Ten years after the Kerner report, the percentage of minorities in mainstream media had increased fourfold, to 3.9 percent, as diversity became an industry buzzword. By 1988, the total number of minority journalists more than doubled, to 3,900, or 7 percent of the newsroom workforce. But newsrooms had trouble stemming a high turnover of journalists of color. In 1985, “The Quiet Crisis: Minority Journalists and Newsroom Opportunity,” a study by the Institute for Journalism Education (later the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education), reported that more than 40 percent of minority group members tracked over a ten-year period expected to leave the industry, largely due to a perceived glass ceiling. A year later, the institute released “Musical Chairs: Minority Hiring in America’s Newsrooms,” which argued that “it is on the battleground of retention that the struggle for full parity” would be won or lost.

Indeed, a Freedom Forum study in 2000 by Lawrence T. McGill found that while the newspaper industry had hired 550 journalists of color each year since 1994, 400 had annually left the business. More distressing were figures showing that 596 journalists of color came into the industry in the year 2000, but by year’s end 698 had left. A year later, McGill was commissioned by the then-named American Society of Newspaper Editors, or ASNE (now the American Society of News Editors), to investigate the poor retention rate. Why was this happening? His meta-analysis of thirteen studies done between 1989 and 2000 cited a lack of professional opportunities and an absence of career advancement as two of the main reasons.

At the peak, in 2006, African-American journalists held 5.5 percent of newsroom jobs. But between 2001 and 2011, the number of African Americans in mainstream newspaper newsrooms plunged 34 percent, according to ASNE’s 2010 survey. That compares to a 0.9 percent decrease in the number of Asian journalists and a 20.5 and 8.5 percent decline of Native American and Latino journalists, respectively. As of 2010, African Americans, who nationally comprise 15 percent of the US population, hold 4.68 percent of US newspaper newsroom jobs. (The magazine industry does not track minority group employment.) The numbers, said Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, “are devastating.”

In 1978, ASNE pledged that its newsrooms would achieve racial parity by 2000. With just 12.8 percent of newsroom jobs held by all minority group members—who comprise 36 percent of the population—the parity goal has since been pushed back to 2025. “Clearly we have issues,” said Milton Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post and the immediate past president of ASNE. “A lot of people are no longer excited about what’s happening in the newsroom and left either by choice or by chance. There was the feeling that they were bumping up against glass ceilings, and that the newsrooms they were in were no longer interested in the news they wanted to do. Then on top of it, we have the turn in the news industry.”

Coleman said many African Americans come into journalism driven by a passion to illuminate issues in their communities. And that, he said, explains some of the movement to the black press. “People of a like mind saw they could take the skills that they had picked up in mainstream media and go back to ethnically oriented media and make them better.” For example, he named a half-dozen journalists—including Sylvester Monroe and Newsday’s Mira Lowe; Eric Easter of Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive; Dudley Brooks, of The Baltimore Sun; and Bryan Monroe, an assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder, who had all been lured to Johnson Publishing Company. “Ebony and Jet improved just like that,” Coleman said.

He added that ASNE—with funding from the McCormick and Ford foundations, and coordinating support from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and unity Journalists of Color—is holding two meetings this year to begin formulating a new case for diversity. The first will be held in June in Orlando during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention and the second at The New York Times in September. Coleman argues that the discussion should be framed in such a way that “the news industry understands that as we go forward, the case for diversity is not a social experiment—it’s an industry imperative. As the demography changes, in order to be mainstream you’re going to have to be more diverse. And if you’re not more diverse, someone will take it away from you.”

“Diversity is a part of being accurate in your news coverage,” he said. “If it’s not, people will not read it. We still need diversity because we still need accuracy.”

Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.