What does it mean that most newsrooms in America don’t reflect the diversity of the communities they cover? The answer can’t be good. CJR visited 10 newsrooms across the country where the mismatch between the makeup of the staff and the demographics of the coverage area seems particularly notable.
What we found is both depressingly predictable—lots of talk about job pipelines and a lack of qualified candidates—and unusually candid. Editors admitted that they had, frankly, failed.
The fact that the conversations about diversity are the same ones that the industry has been having for decades (really since the report of the Kerner Commission a half-century ago), shows how little progress has been made in the United States, even as the demographics of the country have changed profoundly. It is true that journalism’s failure is not unlike that of other institutions, from corporate America to college campuses to Congress, but that is as much an excuse as an observation.
For the profiles that follow, we talked to newsroom managers, reporters, and residents about what a lack of diversity means to readers and to journalism itself. And, critically, we look at what now has to happen to fix the problem.
Honolulu Civil Beat, a nonprofit news site, launched in 2010 with a clear mission: to do watchdog journalism aimed at affecting positive social change. “The local media here sucked,” Patti Epler, the editor, says. “And one of the reasons they sucked is they’re very ‘go along, get along.’ We don’t want to do just press releases; we really want to go deeper.”
Funded by Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire philanthropist behind First Look Media, Civil Beat would be ambitiously investigative—telling new stories about a state with complex challenges and ethnic tensions. White people are in the minority here, representing 25.7 percent of the population; the largest ethnic group is Asian, at 37.8 percent. More than 10 percent of residents are Native Hawaiian or from another Pacific island; about the same number are Latinx; black people compose the smallest racial group. Yet the staff at Civil Beat is 74 percent white, including Epler—a near perfect flip of Hawai‘i’s demographics. This surprised Emily Dugdale, a reporter and podcast producer who is Afro-Latina, when she first walked through the door a year ago. “I thought it might have been a little bit more diverse, just because of Hawai‘i,” she recalls. It was a striking first impression. “I wouldn’t say I was crazy surprised,” she adds. “Sadly, I think those are the conditions to expect in most newsrooms.”
Civil Beat’s diversity problem isn’t unique when compared to media outlets in the rest of the country, yet it shows that even a digitally native operation, created within the past several years, can suffer the same staffing problems as older, legacy publications. In Hawai‘i, there are particular features of culture to consider.
“As I look out at the newsroom, I see white people,” Chad Blair, the politics and opinion editor, says. “I have become the institutional memory as a local, even though I’m not from here.” Blair, who is white, has lived in Hawai‘i for 30 years. But he doesn’t know ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i, or Hawaiian, a language that comes from oral tradition and is still commonly spoken throughout the state, mostly in the names of people and places.
Blair knows enough to know—as anyone who has spent extended time in Hawai‘i would—about the language’s two diacritical marks: the ‘okina (“a glottal stop, similar to the sound between the syllables of ‘oh-oh,’” per the University of Hawai‘i) and the kahako (“a macron, which lengthens and adds stress to the marked vowel”). The state of Hawai‘i strongly encourages the use of diacritical markings in writing, and they can be rendered fairly easily. An ‘okina is made with a single open quotation mark; the kahako is a straight-line accent that can be added on any computer’s keyboard settings. The marks dictate pronunciation: Hawai‘i has an okina between the last two letters and Waikīkī, a beach area popular with tourists, has kahakos over the last two vowels.
But news outlets handle usage differently. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for instance, doesn’t use marks for common words—like Hawai‘i—but it does sometimes for others, including names, and plans to expand usage are being considered. Hawaii Business magazine started using marks last year; the Associated Press doesn’t except on rare occasions, in a proper names. A reporter seeking guidance on Google Maps would come up against confusion, since there’s inconsistency to be found there: Mānoa Valley District Park appears with a kahako; Mānoa Elementary School does not. In 2010, the editors of Civil Beat decided not to use diacritical marks at all, except occasionally, in the spelling of someone’s name.
Debates over proper language use have come up in quotes and copy, Blair says, but Civil Beat has never had a Hawaiian language expert on staff, and there have been mistakes. In some cases, readers aware of the newsroom’s whiteness have bristled at the appearance of certain words—instead of appreciating the effort, they see appropriation. In July, for instance, the editorial board published a piece, “Get Off Your Damn Okole And Vote”—deploying a substitute for “ass” that’s typically acceptable to say in the presence of children. Soon after, Blair fielded calls from two readers—one Native Hawaiian and the other white—complaining about its inclusion in a headline. They felt it was too crass.
Why wouldn’t Civil Beat hire people fluent in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i or pidgin, instead of giving up entirely?
The staff has also discussed how to handle quotes in Hawaiian pidgin, a language that developed as Native Hawaiians communicated with immigrant groups. Pidgin words and phrases are commonly inflected in everyday conversation—it fills speech more or less densely in different parts of the state. Yet not all readers understand the meaning of pidgin words—particularly people outside Hawai‘i—and no Civil Beat reporters are fluent. Depending on the situation, editors have paraphrased quotes or translated them into standard English.
Questions of language arise in newsrooms all over Hawai‘i. Across town, at the Star-Advertiser, where 40 percent of the staffers are white and 60 percent represent minority groups—predominantly Asian, but also Native Hawaiian, black, Pacific Islander, Indonesian, and Latinx—there is a weekly column in Hawaiian that has run for more than 10 years. The paper prints a short synopsis of the piece in English at the top, rather than attempt a direct translation, since Hawaiian words can be interpreted in various ways. This is possible, in part, because about half of the full-time staff is from Hawai‘i and more than a quarter has spent decades on the islands. “We’re fortunate we have good local candidates that can represent different minorities,” Frank Bridgewater, the editor, who is white, tells CJR. “We’re lucky—they just walk in the door.”
So why, then, wouldn’t Civil Beat hire people fluent in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i or pidgin, instead of giving up entirely? (To say nothing of availing editors of a few keyboard shortcuts.) “You don’t need a Native Hawaiian to write about Native Hawaiian issues,” Jim Simon, the managing editor of Civil Beat, tells CJR. He concedes, however, “It is important to have someone at the table, if you can, to talk about those issues from a very different perspective.”
Civil Beat has had a tough time integrating into its community. Its early days were challenging—a tight budget and no guarantee that the site would survive made it difficult to support a team, John Temple, the founding editor, recalls. Some staffers left months into the job and, in one case, before the site launched. And the door kept swinging: in 2012, Temple packed up to join The Washington Post. Epler, Civil Beat’s deputy editor, took the reins; she had worked in Hawai‘i once before—in the early 1980s, for Honolulu magazine—and had moved through websites and newspapers in Arizona, Washington, and Alaska, where she was part of the reporting team at an Anchorage paper that in 1989 won a Pulitzer Prize. But many of Civil Beat’s journalists from Hawai‘i—often those representing minority groups—continued to cycle out.
Despite the initial turnover, Civil Beat managed to make a splash by filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the salaries of government employees. In a special report that revealed data about 8,500 workers for the city and county of Honolulu, Civil Beat pursued a degree of transparency and accountability that the community wasn’t quite used to. It was so unusual, in fact, that other news outlets reported on readers’ concerns over publishing the information. (“It shouldn’t even be posted up there,” Rita Narvaez, a resident of Honolulu, told Hawaii News Now.) Civil Beat relished its role as agitator and advertised with a tagline: “Smart. Disruptive. Never Sorry.”
It was a welcome, sharp voice at a time when the local media was suffering. Over the past decade, Hawai‘i’s two largest daily newspapers have merged—Star-Advertiser is the result; three once-independent television stations now operate under a single brand, Hawaii News Now; Honolulu Weekly, an alternative paper, has folded; and Mana, a glossy magazine covering Native Hawaiian subjects, has stopped printing.
Staffing problems are happening in a state where whites have never been the majority, as opposed to other places, where the demographic changes are more recent.
During the same period, Civil Beat shifted its business model, from that of a paid subscription site to a nonprofit receiving substantial support from an Omidyar-backed fund. A director of philanthropy was hired, and the newsroom began accepting donations, which it now receives from individuals and organizations, including the Knight Foundation and the Facebook Journalism Project. (Knight is also a funder of CJR. The Democracy Fund, which is part of the Omidyar network, has helped fund CJR in the past, but has no current involvement.)
Civil Beat has more than doubled in staff—there are now 19 journalists in the newsroom. But filling their ranks has often involved hiring people from outside Hawai‘i, and the newsroom is now largely malihini haole (white newcomers from the mainland). This has meant that, even as Civil Beat has received its share of journalism prizes and its reporting has ushered in legislative changes, the approach it’s taken has sometimes rubbed sources and readers the wrong way. Contributors, too. Civil Beat has “always been hiring from outside of here, and that’s the one flaw,” Denby Fawcett, a longtime journalist from Hawai‘i and contributor to Civil Beat, tells CJR.
Being primarily white and nonlocal is “probably a fair criticism of Civil Beat,” Epler says. “We just can’t find people here locally—Civil Beat does a specific kind of journalism—we do a harder edge, an aggressive thing that people aren’t used to here.”
Lately, Civil Beat has been working to address its gaps in representation. In 2016, Civil Beat started a fellowship program to train early-career reporters in the site’s self-professed brand of investigative journalism. Those recruits have been more diverse than the general pool of hires; two—Dugdale and a white reporter originally from Hawai‘i—have recently been hired full-time.
This year, at the urging of staffers, Epler allowed a committee to convene and examine how to improve its staffing and spread the word about openings to a wider pool of applicants. The committee is made up of four people of color on staff: Dugdale; Mariko Chang, the donor membership and events manager; and Anita Hofschneider and Suevon Lee, both reporters. Hofschneider, who grew up in Saipan and is Chamorro, leads the group and is working to formally incorporate diversity considerations into the hiring process. As part of that effort, she has joined Civil Beat’s hiring committee, led by Epler, to review and vet candidates.
Since January, the diversity committee has compiled a running list of potential candidates with Hawai‘i ties who are working elsewhere. Job postings now include the following language: “Civil Beat strongly values a diverse workforce and encourages people from minority communities to apply. A familiarity with Hawai‘i and its unique local culture strongly preferred.”
In addition, the newsroom has been making efforts to connect with Hawai‘i residents, hiring weekly contributors who live on different islands and, on occasion, publishing reader submissions. To build relationships with readers in Honolulu, Civil Beat has begun sponsoring trivia nights, coffees for donors, and a speaker series.
In a way, Civil Beat’s struggle to strike a balance between locals and outsiders is a common one in community journalism—it can be a matter of familiarity versus critical distance. “It can be hard to report bluntly if you went to the same private schools as people going back to the age of six years old,” Eric Pape, a former Civil Beat editor, points out. Access is important, but so is an unfiltered perspective. “The balance is crucial—the mix is very helpful and healthy.”
“The balance is toward fresh eyes,” Gene Park, a former Civil Beat social media editor, adds. To him, that isn’t a downside, but an asset. “That’s why I found Civil Beat so attractive—they’re taking a fresh approach.”
Hiring locally is “not the biggest concern,” Epler says. She would tap more local talent if she found the right candidates; she poached one reporter from the Star-Advertiser. But her primary aim is finding the best journalists who will cover Hawai‘i with unrepentant curiosity. “You can kind of drop in and figure it out,” she continues. “That’s what you’re paid to do, right?”
That explanation doesn’t satisfy everyone. John D. Waihe‘e III, a former Hawai‘i governor who was the first American of Native Hawaiian descent to be elected to any US office, believes that Civil Beat is selling itself short. “The richness of the news, of the content itself I think is enhanced by the diversity of the reporters,” Waihe‘e says. “You’re much more capable of, first of all, recognizing where news may exist, and secondly, by understanding it from a different point of view.” —Sophia Yan
“Seattle thinks of itself as a ‘woke’ city,” Tyrone Beason, a journalist for The Seattle Times who has written extensively on race, says. People of color make up around 35 percent of the city’s population; politicians campaign on inclusivity. “So you have to deal not with reticence of the hostile kind, but reticence of the righteous kind. People feel as if they have internalized all of the good lessons that our society has to teach, and it’s hard to get people to think that they have something else to learn.”
This can be a challenge inside the newsroom of the Times, where, among 194 employees, 75 percent are white; only 15 people on staff are Asian, and 9 are black. The culture of the office can be hard to change, in part because, as internal Times documents obtained by CJR show, there’s a generational gap. “Effectively, there are two newsrooms at The Seattle Times,” a survey of 80 staffers found this summer. Long-time employees are “much more likely to be satisfied and to feel valued by senior leaders that they’ve worked with for years,” whereas “young employees are much more urgently worried about pay and family care, do not feel valued by the newsroom, and have deep concerns about its future.”
Members of the “two newsrooms” reported different attitudes about what it means for journalism to be “objective.” Disagreements have caused tension over how best to approach the paper’s work. “There was a question of how much you can bring your personal views or experiences to inform your work as a journalist before you’re no longer being objective,” Audrey Carlsen, who left the Times in 2017, recalls. She says that some colleagues felt that staffers who critiqued the paper weren’t “on the same team,” adding that “people who try to change institutions are often at risk of being characterized as discontents or complainers.”
Several people of color at the Times say that they have been characterized in ungenerous terms upon raising concerns with newsroom managers about racial inequality or representation in coverage. Current staffers, speaking with CJR on the condition of anonymity, say that, when they have brought editors feedback, superiors have called them “uncooperative” and “argumentative”; one reporter was told to smile more.
But Beason says that having those conversations is crucial. “It’s not just an opportunity for The Seattle Times to become a different kind of paper, but an opportunity for me to become a different kind of journalist, to be more myself—to not hide or apologize for what I bring in terms of life experience,” he explains. “I may think of myself as a journalist, but the world thinks of me as a black dude, whether I like it or not. You can’t make that disappear, but how do you make it more apparent, but in a constructive way? How do I use what I bring to the table in my work?” When he has raised these questions with colleagues, he adds, “I wanted to challenge other people in the newsroom to do the same.”
The Times has rolled out several initiatives to increase the hiring and retention of people of color. “We’ve got work to do and we realize that and we’re working at it,” Don Shelton, the executive editor, says. He tells CJR that the paper has “become much more intentional and systemic about recruiting for diversity, making sure that we post positions externally on most or all of the national diversity websites.” In February, the newsroom hosted a diversity workshop; managers also formalized a “Diversity and Inclusion Task Force.”
The task force has initiated discussions about race—not the first of their kind, says Jerry Large, a columnist who joined the paper in 1981 and retired in May. Yet Large, who says identity has been part of conversations at the Times since he started, adds that he has not observed clear progress in terms of ethnic representation on staff. “I wish I could say it was the kind of ebb and flow that gradually goes up,” Large tells CJR, “but it just ebbs and flows.”
The most recent internal workgroup dedicated to diversity formed after a series of Times articles that attracted public criticism. In 2015, when The Flavr Blue, a local band, released a new album, Hollis Wong-Wear, the lead singer, was identified as a “Macklemore sidekick”; when readers pointed out the fraught history of identifying Asian people as sidekicks and describing women only in relation to their male collaborators, the Times removed the offending word from its headline, issued a public apology, and promised to reach out to Wong-Wear privately. Later, a reporter covering Marshawn Lynch, a black football player—at the time for the Seattle Seahawks—wrote that he “wasn’t classy”; another story detailed the fatal shooting of a black man named Michael Flowers but identified him only by his criminal record. In the summer of 2017, the paper had a newsroom-wide meeting to critique its headlines in coverage of Charleena Lyles, an African-American woman who was shot to death by Seattle police. Shelton says that the paper is “open to open discussions.”
These conversations have not always been easy, however. “I wasn’t able to foster as a robust debate as I wanted around our coverage,” Beason recalls of one meeting. “There was this kind of chill in the room sometimes with fellow staffers who weren’t as comfortable as I thought they might be.”
Ed Guzman, a former editor who left the Times last November, sensed a “notion of a disconnect, real or perceived, from the leadership,” when it came to staffers raising concerns about racial representation and coverage. “I do believe it’s not on one person at the top,” he adds. “It’s a shared responsibility among the management that requires constant care and action. Because if the leader is not listening, or appears to not be listening, that person will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say. And that creates a chain reaction that could look a lot like what that newsroom may be experiencing in terms of morale and retention.”
Indeed, former staffers of color tell CJR that frustrations related to the paper’s lack of racial equality contributed significantly to their decisions to leave. One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tells CJR, “Why have so many people of color left in the last year? It’s not just because everyone’s gotten better offers, or the economy. For me, it was like, if I stay here, I’m going to think less of myself.”
The Times survey reached the same conclusion: “Morale is not high for any group, but young people, journalists of color, and women are all noticeably under the average in job satisfaction.” In addition, the findings “almost entirely echo” those of a similar survey conducted a year ago. “One of the notable frustrations expressed in the survey,” the Times observed, “was that management seems to have taken no action on fixing the problems that we learned about last year.”
Several months ago, the task force created #sensitive-news-help, a channel on the newsroom’s Slack account to offer support in covering topics related to race and ethnicity. Yet Thomas Wilburn, who left the Times in July, says that he grew frustrated with how the “sensitive” channel was used—in practice, staffers rarely posted about work in progress, and colleagues were told that, if they had concerns about published pieces, they should approach editors directly. “Having conversations in private eliminates the ability to learn from observing others,” he says. “There’s no way to form a collective idea of what our values are.” Another former staffer who identifies as a person of color, who spoke under condition of anonymity citing a fear of retaliation, says that the Slack channel’s use reflects a general attitude at the paper that “you don’t criticize The Seattle Times publicly, and you don’t do it in a meeting; you do it one-on-one.” As a result, upper management may be in the dark about what’s going on in the newsroom, and individual writers don’t benefit from the lessons of their colleagues.
“What you don’t want is people called out in a group setting,” Shelton tells CJR. “But having a discussion can be really helpful.”
Times staffers say that many of the paper’s racial equality initiatives have been pushed forward by people of color in the newsroom who are not in leadership positions, rather than driven by upper management. Audrey Carlsen says that there has been no coherent institutional vision to address inclusive hiring or coverage, forcing staffers to take on responsibility for those efforts in addition to their daily duties. “It felt like the work we were doing wasn’t going to get done if we didn’t do it,” Carlsen explains. By the end of her time at the paper, she adds, she felt burnt out from juggling diversity projects alongside her regular tasks. Results from the summer’s staff survey echo that concern: less than a third of staffers and only 8.3 percent among people of color said they understood the paper’s vision and direction.
Wilburn says that newsroom leaders haven’t made sufficient effort to understand what existing initiatives require to succeed. While he worked at the Times he says, “It always felt like the response was, ‘What do you want?’ and not, ‘How can we help?’” Rather than starting a conversation, managers “wanted you to hand them complete plans for what should happen,” he adds. “For some things, that’s fine, but you can’t have a sustainable diversity initiative where people at the bottom of the ladder are coming up with complete plans and hopes that leadership will follow through.”
When asked about this criticism, Shelton expressed confidence in the existing process. “It’s a good thing when ideas come from within; we have to support those ideas, and we have, and we will,” he says. “We want people to come up with ideas and not have to be driven by ideas in my office.”
But even when a “complete plan” is crafted, newsroom managers don’t always move forward to implement it. Carlsen showed CJR her proposal to create a blog giving Times readers a glimpse into staffers’ decision-making. The pitch outlines her vision for the blog, giving examples of recent pieces that “garnered substantial outcry from the community” and making a case for how posts addressing criticisms would “increase the transparency of our reporting and editing process” and “send a message….that the Times values its readers’ opinions and takes their concerns seriously.” Carlsen says the idea was approved by her managers, but despite multiple follow-ups, it never generated enough enthusiasm to get off the ground. (Times editors say they were not aware of the situation.)
Carlsen says that she was “deeply frustrated” for much of her time at the paper. Still, she hopes the Times makes progress, which, she points out, will require overcoming the patented politeness of the Pacific Northwest and having more candid conversations. True change requires taking a step back, and gaining a deeper understanding of why racial equity is important, she says. “It’s not because it’s politically correct, but because it makes for better and more accurate journalism.”—Jane C. Hu
In 2012, when George Louis Martinez—who goes by A Martinez—started at KPCC, the flagship station of Southern California Public Radio, he wasn’t sure what he was getting into. Martinez, the American-born son of Ecuadorian parents, was raised in Koreatown and didn’t learn English until first grade; in college, he’d played baseball, and eventually forged a career in sports journalism. “I never knew what public radio was,” he recalls. “I’d heard of NPR, but never listened to KPCC.”
Public radio means taxpayer-supported nonprofit networks, but it’s also a class signal, a marker of respectability, and, often, an indicator of type: three-quarters of National Public Radio’s editorial employees are white; Latinxs are among the least represented ethnic groups, comprising just 6.1% of the newsroom. At KPCC, Martinez is the only Latinx host and the rest of the staff is majority-white (36 of 86 are people of color, including 7 of 16 managers); Los Angeles County, in contrast, is nearly 50 percent Latinx.
The station’s management “seemed very eager to hire me,” Martinez recalls. That’s possibly because, he suggests, he provided “that window or doorway to a guy who’s Latino and maybe knows me from sports.” He was a smart choice—early evidence suggested that his show, “Take Two,” a local news magazine program, was bringing new listeners in. But the number of Latinxs in the station’s audience has peaked at 18 percent, or about 137,000 among the station’s weekly cumulative listeners.
Bill Davis, the chief executive of Southern California Public Radio, says he is painfully aware that “public broadcasting audiences have tended to be whiter, better educated, and more affluent.” In 2005, he recalls, KPCC conducted research finding that second and third generation Latinxs, who speak mostly English, are the least well served media consumers in Los Angeles. “We need to expand the audience to look more like the country that we serve,” he says. But people like Ray Ramirez, the owner of Ray’s BBQ, in Huntington Park, California, don’t see much awareness of stations like KPCC among his customers. “There’s no outreach, no marketing,” Ramirez tells CJR. “I don’t think many folks know where to find it.”
Recruiting more talent has been a challenge. “Public radio might be afraid of turning over every rock,” Martinez says. “If you only look for public radio hosts at public radio places, you’re typically going to find the same person. If you really want to do something different, go somewhere different.” KPCC struggles to hire people of color and keep them moving up the ranks. For a long time, Priska Neely, an education reporter, was the only black reporter at the station, a position that came to feel like a burden. African Americans make up 9 percent of Los Angeles County but only 4 percent of KPCC’s audience. “I don’t want to be the one,” she says. “I see a lot people come in without training, feeling isolated at work, and they leave. I have also felt those things. But for the same reasons, I want to stay.” —Gautham Nagesh
Lawrence Brown, an associate professor at Morgan State University, in Baltimore, Maryland, writes and teaches about the many ways the city has historically failed its black residents. Through his research on The Baltimore Sun, uncovering articles dating as far back as 1913, he’s tracked how journalists there have bucked impartiality, often agitating the city’s white population against integration. “The Baltimore Sun would be printing these really outrageous articles referring to ‘the Negro invasion’ and, basically, black home buyers attempting to move onto white blocks,” he says. For his close reading of today’s Sun, Brown has attracted a large following on Twitter—including many members of Baltimore’s leftist community—for whom he dissects reporting to reveal bias against black people.
In some cases, that bias comes from what is left unwritten. In April 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man, was arrested in West Baltimore for carrying a knife; by the time he arrived at the police station, he was unable to breathe or talk, and he died of a spinal injury while still in custody. The Sun covered Gray’s death. But later, Gray was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood—a public health crisis that had received relatively little attention. “What’s often missing,” Brown says, “is connecting the violent crime we see in our city to the fact that we have so many youth and young adults that have been previously lead poisoned.”
The same problem afflicted Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old woman. She made news not for the toxic paint found in old homes throughout her neighborhood, but for her murder; in 2016, she was shot by Baltimore County police. In its coverage, the Sun described the incident as a standoff. “Totally framing it as though she was initiating the contact,” Brown recalls. In reality, he says, “The officer came into her house and shot her, shot her son, Kodi. This was totally aggressive.” The coverage should have focused on police errors, he adds. “That sort of framing inflicts trauma in and of itself because it misidentifies the problem.”
According to the US Census Bureau, Baltimore has a population of 611,000. More than half of the city’s residents—63 percent—identify as black or African-American. About 30 percent identify as white. In the Sun newsroom, however, only 20 percent of journalists are minorities, according to Renee Mutchnik, the Sun’s director of marketing. “Diversity and inclusion are strategic priorities at The Baltimore Sun,” she tells CJR, adding that four of the eight most recent hires were people of color. When CJR approached six current and former Sun employees to comment, they all declined.
Patrice Hutton, who runs Writers in Baltimore Schools, a nonprofit literacy program, has received glowing write-ups in the Sun. But as a reader, she always has an eye on diversity. “I’m just like damn, this is a newsroom full of so many white people in this majority-black city,” she says. Sometimes, she looks up Sun reporters on Twitter. “I’ll click on their profile and I’ll be, like, ‘What, another white journalist? There are so many of you.’” —Lisa Snowden-McCray
Queens, New York, is one of the most diverse places in the country, where more than 160 languages are spoken and 47.5 percent of the residents are foreign-born. So why did it take The Queens Tribune, the local paper, nearly a half-century to finally come up with a plan to cover the richness of that diversity?
The story of the Queens Tribune’s effort to write about its community as it exists today has as much to do with focus and editorial leadership as the diversity of the staff. The Queens Tribune’s masthead, like those of many other local newspapers around the country, is tiny: two editors and one writer to fill a 20-plus-page broadsheet covering a borough of 2.4 million people. The two editors are white; the writer, Ariel Hernandez, is Latina.
For years, the Queens Tribune presented a picture of the borough that was largely white and focused on coverage of school board hearings, zoning disputes, and local politics. Reporting on the Jamaican immigrant community, which is sizable, was relegated to an offshoot called The Press of Southeast Queens. Among former staffers and many residents of the area, The Press of Southeast Queens was seen as a smaller and less-healthy afterthought to the main news outlet; it didn’t help that the demographics of Southeast Queens were predominantly black, Jamaican, West Indian, and Latinx, whereas other neighborhoods were populated mostly by people of European descent.
Recently, however, the Queens Tribune got new leadership, and with it, a new idea. In April, the paper was bought out by Ocean Gold Media, a newly formed company getting into the publishing-events-creative agency game. Jasmin Freeman, who had been an executive at a media group called City & State, which covers New York politics and policy, was hired onto the management team, and became a publisher and majority owner of The Press of Southeast Queens. “I was a little uncomfortable about that when I first started,” Freeman, who is black, says. The reputation, she knew, “makes it seem condescending in a way: ‘Here’s 16 pages for you, this is all you get, you don’t need to be informed about the rest of Queens.’”
So she decided to relaunch it, as a magazine geared toward people of color. Called simply The Press, the new project was envisioned as a minority-led, minority-staffed, minority-focused New York City–wide publication. Freeman’s first issue of the magazine, which came out in September, was on the theme “Black Beauty” and was timed to coincide with New York Fashion Week. For the second issue, which came out in mid-October, she took on race and sports.
Freeman, who grew up in the upscale suburbs of Long Island (east of Queens), recalls feeling insecure as the only black girl in a predominantly white neighborhood. Now she has a son, who is a toddler, and she finds that portraying strength in identity is top of mind. “I never want my kid to have that insecurity of what he looks like,” she says. In her new job that means, in part, offering a counterbalance to the main Queens Tribune newspaper. “It’s important to have a publication that normalizes us,” she says.
For now, Ocean Gold is treating the Queens Tribune and The Press as two distinct brands. Hernandez contributes to the magazine, but most of its pages are filled by a team of freelancers, the majority of them people of color.
Hernandez, for one, is optimistic that The Press is poised to consistently cover race, class, and culture in a way that the Queens Tribune has not. “The magazine is going to be what The Press of Southeast Queens was supposed to be,” she says. “It’s going to give a lot of people closure. Minorities are undercovered—it’s like they don’t exist.”
Brian Rafferty, who was editor of the Queens Tribune from 2004 to 2011, says he’s hopeful that the new venture will succeed. During his tenure, he attempted to start up a Queens-wide edition to cover the entire community, but that project never materialized. (He wasn’t helped by the fact that, during his time, the paper had no one assigned to cover Latinx communities who could speak Spanish, even though a quarter of Queens residents are Spanish speakers.)
Some staffers describe a newsroom at the Queens Tribune that typifies a local outlet short on resources, with reporters churning out stories based on press releases, tips from politicians, and comments from the few community leaders organized enough to reach out to them. The economics of a community weekly bring a constant demand of deadlines and a limit to how many resources can be devoted to a single story. “It’s not an excuse, but they can’t do everything that they need to do,” Azi Paybarah, who worked for the Queens Tribune from 2003 to 2005, before joining the New York Observer and, most recently, The New York Times, says. “(We were) trying, but it’s a challenge.”
Occasionally, someone on the staff—or a politician who feels that her constituents are being undercovered—voices concerns that the coverage seems homogeneous. “When you look at the paper, you can see it—they are missing some neighborhoods completely and write about others regularly,” Robert Holden, a City Council member whose district is in Queens, tells CJR. “They tend to report on the same things, like community board meetings and politics, and don’t talk to other people in the community or visit other neighborhoods.”
Some staffers describe a newsroom at the Queens Tribune that typifies a local outlet short on resources, with reporters churning out stories based on press releases, tips from politicians, and comments from the few community leaders organized enough to reach out to them.
The Asian populations of Woodside rarely have a voice in the paper; Columbians from Astoria are all but absent; after the publication of an annual story on India’s independence day, Andrew Holt, the chief executive of Ocean Gold Media, realized that the paper had historically ignored the Pakistani community, who also celebrate independence from colonial rule. Hernandez understands the concerns. Because she speaks Spanish, it often falls on her to reach out and encourage more people to share their stories with the paper. There are other groups, however—like the Chinese in Flushing—who are still locked away behind a language barrier.
Holt, previously the publisher of City & State magazine, tells CJR that he’s aware of the imbalance critique.“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he says. “It’s a process.” Yet he points to signs of improvement. The company has, he claims, increased the diversity of its contributor pool—which now includes Gerson Borrero, the former editor of El Diario, the largest Spanish-language daily in New York City—and he promoted Hernandez to feature reporter. He moved the newsroom from a northeast transit desert of Queens to a more central location, in Long Island City, in the hope that staff will become more ingrained in the community.
“The separate publication wasn’t doing the community a service, years of cuts hurt them, and it became pointless,” Holt says. The introduction of The Press, he explains, is meant to restore trust. “It’s all part of the plan to up the quality, produce more investigative work that is exclusive to The Press,” he continues. “I think it’s a matter of, if you present things in a quality way, people will want to read you and seek that out.” —Shaminder Dulai
In 2007, Randall Smith, an investor in New York who specializes in distressed debt, founded a hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. Alden Global, which set its sights on media properties, earned a reputation as a vulture; Margaret Sullivan, of The Washington Post, called it “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.” In 2010, Alden Global acquired a newspaper empire, now known as Digital First Media, which oversees 97 papers. One of them was The Denver Post. In the five years since Digital First Media took over, the Post staff has been cut in half; this year, dozens more people were laid off.
The bloodbath unleashed a rebellion. Post journalists protested in editorials, pickets, and a string of high-profile resignations. In June, eight Post staffers who had left voluntarily gathered for a news conference in the shadow of their old building to announce that they were launching a digital news startup called the Colorado Sun. Backed with seed money from Civil, a cryptocurrency and blockchain technology platform that’s funding a network of local news startups nationwide, the Sun would be reader- supported and ad-free. The ex-Post staffers behind this new publication, one of its founders told a reporter, would be the “A-Team of A-Teams.”
Not long after the announcement, during a panel at the Denver Press Club featuring Sun journalists, an audience member asked about the lack of diversity on its staff: seven of the founders were white and five were male. “It wasn’t until the team kind of came together and solidified that we kind of looked around and said, ‘Well, yeah, this is definitely not as diverse as we need to be,’” Eric Lubbers, the chief technology officer at the Sun, tells CJR. Denver’s population is 30 percent Hispanic or Latinx, according to the latest census, and nearly 10 percent black or African-American.
Four years ago, the National Association of Black Journalists sent an open letter to news media startups about a “parade of recent hires” that did not seem to indicate “a commitment to ensuring that these new newsrooms reflect all the communities they will cover.” Recently, when the Sun hired two more white male staffers, people on social media renewed that plea for racial parity. “Every staff needs more than one person of color and not just to meet a quota and not just to say that we look diverse,” Gabrielle Bryant, the president of the Colorado Association of Black Journalists, says.
Larry Ryckman, the Sun’s editor, says that he hopes to add diversity to the site through freelance arrangements and, in the future, if the staff is able to grow, strategic hiring. Yet Summer Fields, a consultant at Hearken who helps news organizations engage with readers, doesn’t believe that freelance contracts are the answer to newsroom inclusion. Local news sites, she finds, “pick people that they can tokenize and point to that they do not retain—that they don’t offer a job.” —Corey Hutchins
The newsrooms of South Bend, Indiana, just over the Michigan border, cull stories across two states, reporting from the towns, industrial hubs, and college campuses in a region known as Michiana. It’s a conservative and mostly white corner of the country, but African-Americans represent a large share of the population in many cities, including Benton Harbor, Michigan; Michigan City, Indiana; and South Bend. Rural communities are full of Latinx migrant workers and their families. It’s a rich territory for journalism.
But you might not know that from the newscasts. Michael Puente, a WBEZ journalist in Northwest Indiana, says that on South Bend’s TV news, “it’s mostly white images I see.” One local station is ABC 57, which has a majority-white newsroom of about 40 people. When it covers black communities, stories come as a numbing parade of school fights, dead bodies, arrests, bizarre assaults, and lots of shootings. Positive coverage often centers on do-gooderism, like volunteering in a homeless shelter. While there is ambitious reporting about, for example, South Bend’s eviction rates, there is altogether little context about the problems that accompany structural racism. South Bend, Puente says, is a case study in how “it’s not just big metropolitan areas that need diversity” in media.
ABC 57 is on par with nationwide averages for television newsrooms in terms of how many people of color it employs as journalists. Station managers declined to provide demographic data, except to say that there are two Spanish-speaking reporters on staff. Bias in coverage persists. According to Danielle Kilgo, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University, ABC 57’s coverage is “rife with trigger words.” On a recent broadcast, white anchors introduced a story by describing “brawls” and “chaos” that “plague the city,” she says, before “passing the buck to black reporters who report in black communities about issues that are framed as black problems.” Kilgo continues, “The routine segregation of the news broadcast reinforces existing ideas that certain issues are only relevant to particular races.”
When it comes to race, there are also troubling omissions. In September, for instance, an in-depth report on maternal death rates did not mention the fact that African American women are at significantly greater risk. A website search for “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “migrant” show occasional stories on events, like a Latinx networking night, but not in-depth reporting.
Puente sees more opportunities. How is the Latinx community affected by the rising trade war? With Indiana in an opioid crisis, are treatment centers reaching people of color, including Spanish- speakers? The tense political climate may be driving Michiana’s Latinx residents into the shadows. Diverse newsrooms can better draw those stories out, Puente continues, with reporters “who can more comfortably get into these communities.” That means station managers need to be more thoughtful in recruiting. “Having a diverse newsroom is a choice,” he adds. “Any station in a very white area can have a very diverse workforce. It just needs to work harder to achieve it. —Anna Clark
Six years ago, researchers in Houston studied its demographic changes over the past 20 years and determined that worldwide migration had made it the most diverse major city in America, edging out New York. “No city has been changed as rapidly, fundamentally, and irrevocably as Houston,” Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University, says. “This is where the American future is going to be worked out.”
The Houston Chronicle, housed inside a four-story building southwest of downtown, is the city’s only major daily and tasked with covering the increasingly diverse region, of 7 million people. It isn’t an easy job for a paper that is predominantly white. Three-fourths of the city of Houston’s population is composed of people of color, yet, according to the American Society of News Editors, last year, the staff of the Chronicle was more than 77 percent white. “We are just failing at our job at being a paper in the most diverse city in the country,” one staffer, who only agreed to talk about the problem anonymously, says.
Journalists of color working in the Chronicle newsroom have a variety of concerns: they say that not all jobs are posted publicly; that editors often hire through their own networks; and that the positions that are advertised are not shared with professional organizations of minority journalists, which could help attract more diverse candidates. Once people of color are in the door, inclusion and retention pose serious challenges. The highest-ranking editors, all of whom are white, exert great influence, since they determine hiring and coverage priorities and drive the paper’s overall vision.
Last year, when the paper saw an exodus of minority reporters for other jobs, their colleagues circulated a petition to management asking three things: to discuss whether the Chronicle conducted job searches in a manner that reached people of color; to disclose pay ranges across ethnic groups; and to send employees to minority professional conferences. But the effort lost momentum when Hurricane Harvey hit the city. Suddenly, the newsroom had to focus on mobilizing to cover a disaster.
The petition largely fell by the wayside, but the lack of diversity remained. One gap that stands out is the hiring and promotion of Latinx people, who account for 44 percent of Houston’s population, far more than any other ethnic group. (Whites follow, with 25 percent.) On the metro desk, the Chronicle has only one Latina reporter and one Latina assistant editor. There are Latinx journalists on the business desk and on the state, national, and features desks, but daily coverage of Latinx stories beyond immigration is sporadic at best. Two years ago, the sports desk lost a bilingual Mexican- American columnist who covered the Astros and, soon after, the paper ended up in a much-publicized controversy when the reporter who took over quoted Carlos Gómez, a Dominican outfielder, in a way that Gómez found offensive.
Most striking, however, is the fact that Latinxs are wholly absent from management and from any editorial positions where they can inform the paper’s published views. Today, there are no Latinxs among the eleven columnists spread out across various desks, and no Latinxs on the eight-member editorial board. In short, the region’s largest ethnic group is not represented in any position of power.
Anna Nuñez is a faithful Chronicle subscriber who says that she started reading the paper as a child, while her mother, a Mexican immigrant, was out cleaning other people’s homes. Nuñez tells CJR that the absence of a Latinx columnist or editorial board member “speaks volumes about the lack of respect or consideration for the Latino community.”
“This is Texas,” she says. “We’ve got the border crisis, we have so much going on. And now, more than ever, it’s important that we have reporters who know our community way beyond the language. You’ve got to know the nuances. You’ve got to know the culture.”
For years, she has tried to engage the Chronicle. She has visited with editors at their offices, and in June, when the Trump administration’s family separation story broke, she wrote an opinion piece that the paper asked for but never ran. (Evan Mintz, the deputy opinion editor, says that he held it so it could run in a prominent position, but the facts on the ground kept changing; he calls the whole thing “an unfortunate problem of timing.”) Nuñez is frustrated that efforts to engage the Chronicle on the subject of race seem to go nowhere. “I don’t know what else to do,” she says. “How do you make them move the needle?”
Macario Ramírez, a Mexican-American activist who runs a folk art gallery in the Heights neighborhood, near downtown, says that he, too, has campaigned for better coverage from the Chronicle. “We have picketed them more than five, six times, just because of their lack of responsiveness to the community and our needs,” he says. When the city named a street for Cesar Chavez, Ramirez sent press releases but couldn’t get the Chronicle to write about it. Latinxs, he adds, “have been underreported. They should be aware that there’s a huge community in Houston that needs their attention.”
At least one Latina leader gives the Chronicle more credit. Dr. Laura Murillo, the president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says that the paper regularly seeks her input. “I also think it’s incumbent upon our community to make sure we are out there involved and engaged in issues that impact the city,” she says. “We have to be inclusive, and not just for others to be inclusive of us.”
On the fourth floor of the Chronicle building, in the center of the newsroom, is the office of Nancy Barnes, the paper’s outgoing executive editor. Barnes, a Virginia native and 36-year news veteran, started at the Chronicle five years ago, becoming the first woman to lead it. When she arrived in Houston, she recalls, “I walked into the paper and was really surprised” by the lack of diversity.
Though Barnes, who was recently tapped to become the next executive editor of National Public Radio, has been successful in posting high rates of minority hires—over the past four years, 31 to 38 percent of new staffers have been nonwhite—she has struggled to keep them. This year, the paper lost two reporters of color to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Talented minority journalists are highly sought after in an industry where all publications are looking to diversify, she says, and that constant turnover explains some of the gaps on her staff at any given time. For instance, the paper had a Latina on the editorial board, but she left last year. Barnes says that she tries to keep all journalists, not just minorities, by counter-offering “a lot.”
According to Maria Carrillo, minority editors are better able to connect with applicants of color during job interviews, value their full potential in light of their background, and, once they’re hired, embrace and coach their story ideas with nuance.
When it comes to hiring, Barnes acknowledges that job openings are posted for public view “usually,” but “not always.” Sometimes there’s a reason to keep a role unadvertised: a position needs to be filled immediately, or there’s a budget freeze looming, so editors move quickly, to avoid losing the hire. With some beats, like energy reporting, “it’s especially hard to get some of the demographics you’re looking for.” The paper does not have a full-time recruiter, so department heads handle their own searches. Barnes says that she asks them to post each job in several places, always including at least one that will draw diverse candidates. “But I have to constantly be pushing,” she says; otherwise, editors fall back into old practices.
Some desks end up doing better than others. The features desk has 15 writers and editors, seven of whom are black, Latinx, Asian, or Native American. Asked if she’d consider disclosing salary ranges by ethnicity, Barnes says that’s up to the human resources and legal departments.
Maria Carrillo, who was the highest- ranking Latinx editor in the Chronicle newsroom until last year, when the Tampa Bay Times hired her away, says that editors of color are best able to deliver minority hires and improve retention. Minority editors, she says, can connect with applicants of color during job interviews; value their full potential in light of their background; and, once they’re hired, embrace and coach their story ideas with nuance. People of color can easily feel invisible in a newsroom, she says, and when someone at a senior level “values you, values your ethnicity, your culture—boy, that’s just really empowering. I know I’ve felt that way in my career whenever someone took an interest in me and paid attention to me.”
But “having to be the diversity police is hard for all of us,” she says. At the Chronicle, Carrillo organized an informal support group for minority staffers and did most of the mentoring for journalists of color who arrived and found themselves floating. “I became a very popular go-to person,” she says. “But in fairness to Houston, that’s not been any different than anywhere I’ve been, to some degree or other. It’s just that Houston is tougher in many ways because the community is so diverse, and so in the newsroom, it feels so very pronounced.”
Can the Chronicle staff ever fully reflect Houston—a growing, diversifying city? Is that even realistic? “In a place like Houston, it feels like a huge mountain to climb to get to a place where the numbers are reflective of the community,” Carrillo says. In the industry as a whole, “Do I think we can do better? I do. Do I think we can get there? I don’t know,” she continues. “I guess for me, it comes down to, can we afford not to try to do this? I think we’re going to be doomed, because our old readers are not going to be with us.”
Barnes says it’s a process. “Ideally we would mirror our community. I think it’s going to be a long time before we reflect the complexity of the diversity in Houston in particular.” But, she adds, “Could we get to forty percent (ethnic diversity) in five years? Could we get to fifty percent in ten years? I think that’s a reasonable goal.”
She emphasizes, however, that newsrooms need to adopt a broad concept of diversity that considers other aspects of a journalist’s identity, such as class, geography, and worldview. “All of this is really important to have a newsroom that fully reflects the many communities it covers and sees stories through a wide variety of lenses,” she says. “Diversity of thought and diversity of background is also something we have to work on, because if we don’t get people from all walks of life to trust us, as journalists, we’re going to lose.” —Cecilia Balli
A week after she left Orlando, Florida, for a fresh start in Miami, Charlotte “ChaCha” Davis, an LGBTQ activist, was called back. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded in a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub. “When I say African Americans died at Pulse that night and even more were injured, people are like, ‘It was black people there?’” Davis says. “Looking at the news and looking at the media and all the things you saw surrounding around Pulse, the stories and everything else, you would have never thought that black people attended that club.”
It was Latin night when the shooting took place. Initial reports included interviews with leaders from minority communities, but in the week following the breaking news coverage, mention of people of color by the Orlando Sentinel was scarce. Reporters, it seems, had few contacts to work with; the Sentinel’s archives show that, before tragedy struck, hardly any stories had taken a close look at the city’s LGBTQ population. Aside from a piece on an anti-discrimination bill voted down by the Florida legislature and coverage of Disney Gay Days, reports on queer people can’t be found in an archive search.
“We have been and are always studious about the significant ethnic, age, social, political, and economic diversity of our audience and market and go to great pains to be mindful of it when making decisions of all kinds,” Avido Khahaifa, the editor of the Sentinel tells CJR. He declined to provide details about the makeup of the staff. The Sentinel did not report its newsroom demographics to the American Society of News Editors for its annual diversity survey; a CJR review of the staff list, which includes 87 journalists, indicates that far less than half of reporters are people of color. (Racial minorities make up 60 percent of Orlando’s population.) When pressed, Khahaifa replied, “My reticence with regard to your project is a direct result of my experience with similar efforts, the results of which only made our task more difficult as discrete points and observations were highlighted in isolation, creating a skewed picture of just how complex our challenge is and how we approach addressing it.”
When CJR reached out to people of color working at the Sentinel and around Central Florida for their thoughts on newsroom diversity, many declined to comment; one reporter said that she couldn’t risk her job to talk about the lack of advocacy for racial and ethnic minorities in journalism.
Christopher Cuevas, the executive director of QLatinx, an LGBTQ collective that formed in the wake of the Pulse attack to support Latinx survivors, says that the Sentinel, along with other news organizations, fixated more on the shooter than the victims. “We didn’t feel that enough attention had been given to the grassroots efforts led locally by communities of color that worked, often under-resourced, to build a culture of resilience for the most impacted and historically marginalized,” he says. Do members of those communities read the Sentinel now? Anthony Bertram, who used to party at Pulse, doesn’t bother. “It’s not for me,” he says. —Lyneisha Watson
During the fifties and sixties, the Clarion Ledger, the biggest newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, had an explicitly anti-black agenda. In covering school integration, for instance, the paper published stories intended to damage the reputation of the black community. In the years since, much has changed: the paper sold to Gannett, merged with a competitor, and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on education reform. From 2002 to 2011, Ronnie Agnew served as executive editor, the first (and only) African-American to hold that position.
But in Jackson, where the population is 81 percent black, the Clarion Ledger still has a long way to go to reflect the city as it is. Jackson is 17 percent white; the same percentage represents how many people of color work at the Clarion Ledger. That amounts to six people, five of them black and one Asian.
Jackson is the capital of Mississippi; the Clarion Ledger is the state’s largest daily newspaper, with a circulation of 57,700. Readership has fallen over the past 20 years as the recession, combined with losses in advertising revenue as companies go digital, has whittled away the paper’s size. Ten years ago, the newsroom held around 50 staffers; today, only 32 editors and reporters are left to report on the community.
In January 2018, the Clarion Ledger’s publisher departed and was not replaced. Gannett now manages recruitment for its 109 local newsrooms at the corporate level and diversity falls under the purview of Mizell Stewart, the senior director of talent, partnerships, and news strategy. The Clarion Ledger’s executive editor, Sam Hall, who is white, tells CJR, “a smaller market makes it challenging to obtain high-skilled employees of color.” The Clarion Ledger has had some luck bringing in cub reporters through the sports section. But not everyone sticks around. “Retention is always a priority and you want to do everything you can to retain your best talent,” Hall says. “They will eventually want a shot at a bigger market and you can’t hold them back.”
Does the lack of diversity diminish the value of coverage? “The commitment is to do good quality journalism,” Jimmie Gates, a city and legislative reporter, says. Gates, who is black, has been at the Clarion Ledger for more than 30 years. “We always get criticism no matter what we do,” he says. “We have many positive stories about the African-American community that people haven’t read. The good thing is, we have young reporters and veteran reporters that have a lot of ties to the Jackson community.”
Still, there is room for competitors in Jackson, including The Jackson Advocate, Mississippi’s oldest African-American newspaper, and the Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly. “The Clarion Ledger has done admirable work on Klan cold cases,” Donna Ladd, the editor of the Free Press, says. “But it’s not enough when you’re the paper of record in Mississippi, a state with a history of racial oppression.”
“The secret to success in bridging the gap in covering the community is diversity,” Colendula Green, a longtime Jackson resident who reads the Ledger, says. “The Community section, for example, needs to show more.” —Terricha Phillips
TOP IMAGE: Illustrator: Alvaro Dominguez