Lack of newsroom diversity is one cause of newspaper crisis

by Mark Fitzgerald, Editor and Publisher

Minority journalists warned for years that diversifying newsrooms was critical to newspapers' survival. The industry's failure to make more than the barest progress towards diversity partly explains its current crisis, the president of the umbrella group for journalists of color said Tuesday.

"We've been screaming for years that this is about survival," said Rafael Olmeda, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel assistant city editor who heads Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. "The industry failed to make changes, and now it is now reaching the audience it wanted to reach."

Olmeda and the leaders of the four associations representing minority journalists spoke on a conference call Monday reacting to last week's daily newspaper newsroom census that showed most minority groups are losing their jobs at a higher rate than newsroom employees in general.

"Years of progress were erased, and now newsrooms are moving in the opposite direction from the demographic composition of the communities they serve," said Seattle Times reporter Sharon Chan, president of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

The leaders of associations representing black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American journalists said they well understand that newspaper employment is shrinking. But they said they are alarmed about numbers showing minority newsroom employment falling faster -- and that the idea of employing newsrooms that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity has been a principal victim of industry cutbacks.

"This year we were not talking progress by any stretch," Olmeda said. "We were just hoping the regression would not hit us ... disproportionately. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly it did have a disproportionate effect on journalists of color. It did have the effect of removing more minorities from newsrooms."

The annual census by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) found that overall newsroom employment fell 11.3%. The number of white journalists, who comprise 86.59% of newsroom employment, fell by about the same number, 11.4%.

But the number of black journalists, who now comprise 5.17% of newsroom employees, fell by 13.55%, and the number of Asian Americans, who make up 3.14% of newsrooms, fell by 13.36%, Unity said. Hispanic journalists, 4.47% of newsrooms, fell by slightly less than the overall total at 11.0%. Native American journalists, who comprise just 0.6% of newsrooms, actually increased their numbers by 3.17%.

O. Ricardo Pimentel, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial page editor who heads the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), said there's little comfort in the fact that there has still been a net gain in Latino newsroom employment of about 1.1% since 2000.

"That occurred in a time of phenomenal growth in the Hispanic community," he said. "It makes no sense for the number of Latinos to shrink in the newsroom while Latinos in the community grow."

Retaining diversity in a time of retrenchment, Pimentel added, will "help the newspaper industry remain relevant."

Unity leaders called for an industry summit, including publishers, editors and representatives of the Newspaper Guild, this summer to discuss diversity. Association leaders said diversity may be revived as an industry priority with face-to-face discussions at the as-yet-unscheduled summit, which may be held during the AAJA convention in mid-August in Boston.

article originally published at Editor and Publisher.

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