gutierrez, professor of journalism and American studies & ethnicity at the University of Southern California. The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA)'s 2012 diversity study reports that 86 percent of television news directors and 91.3 percent of radio news directors are Caucasian.

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Study of television managers by Bob Papper for the Radio Television Digital News Association (2012).
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Study of radio managers by Bob Papper for the Radio Television Digital News Association (2012).(2012).


Benet Wilson, who chairs the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) digital task force, believes the issue of minority representation is exacerbated by a loss of diversity leaders. As senior diversity champions have left newsrooms, she explains, the minorities who stay have felt they have no voice at the top.

There's "a loss of management, a loss of older reporters, a loss of diversity champions -- people who had the title officially or unofficially," says Wilson, who left Aviation Week in 2011 and now works for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

The consequences have been less diversity advocacy around issues of training, media partnerships and community coverage, she says. "You've got to cut somewhere, and you cut where there is the least amount of squawking. There's no one left to say, 'you can't do this.' The stone starts rolling down the hill, and you can't stop it."

Diversity efforts, Woods adds, generally "resided in an individual who left, got reassigned, retired, or who was laid off." In other cases, diversity was part of a specific outreach initiative that ended with the loss of a grant or project.

Minority journalist conferences, once a key source of revenue for diversity projects and a major recruiting tool for newspapers, have plummeted in attendance. Luther Jackson, former executive officer for the San Jose Newspaper Guild, remembers strong partnerships between newspapers and minority journalist associations starting in the 1980s, which began to taper off in 2001.

The Business Case

The problem, fundamentally, has been reconciling diversity with newsroom business models. "Most media companies look at diversity as a cost center," says Paul Cheung, President of the Asian American Journalists Association. "They see it as something nice to do." Few, he says, actually connect the dots and make it into a business case.

Cheung believes this has contributed to the industry's financial losses. Diversity is not just "a nice thing to have--it's crucial for a company's survival in the future," he says. "More than 50 percent of Americans by 2050 will be non-Caucasian."

Why does it matter, from the business perspective, if newsrooms don't reflect society at large? Because publications need readers. Robert Hernandez, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, attributes a decline in reader engagement to the fact that so many people don't see themselves reflected in coverage. "When I left The Seattle Times, I was the last Spanish speaker on staff," he says. "There would be crime stories-- and I'm the web guy-- and they called me over to translate interviews in Spanish."

Radio, Television, and Online News

The broadcasting industry has faced similar challenges. The Radio and Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) reports that in the last 22 years, the minority population in the U.S. has risen 10.4 percent, while the minority workforce in television news is up only 3.7 percent, and the minority workforce in radio is up 0.9 percent.

"Broadcast was kind of a leading edge of major social changes taking place in the country," says Bob Papper, who has overseen the RTDNA study for 19 years. "What television stations learned over time is if you want to appeal to the audience in your market, you need to look like your audience." Broadcast diversity figures have held relatively steady over the last few years as radio has seen much lower figures.

But overall, Papper says, "the minority population in this country is growing about 3/10th of a percent a year. If you hold steady, then every year you're falling behind."

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Riva Gold is a writer based in the Bay Area.

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