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Mar. 30 2010 - 2:12 am | 528 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

When Newsroom Diversity Becomes an Ideology

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, has published a piece on newsroom diversity that is long on assertion, short on argument, and largely wrongheaded.

Here’s a fairly lengthy excerpt:

The Post remains a leader in newsroom minority employment. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who is white, took over five months after Coleman’s memo and soon assembled a leadership team perhaps more diverse than that at any other metropolitan newspaper. His top tier of editors is about equally divided by gender and includes three African Americans, one Asian American, another of South Asian ancestry and another of Spanish heritage. All told, journalists of color comprise about 24 percent of the newsroom, comfortably above the ASNE census average of roughly 13 percent in recent years.

But here’s the problem: Minorities are 43 percent of The Post’s circulation area, and a large part of the region is edging toward “majority minority” status. For The Post, being “good on diversity” isn’t enough.

Brauchli and his leadership team acknowledged the same in a note to the staff last Monday. “We are in danger of losing ground if we do not consistently try to recruit the best minority journalists,” they wrote.

Back when newspapers generated huge profits, altruism often drove diversity efforts. Today, there’s an urgent business imperative. For The Post, struggling to regain profitability and retain subscribers, reaching expanding minority audiences represents opportunity — and perhaps survival.

“I think the more relevant you are in your community, the more successful you will be,” Brauchli said in an interview this past week. “It’s axiomatic.” He’s right. Newsroom diversity is about accuracy and relevance. It can yield market penetration and revenue.

“You can’t cover your community unless you look like your community,” said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I sit on its board). “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them.”

If anyone believed this nonsense, it would be absolutely ruinous for minority journalists. Imagine diversity consultant Bobbi Bowman telling a black reporter, “I’m sorry, your work is good, and I’d like to grant your request to cover Georgetown for the Metro desk, but you can’t cover a community like Georgetown if you don’t look like the people there — either choose a majority black neighborhood or else see if anything is available on the sports desk.” Confronted with that example, everyone is quick to acknowledge that one doesn’t have to look like a community to cover it.

Even the more likely, “We need a black reporter to cover this black neighborhood,” would tend to concentrate minority hires on poor beats, far away from the centers of Washington DC power — and more importantly, removed from whatever beat the reporter’s interests and talents would otherwise suggest. And as someone who worked at a couple midsized dailies where I was one of the few conservative reporters, let me assure you that it’s annoying when people always look to you as if you’re the designated representative for everyone in your identity group.

This isn’t to say that race and ethnicity are irrelevant to the enterprise of journalism. Racial mistrust, language barriers, unfamiliar aspects of immigrant cultures, and insights born of experience growing up in a community all explain why, for example, an Ethiopian American reporter might have an easier time than most covering the Ethiopian diaspora in Washington DC. Of course, saying that is true on average hardly necessitates considering race as a factor in hiring, since candidates, their language skills, the kinds of communities where they grew up, and any other helpful attribute or relevant factor can be judged on an individual basis, and with the beat they’re being hired to cover in mind.

Yes, of course the Washington Post should hire a qualified applicant who can fluently speak a second language, cultivate sources from acquaintances in the old neighborhood, etc. I don’t know any editor who wouldn’t recognize the folly of passing on such an applicant. The problem is that newsrooms won’t look like the communities they serve until applicant pools for jobs that require college degrees also start to look like the population at large, or else newspapers recruit and hire less qualified candidates to meet racial or ethnic quotas.

Consider the availability of DC based Hondurans with a bachelor’s degree, daily newspaper experience, and clips commensurate with the folks usually hired by the Washington Post. It would be amazing if a relatively poor group of relatively recent immigrants were able to produce very many Post applicants, especially since some talented journalists in the community would be attracted to Spanish language venues or television. Without a solid applicant pool, is the community of DC Hondurans better off being reported on by the most talented reporter available, or the most talented Honduran available? Or is any Hispanic presumed to be a better fit than any non-Hispanic? It is difficult to tell, because columns like the one excerpted above tend to offer only vague, sanctimonious imperatives, as if merely caring about diversity, as I do, is enough. But wishing that newsrooms looked like America in a world of racial equality and zero lasting effects of racism doesn’t make it so.

The example of an Ethiopian immigrant neighborhood also helps clarify why it is foolish to gauge success by citing the percentage of “reporters of color” in the newsroom. Is a third generation Asian American who grew up in California better able to cover Ethiopian immigrants or black Americans than a white reporter? Is a black reporter who went to Howard more adept at covering Latino day laborers in Northern Virginia?

Finally, if Mr. Alexander is making an earnest argument about diversity as a business imperative, he should explain why he tells us the overall percentage of non-whites in the Washington Post’s circulation area, rather than adjusting for those fluent in English at a bare minimum, and ideally for home ownership rates, education levels, and whether they grew up in a home with newspapers — variables that any circulation manager would want to know when figuring out which potential readers to target.

It matters a great deal that we read writing by people from different racial and ethnic communities, by women and men, and by any other identity group whose cultural experiences one hopes to better understand. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains one black perspective better than any white guy could — and John McWhorter explains another one, and WEB DuBois still another. Typical newspaper writing is perhaps the written format where folks from any background are least able to meaningfully bring their perspective to the work. Let’s be honest, the average newspaper story is fleeting, merely adequate in its writing, and produced on such a tight deadline that merely getting the facts correct is difficult enough.

There is a case to be made for diversity in newsrooms, and if you’re running an all white newspaper in a multicultural town, you’re probably doing something wrong. But no one is helped by peddling diversity mantras that betray an utter failure to grapple with a difficult issue. Furthermore, should the Washington Post newsroom grow more diverse in future years — and I hope that it does — let me be the first to assert that the minority staffers should be covering Congress, Bethesda, and the University Club as often as sitting on the Metro desk or reporting on Southwest DC. Mr. Alexander would probably say he’d never suggest otherwise, but when you approvingly quote someone saying, “If you have a community of basketball players, it’s difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them,” it’s fair enough to wonder if you’re also saying the opposite. Of course, this whole exercise presumes that basketball and opera themselves are inherently racial rather than cultural phenomena, which is also wrong.


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    The word “class” is never mentioned, only race. One is not a proxy for the other.

    The “diversity” in a newsroom like the WashPo or the NYT, which I’ve walked through many times and in which I have friends and colleagues, is still racially focused in its “diversity” hiring, not typically welcoming of and inclusive of those born into poverty or the working-class, as some of the reporters who have made the leap (Dana Jennings comes to mind) have described in print.

    It’s hard to work up a head of steam covering the wealthy and powerful, often the focus of coverage, if that wasn’t your world. Look at the loss of “labor” coverage versus fawning profiles of CEOs as business (i.e. the powerful) replaces labor (the weaker) in news stories. By the time a reporter actually makes it into one of the very few papers left like these two, they’ve become so inculcated in the folkways of the wealthy/powerful they are also unlikely to blow it by rattling the cage and fighting for broader-based coverage.

    If you can’t get into a good college and/or one of the few feeder J-schools, it’s unlikely your work or clips will come to the attention of those able to hire — and, much more crucially, willing to “take a chance” on someone who didn’t safely and reassuringly attend an Ivy or arrive with a Phd.

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