Ten For 2010?

Scrubbing the gloss off of diversity coverage

Earlier this month, worried about the effect that newsroom cuts were having on minority journalists’ working numbers, the National Association for Black Journalists released an industry-wide memo stating that “this is no time to treat diversity like a disposable commodity,” and calling diversity a quality that “enriches the news product.”

That was also the biggest topic on people’s minds at Unity 2008, the quadrennial convention for journalists of color, which started last Wednesday in Chicago and ran through Sunday. (It was organized jointly by the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Native American Journalists Association.) The top topic, aside from the buzz surrounding Sen. Obama’s address to the convention on Sunday: Is the evergreen issue of newsroom diversity destined to take a backseat as long as layoffs and buyouts are such regular occurrences in the industry?

Unity’s response (a resounding “no”) is a new initiative called “Ten by 2010.” The idea is to get ten major media companies to commit to training and promoting a person of color to a senior management position by mid-year 2010.

Reports from the convention, however, have held back on any assessment of how feasible that initiative is. (We get, instead, an ample number of quotes from Unity president Karen Lincoln Michel.) On Wednesday, as Unity started, the Chicago Tribune’s Susan Chandler wrote about why, despite newsroom hardships, it’s probably not the time for diversity concerns to get pushed to the backburner: “The fear is that minorities will bear a disproportionate share of the ongoing job losses because they are more heavily represented among the recently hired.” The point is valid, but it largely echoes NABJ’s memo.

Likewise, at Editor & Publisher Thursday, Mark Fitzgerald noted the tenor of the convention, where diversity is habitually the top item on the agenda: “But there is a special edge to the conversations because of the pervasive feeling that the economy has pushed diversity goals not just to the back burner, but off the stove altogether.”

Both go on to mention the initiative, but fail to analyze it in the context of these earlier statements. Where is the assessment? The New York Times Co. and Gannett have reportedly both signed on already, giving the initiative some feet; even so, it seems important to address whether or not this might be an empty gesture. As is often the case with issues of race and representation, reporters seem to be glossing over practical questions of feasibility in favor of an easy report of “Industry Agrees: Diversity Still Important.”

Coverage could address any number of things: whether a fast track training program actually works; whether participating companies’ commitments might falter, given the overarching economic situation; or whether affirmative action, in either newsroom or management situations, is effective.

On that last note, there has been a productive shift away from deeming diversity in news organizations primarily an affirmative action issue. In 1998, the Unity convention was almost derailed because of internal dispute as to whether Washington state, which had just introduced an initiative to ban affirmative action in hiring practice, was a fitting location for a large gathering of minority journalists. (See the NYT’s account here.)

Ten years later, racial (and other) diversity in news organizations is talked about less defensively, because, hey, it’s an asset in attracting wider audiences. Tribune public editor Timothy McNulty’s column Thursday takes that tack, writing that “the number of minority journalists is not really the main issue, but more a reflection of how slow the media have been to recognize the communities they should be serving.” Though he cites the “serious efforts, and endless conversations” that have traditionally had little impact, he mentions the Tribune’s numbers, which are pretty good:

In terms of minority hiring, the news industry average is about 131⁄2 percent, compared with the U.S. minority population of about 34 percent. Minority representation at the Tribune is nearly 23 percent of newsroom professionals, but the number in management positions is another issue.

Still, his open-endedness at the end (“another issue”?) reads like a tacit admission that it’s difficult to judge how well such initiatives like Unity’s, which is funded in part by the Poynter Institute and certainly should be counted a “serious effort,” will work.

There’s a tad of healthy cynicism here, and there should be more. After its 2003 convention in Washington, D.C., Unity released a five-year strategic plan that called for “people of color to make up no less than 20 percent of newsroom staffs and at least 15 percent of newsroom managers,” and made it a goal to “sponsor a presidential campaign debate in 2008.” (The latter attempt was derailed by Sen. McCain’s decision not to speak at Unity.) Unveiling an initiative is a dime a dozen act, and journalists should sound each out individually. Probing the rainbow-colored hoopla at the well-intentioned Unity with some skepticism would be more helpful than serving it up with an instinctively sympathetic gloss.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.