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May 17, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Business Models

“The choice of 2 very unhappy headlines”: ASNE will focus on newsroom diversity, not jobs lost

“We don’t want this to be a headline about ‘X number of jobs were lost this year in journalism.’ We kinda know that, unfortunately.”

“U.S. newspapers see more bad news, as jobs decline.” “Newspaper newsrooms suffer large staffing decreases.” “Newspaper industry lost 3,800 full-time editorial professionals in 2014.” The halving of America’s daily newsrooms.”

Executives at the American Society of News Editors are sick of headlines like these being used to sum up ASNE’s annual newsroom diversity survey. It’s not that newsrooms aren’t losing jobs; they are. But the survey, launched more than 20 years ago, was never really intended to provide a quick snapshot of the general state of health of American newsrooms. It’s supposed to be a reflection of how newsrooms are doing at hiring women and people of color. And they are doing badly.

“In many legacy news organizations, moving the needle on staff diversity took a back seat to the survival of the enterprise,” ASNE president Mizell Stewart III wrote this month. “Instead of a tool to keep issues of diversity on the front burner, the ASNE survey was used as an annual barometer of the changing fortunes of local newsrooms.” In the meantime, diversity figures at newsrooms barely budged; in 2017, they are nowhere near “parity with the percentage of people of color…in the U.S. population” that ASNE had hoped for by the year 2000.

“In my more pessimistic moments, I believe our industry has made little progress since 1968,” Stewart wrote.

The fact that newsrooms are still so male and so white should be the focus of the headlines and coverage of the survey, argues Teri Hayt, ASNE’s executive director. Why? Because shrinking newsrooms are, frankly, a given at this point. The mix of people who work there can change.

“You have the choice of two very unhappy headlines,” Hayt told me. “‘You’ve lost jobs’ and ‘You haven’t really moved any numbers on the diversity issue.'” Given that state of affairs, ASNE is revamping its survey (which is backed by the Knight Foundation) and enlisting help from Google and other partners — to make diversity more of a focus and to include more online-only outlets that are doing a better job of hiring all different types of people than traditional newsrooms are. (ASNE’s survey last year found that, in 2015, people of color made up 23 percent of the workforce at digital-only sites, compared to 17 percent at daily newspapers.) I spoke with Hayt about why she thinks newsroom diversification has been so slow and what she thinks ASNE can do to help change it.

Laura Hazard Owen: What’s the history of this survey and why do you think it’s become, as Mizell Stewart wrote, an “annual barometer of the changing fortunes of local newsrooms,” which it wasn’t intended to be?

Teri Hayt: We’ve been doing it since 1978. It gets quoted everywhere, but unfortunately in the last, I would say, 10 to 15 years, maybe, it has become this headline about how many jobs were lost in the industry. That is a question we ask — have you lost jobs? — but it was never intended to be the focus of the survey. The focus of the survey is to try and get an accurate measurement of the diversity in our news organizations across the country. And we have not seen that number really appreciably move.

Owen: What are you changing to improve it?

Hayt: We realized we really were not measuring the online space. We’ve added more online organizations, large and small, as we’ve gone through this, and worked with other partners who are aware of more online organizations and are willing to share, but we don’t even have a good feel for — and I’m not sure anybody does, even though I’m on news association and they’re very good — who’s operating in that space as a news organization. So it really became necessary to look at that survey, to keep the valuable parts, and to ask some different questions and try and provide context to what these numbers mean.

Last year, we asked an open-ended question about the recruitment process: What do you do for recruitment and what do you do to retain employees? This year, we’re asking people to share best practices on inclusive coverage: Does your organization publish news that reflects the sensitivities of minority communities? And we’re asking them to share what they’ve done in terms of community building and engagement, asking them to specifically list projects that have had an impact that connect with minority communities. If you want to build back trust — which is the word nowadays and it’s absolutely spot on — you have to be reflective of the communities you’re covering. That’s not news, everybody knows that.

Print products are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, but the online end of things is really expanding. The idea behind a lot of our changes and some of these open-ended questions is to look at organizations that are willing to share where they’ve had success: What did that success mean to your community, to your news organization’s bottom line?

We don’t want this to be a headline about ‘X number of jobs were lost this year in journalism.’ We kinda know that, unfortunately. We want to focus on the diversity in the news organizations, and hopefully offer some good ideas or best practices.

We started to reach out to the online-only outlets, like BuzzFeed, just in the last year or two. Getting our arms around who’s operating in the online space is a challenge, but we’ve got a lot of good partners and they’re helping with that.

Owen: Google News Lab is helping with the survey this year. What’s its role?

Hayt: Google is helping us push it out there, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to build a database. Right now, the data’s in a very 1970s kind of grid on our website. The Google folks want to help us compare those numbers year to year, to show what the numbers really mean and really reflect.

We want to give opportunities here to do deeper dives on information. The Google funding — and we potentially also have another partner coming on board — will help us provide context in numbers, hopefully provide some best practices. Every news organization is stressed.

If we can help our members, and journalism organizations, members or not, this is a win-win or all of us. But first we have to get them to fill out the darn survey.

Owen: Why do you think the coverage of the survey tends to focus on number of jobs lost instead of the diversity of the newsrooms?

Hayt: I don’t know, I really don’t. It’s [chuckles] ah, god. To focus on X number of jobs lost, whatever it was — 5 percent, 10 percent — it makes for a short headline, it talks about shrinking news media, and on and on and on. Any loss of a job in journalism, as far as I’m concerned is a tragedy, but we’re seeing this continue and continue and continue. While it’s not not news — it’s certainly news for the people who lose their jobs, incredible journalists who are no longer working — I don’t know why it’s always kind of the focus, when we should be talking about how the number of women in leadership positions has only increased by X in the last five years. Why aren’t we seeing the number of people of color employed in newsrooms move beyond 12 and 15 percent when we’ve been doing this and talking about diversity for, what, more than 20 years, maybe more than 30 years?

So you have the choice of two very unhappy headlines: “You’ve lost jobs” and “You haven’t really moved any numbers on the diversity issue.”

We are seeing headlines now about news deserts. That’s not something that happened overnight: This has been going on now for a number of years. The fact that our diversity numbers are not moving: Again, that has not just not happened; it has not been happening over a number of years.

So we want to take a look at what those numbers are now, and do a deeper dive on what the meaning of that is —
and then hopefully come up with some answers or best practices or something that can help a smaller organization, or help raise awareness in a medium-sized or larger organization that just didn’t have the time to think about it or didn’t consider something different.

Owen: Do you have any personal theories on why the process of diversifying the newsrooms, in terms of both race and gender, has been so slow?

Hayt: I think there are so many different reasons, and I don’t think any of them are necessarily valid excuses. I was in a newsroom for 30-plus years before I was doing this. I can see it, I understand it, I lived it. But there are ways to, you know, bring more people of color into your news pages that aren’t necessarily that difficult. I mean, what are you photographing over the weekend? People want to see themselves reflected in news pages and it’s not necessarily about just hard news: Where are you out there in the community?

Owen: Last year, ASNE briefly said that it would no longer release diversity statistics from individual news outlets. Then you changed your minds. Why?

Hayt: A couple of organizations requested that their information not be released. We agreed — a decision that did not fit with our mission. It was a mistake, and we corrected it and posted all the information a few weeks later. We want to and need to be transparent with these results, and we will be going forward.

Owen: Will the survey still ask the question about loss of jobs overall?

Hayt: We are still asking that, but trying to put it in a little bit of context: How many jobs were lost and how many jobs were added? Certain jobs have been lost, like copy editors, unfortunately, but other jobs are being added. It’s almost a — I was going to say tradeoff, which is not a good word. It’s not a tradeoff. When you lose a copy editor, you’re losing incredible institutional knowledge, your last line of defense against errors, against bad grammar, against everything. But if you’re deciding that your copy desk is going to go into some hub somewhere, you might be given an opportunity to hire more people who then come online and are doing more video and are doing other things for you.

Owen: When will the results be published?

Hayt: I would love to get 50 to 60 percent feedback. I’m shooting between August and September at this point, and I think it’s attainable. With the amount of conversation that’s currently going on about trust, mobilization around diversity, this is a year to really capture that. You’ll be seeing us ask you if you’ve filled out your survey yet.

Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 17, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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