Kathy Times, of NABJ, said she was taken aback during a recent visit to the Houston Chronicle. She went to the news meeting and “was very disappointed to see not one black editor in that room of about sixteen editors who decide what readers would see.” When asked about her observation, Jeff Cohen, the Chronicle’s editor and executive vice president, said that, depending on the day, there would usually be two to four editors of color at the meeting (three are Hispanic and one is Palestinian). But he acknowledged the problem.
“We’re not where we want to be today,” Cohen said. “Diversity is extremely important to me, the management of the newspaper, the readers, the community. But for various reasons, the last two years we’ve had a slight decline in the number of minorities in the newsroom.” Cohen pointed out that 23 percent of the members of the paper’s newsroom staff are people of color. (That, he acknowledged, includes the staff of the Spanish-language paper.) He said Houston’s metropolitan area, which includes outlying suburbs, is 35 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African-American, and 7 percent Asian. In the city proper, the last US Census showed that African Americans and Hispanics alone comprise 63 percent of the population.
Given the economy and the dearth of available media jobs, the parity goal seems less achievable than ever. Meanwhile, Times notes that black-oriented media often offer her members the opportunity to report on issues—health disparities between blacks and whites, for example—that are close to the hearts of some black journalists, and issues that often are not explored in depth by the mainstream. African-American outlets frequently don’t have the same level of resources as mainstream outlets, she said, “but the good news is that some of our members are in a position that they can afford to explore those opportunities because they are very passionate about covering the black community. They’re at a point in their careers where they have the luxury.”
Many of these reverse migrants describe a sense of relief about working for African-American media after years in the mainstream. “It was like coming home,” said Michael Cottman, a senior correspondent at BlackAmericaWeb.com, who in 1978 began his career at the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest continuously published black newspaper. In between he worked for The Miami Herald, New York Newsday, and The Washington Post.
Cottman said at mainstream organizations he sometimes felt resistance to story ideas or suspicion about his ability to be objective while covering black-oriented subjects. He said at Reach Media, his professionalism is assumed.
Jack White agreed. “You can presume a commonality of interest of editor and audience. There’s a comfort zone.” At mainstream outlets, he adds, “You had to be ready to fight. My back used to be up a lot. My back hasn’t been up.”
Mira Lowe, like many of these reverse migrants, described feeling a greater sense of purpose when she moved to an African-American outlet. Lowe joined Newsday in 1989, a year after graduating from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and held a series of copy-desk positions on the features, business, and news desks, and then became the Long Island Life editor at the paper. But in 2007, she jumped at the chance to work for Johnson Publishing, where she was initially hired as assistant managing editor for Ebony and Jet. In 2009, she became editor in chief of Jet, which has a weekly circulation of more than 750,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. “I had the opportunity to have an imprint on a legacy brand,” she said. “They needed an injection of new ideas, new energy. I felt I could make a difference and give back to publications that have meant a lot to the community.”
Sylvester Monroe, a cum laude graduate of Harvard and an author who, over the course of nearly four decades, has worked as an editor or writer at Newsweek, Time, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moved to Ebony in 2006. “There was a time when I never thought I would consider working for Ebony. It was just that that wasn’t what I was interested in. But Time and Newsweek are no longer Time and Newsweek, and newspapers have shrunk. Journalism as we once knew it is gone.”