Nieman Foundation at Harvard
ProPublica’s new “50 states” commitment builds on a decade-plus of local news partnerships
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 24, 2020, 1:40 p.m.
Business Models

The moral argument for diversity in newsrooms is also a business argument — and you need both

The business case for diversity and inclusion in newsrooms is important, but emphasizing the moral case is required for real and lasting change.

This has to be the year that pushes newsrooms to make progress on diversity and inclusion. As the Covid-19 crisis exposed glaring racial health disparities in the U.S., and as the killing of George Floyd prompted global protests against racism, the journalism industry has been forced to confront its own record on race and its ability to cover an increasingly diverse nation. Journalists from marginalized communities have increasingly demanded change. And the recent presidential election coverage continued to expose shortcomings.

Census data from 2018 shows that people of color make up 40% of the population of the United States. According to a Pew Research Center analysis using 2012-2016 data, only 23% of newsroom employees are people of color. A 2019 Radio Television Digital News Association survey found that 14.5% of radio employees are people of color (an improvement from the 11.3% of the year before), and 25.9% of local TV news employees were people of color.

[Two new studies about media and diversity can help newsrooms through their reckoning with racism]

What’s more, over the past decade newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by a staggering 23%, as local papers shuttered, the internet killed the classifieds business, and advertising moved to online. The financial crisis in 2008-2009 forced newsrooms to downsize, and that contraction hit journalists of color especially hard.

In the years since, hiring newsroom staff that reflects an increasingly diverse nation has become, at least nominally, a bigger goal in the industry. As someone who has been in the news business for over two decades, I’ve been regularly asked in newsrooms, on panels, and as a consultant, about the importance of diversity and how best to achieve it on air, behind the scenes, in management, and in the content journalists produce.

One solution that has been espoused in corporate America over the years has been to emphasize the business case: Greater diversity is better for business. You may be aware of this 2015 McKinsey report, showing that of a group of 366 public companies, the ones in the top quartile for racial diversity amongst their management ranks were 35% more likely to bring in higher-than-average profits. The business case is one reason why companies large and small became replete with diversity and inclusion programs.

With that in mind, I wondered: Could the same be true for newsrooms? Could a business case for diversity in journalism bring real change to our industry?

This piece was originally meant to explore these questions. Based on my experience working across network TV, radio, and online news, my thinking was, of course there is a strong business case for diversity in journalism. I’ve learned in real time that the wider the range of perspectives and backgrounds covering the news, the more capable a newsroom will be in reaching a wider audience, the more revenue that audience will bring in, and the more attractive a newsroom becomes for drawing more diverse talent.

Yet even before 2020, many newsrooms had expressed a commitment to higher levels of diversity in hiring, promotions, and content — and progress remained slow. One harsh reality that’s become more apparent this year is that the business case is insufficient for incentivizing leaders to prioritize diversity. What’s needed is for newsrooms to accept a core responsibility to their audience and their employees — a moral case, if you will — to ensure they are covering the stories and experiences of the communities they serve.

I spoke with a number of newsroom leaders and academics. All agreed that although the business case is important, emphasizing the moral case is necessary for real and lasting change. The newsroom leaders pointed out the work that needs to be done to diversify newsrooms — starting with hiring and promoting more people of color, but also committing to diversity as part of a newsroom’s core values and operations. The academics I interviewed stressed the need for newsroom leaders, most of whom are white, to prioritize diversity in editorial and managerial decision making, and especially in hiring middle management and C-suite jobs. All offered compelling advice for where the industry needs to go from here.

An old problem

The need for higher levels of diversity in America’s newsrooms is not a new one. One need only look at the findings of the Kerner Commission’s report from 1968 for proof. The Kerner Commission was assembled in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine systemic issues that led to the “race riots” in cities around the United States that summer. Today, as the Black Lives Matters protests continue, we find ourselves in a country ripe for comparison to the way things were more than a half century ago.

The Kerner Commission report declared: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” It included a scathing assessment of press outlets across mediums, saying they were falling short in accurately covering and capturing these increasingly disparate worlds. The report stated, “the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

The commission went on to recommend a number of solutions, ranging from more first-hand reporting in Black neighborhoods (rather than a reliance on police reports) to more reporting on the full scope of Black life. However, the commission did not account for the notion of inclusion. Back then, the most immediate goal was integrating newsrooms. This meant hiring more Black journalists; it didn’t go so far as to ensure they would have the freedom and support to appropriately cover Black communities.

Martin Reynolds, the co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, which was founded in the aftermath of the Kerner Commission Report to address systemic racism in newsrooms, pointed out the flaws in this approach. “Integration is just that you’re willing to have someone next to you, but you are not necessarily inviting someone over,” he said. “There wasn’t an understanding of how the presence of these folks was valuable for the enterprise.”

In the wake of the George Floyd killing we saw a number of high-profile hires of Black journalists at media companies like The Washington Post and MSNBC. Newsrooms can’t stop at hiring in response to larger social movements; they have to do the hard work of changing their cultures, promoting inclusion and deepening their coverage.

Barriers to diversity

We’ve recently seen just how poorly newsrooms have fared in terms of diversity. A lot of it happened on social media. Journalists have called out their organizations for ignoring and undervaluing people from marginalized communities, for creating toxic work environments, and for discrimination.

Los Angeles Times reporters rallied around #BlackatLAT to draw attention to poor representation, treatment and retention of Black reporters in a city that’s 11% Black.

Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery spoke to The New York Times about the unrelenting criticism of his Michael Brown coverage in Ferguson, Missouri, from his former managers at The Washington Post.

Producers at St. Louis Public Radio publicly organized against the station’s treatment of Black staff, leading the general manager to resign at the end of September.

Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Michael M. Santiago took a buyout from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after being told he could not fairly cover BLM protests because of a retweet. He was one of two Black journalists on staff barred from protest coverage in a controversial decision made by the paper’s then–executive editor.

How did those oft-heralded diversity efforts in newsrooms fail so miserably?

According to Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts, an organizational psychologist at the University of Virginia who has studied the experiences of people of color in journalism, one major problem is that there aren’t enough people of color in positions of power. “When the editors are not diverse, it adversely affects the coverage,” Roberts told me. News stories “can be incomplete or compromised by blind spots, or at worst, can perpetuate negative stereotypes about various communities, especially people of color.” This can lead to everything from selecting stories that only reflect narrow swaths of a community to having limited perspectives in reporting.

The racial composition of newsroom management demonstrates the imbalance. According to the 2019 American Society of Newspaper Editors diversity survey, only 18.8% of all print and online newsroom managers were people of color. A RTDNA 2019 survey shows that only 17.2% of TV news directors and 8.2% of radio news directors were people of color.

The lack of diversity in management can affect editorial decision making and the ability to retain diverse staff. Dr. Roberts found that journalists of color say they are often instructed to remove nuances that reflect their unique perspectives and experiences. Editors would “question the journalists’ ‘objectivity’ as if [their] cultural lens and perspective is something that only journalists of color have as an additional factor that shapes their journalism,” she said, “when in fact all humans have these lenses of cultural perspective.”

This type of “cultural editing” undervalues the expertise of many journalists of color and results in coverage that reinforces stereotypes about diverse communities. It comes as no surprise then how predominantly white leadership can drive both employees of color out of newsrooms and diverse audiences away from embracing the content those newsrooms create. According to a 2020 McKinsey study, 50% of LGBTQ people, 45% of ethnic or racial minorities, and 44% of women have turned down or decided not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion. Not having senior members that represent marginalized communities can be one crucial hint to prospective applicants that a newsroom is less inclusive.

Moving the needle

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, the president of news at Gannett and publisher of USA Today, calls diversity a “declared choice.” She’s heard all the excuses. Managers tell her: “It’s hard. I can’t attract diverse talent. There’s not enough diversity in my community. I hire people but then they don’t stay; or they get a better job offer somewhere else because everybody wants diverse talent.” Instead of giving up, she’s doubled down on hiring and retaining more people of color. She made a public commitment to have Gannett’s local newsrooms match the demographics of their community by 2025, and she launched an emerging leaders program to train new and future leaders of the USA Today network. According to Wadsworth, more than half of the latest cohort were people of color.

Since January, her newsrooms (more than 250 in total, plus USA Today) have added 13 senior leaders, 11 of whom are people of color and seven are internal promotions. She said that she’s especially proud of those numbers because it “shows that we all are really walking the talk we are investing in our people who are getting the training, we are giving them the opportunities to stretch and that’s readying them for roles. I’m not talking about, you know, little management roles. I’m talking about top editor roles.”

She said that the key is in how she hires and develops talent. On the hiring front, she has her managers assess candidates on skills, and she takes on the role of interviewing finalists for senior level roles to evaluate their commitment to fostering an inclusive newsroom.

Wadsworth recognizes that each senior leader hired is responsible for developing the employees that report to them and building an overall newsroom culture that actively values inclusion and diversity. She explained they must be willing to mentor others and “cede [their] own turf sometimes in order to get people opportunities.”

Two of her newsrooms now boast a level of diversity most newsrooms would love to achieve. According to Gannett’s publicly released diversity numbers, Wadsworth’s El Paso newsroom is now 58% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and more than 50% of its leaders are Latinx. Her Corpus Christi newsroom is 47% diverse with more than 60% of leadership also falling into that category. Wadsworth understands instinctively that the more diverse her staff, the more their reporting will reflect their diverse communities.

Another news organization that has worked to increase its reach is WAMU, the local public radio station in Washington, D.C. Between 2014 and 2017, the station doubled the size of its Black and Latinx audiences by hiring more on-air announcers and reporters to better reflect its community. However, diversity on air wasn’t enough. WAMU was one of a number of newsrooms in recent months to experience a management shake-up after employees publicized their concerns about the lack of diversity in management and what they characterized as a hostile work environment that was especially difficult for employees from marginalized communities. The public airing of these allegations ultimately led to the resignation of the station’s general manager J.J. Yore. The station also committed to putting together a more diverse senior leadership team and creating a more inclusive work environment.

Hostility at work is by no means unique to journalism. A recent McKinsey study found that 84% of American workers have faced microaggressions around their identity in the workplace. A 2018 study found that rates of experienced microaggressions were especially high for Black women (40%) and Lesbian women (37%), who reported being questioned about their judgments more than twice as often as their white male counterparts.

Models in action

The reckoning over race in legacy news organizations has prompted many leaders to commit to doing better. They’d benefit from looking to newer organizations that have successfully captured the attention of communities of color.

One example is Blavity, a media company co-founded by entrepreneur Morgan DeBaun in 2014 to fill a space that mainstream newsrooms weren’t occupying: news dedicated to Black Millennials and Gen Z.

Blavity relies on user-generated content in the form of op-eds to gain traction among its intended audience. “We very early partnered with writers, bloggers, and activists to share their voices. To date, a huge part of our content strategy is in partnership with organizations and leaders of Color of Change [and] the NAACP,” DeBaun said.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Blavity was heralded as a darling startup and its audience was growing. Once the pandemic hit and the disproportionate effects on Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous communities became clear, audiences knew where to turn. In May, as discussions around race were heating up, DeBaun said the site brought in 38 million pageviews, up 150% from the month prior.

One ongoing challenge for DeBaun has been raising ad revenue for stories that center on social justice issues. “We run a [financial] deficit when we cover Black racial justice issues because of the way the advertising world and agency world is set up,” she said. For example, “There are keywords that ads cannot run against, and oftentimes those keywords are the exact type of content that we need to be covering.” She said that keywords like “LGBTQ,” “police brutality,” “Black,” and “race” often can’t appear on a page without forfeiting ad revenue. That isn’t stopping DeBaun from continuing social justice coverage, but it does mean she’s had to think about other sources of funding.

Fortunately, she’s been successful in fundraising in the past. She brought in more than $6.5 million for Blavity in 2018 as other media companies targeting younger audiences — Mic, BuzzFeed, Vice, Bustle — were struggling. She also focused on creating multiple companies under the Blavity brand to diversify its revenue stream. In 2017, Blavity acquired Shadow and Act, an insiders’ guide to Black Hollywood, and Travel Noire, a digital brand that caters to adventurous Black travelers. Blavity has an events enterprise anchored by two conferences: Afro Tech, which targets tech companies and entrepreneurs, and Summit 21, designed for women of color, influencers, and creators. (Like so many Covid-19 era conferences, they’ve moved online.)

Blavity’s audience growth suggests that a new generation of consumers want coverage that reflects their experiences and communities, and they aren’t willing to wait for mainstream news organizations. Blavity and DeBaun prove that a newsroom narrowly focused on reaching a specific audience — in their case, Black Millennials and Gen Z — can not only survive but thrive.

Outlier is another news organization that has diversity central to its core mission and works closely with their audiences. [Disclosure: Outlier receives funding from the News Integrity Initiative, but the author retains editorial independence over the findings in this report.] Founded by journalist Sarah Alvarez in 2016, Outlier provides service journalism to communities in and around Detroit, Michigan. The organization’s executive director, Candice Fortman, said Outlier’s approach of cultivating strong relationships with the people they cover has led to the community becoming the “de facto assignment editor” for their newsroom. She told me they’ve built trust with their community by hiring journalists from within it, and she believes this gives them a leg up over other media organizations. While any journalist can learn a beat, she said, “there are also some things that are natural and intrinsic to living a thing that cannot be taught.”

Indeed, a core part of journalism is developing sources, and the more a journalist knows about the inner workings of a community, the better equipped they are to know who to ask, what questions to ask, and how to frame those questions in a way that gets to the heart of the story. If a journalist is from a community they are reporting on, they’re more likely to know the history of that community and be able to put it into proper context for their audience.

Outlier’s prioritization of community exposes a shortcoming in other media organizations: Diversity efforts must involve creating a space where different lived experiences are valued and shared. “You can hire all the people of color you want to, but if you enter them into an organization that at its very core is full of racism and sexism and all sorts of things, then so what? Then you’ve got a staff of folks who are just terrorized internally,” Fortman said.

Creating a safe space for people from marginalized communities is integral to retaining them. That work starts with newsroom leaders being clear in their actions and expectations about what it really means to have a diverse and inclusive newsroom and making sure it is reflected in more than just hiring practices or establishing diversity quotas for sources. To be effective, care must be taken to ensure that newsrooms cover stories unique to marginalized communities and does so respectfully and in ways that don’t reinforce stereotypes.

Following the murder of George Floyd, a number of newsrooms around the country held listening sessions for their teams to open up and share their own experiences with racism. While making room for such listening is a first good step, Dr. Roberts said that’s not nearly enough. It takes daily action to bring about change. “Inclusion is not about potlucks and Black History Month features, it’s about the hard work of helping people to grow and learn and develop and advance in psychologically safe ways,” she said.

In the same way that writing checks for social justice movements and hiring more people for marginalized communities has never been enough to change the culture around diversity in corporate America, listening sessions and hiring/sourcing quotas aren’t enough to change them in newsrooms.

More important and harder than ever

Covid-19 has plunged the U.S. economy into a crisis that has put 30 million Americans out of work. In the first couple months of the pandemic, more than 36,000 journalists lost their jobs, were furloughed, or experienced pay cuts, and more than 200 newsrooms were either forced to lay people off, merged with another company, and/or experienced reduced print runs. This economic crisis has only worsened the fate of a newspaper industry that between 2008 and 2018 saw its revenues plummet by 62% — a loss of more than $23.5 billion, according to data compiled by Pew.

So, to say the least, there are conflicting priorities in newsrooms today. Journalists of color and their allies have been risking their own employment and stifling their career advancements by speaking up about racism and inequality at work, while at the same time, newsroom leaders are having to make difficult decisions about cutting costs. Under tight financial strain, it’s easy to see how efforts to increase diversity — and the people who promote them — might suddenly wind up on the chopping block.

Alfredo Carbajal, managing editor of Al Día at the Dallas Morning News, told me that he fears a rise in layoffs and cuts to diversity initiatives that’s similar to what happened a decade ago. “We’ve seen that many, many times. Unfortunately, in situations of crisis, one of the first things that suffers is diversity [among] our staff.”

Roberts said that journalists of color who have pushed for accountability on diversity in their newsrooms might be especially vulnerable. Many are at a distinct economic disadvantage and have less wealth and financial security when compared with their white counterparts. “They will leave journalism because it’s just not economically sustainable for them to stay,” she said.

Dr. Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia who oversaw the 2018 and 2019 ASNE survey of newsrooms, said the voluntary departure of journalists of color often boils down to a lack of support from newsroom leaders. “The connective tissue in the stories that people told about why they moved from one newsroom to another or why they decided to leave journalism and take one of the communication-related jobs was the influence of a middle manager, usually white males.”

A recent McKinsey & Company study noted that the economic downturn has also forced corporate America to choose between keeping or dismantling their diversity programs — and 27% have chosen the latter. The researchers concluded that holding onto diversity initiatives, even during a financial crisis like the one we are in, could benefit companies’ bottom line in the long term. They argue that “diverse teams have been shown to be better able to radically innovate and anticipate shifts in consumer needs and consumption patterns” and that a “visible commitment to I&D [inclusion and diversity] during the crisis is likely to strengthen companies’ global image and license to operate.”

Gannett’s Wadsworth stressed that now is not the time to cut back on diversity initiatives. “If anything, we have to double down,” she said. Wadsworth emphasized that not only is this the right thing to do from an ethical point of view, it also makes business sense. Doubling down, even in the face of economic hardship, means going after new demographics in ways that show her newsroom is “happy to have paying subscribers and paying readers from all parts of our community.”

Keith Woods, NPR’s chief diversity officer, emphasized that diversity is an ongoing process and one that newsroom leaders have to truly commit to over the long haul. That’s important to keep in mind during especially uncertain times. “The more successful you are, the harder this is going to get,” he said. Once you’ve established a strong track record of hiring journalists of color and giving them visibility in significant roles, they will undoubtedly be recruited by other companies. In good times, newsrooms have to ensure that their pipelines of talent from marginalized communities aren’t limited to just one person and don’t stop at the entry level.

What happens when the only newsroom superstar from a marginalized community moves on to the next opportunity? When newsrooms limit their hiring to one person from a marginalized community, they fall into what Wadsworth calls the “only’s trap.” It’s “the thing that has been the most likely to fail in terms of newsroom organizations and their diversity efforts” because not only is it hard to be the only person from a marginalized community in a mostly white newsroom but it exemplifies a surface-level, “check-the-box approach to diversity.” Wadsworth suggests that newsroom leaders broaden their approach with a “focus not on, ‘Did we hire the one person?’ but, ‘What have we done to nurture that person to make them truly included? What have we done to give that person a duo?’ There’s a power in two.”

The time has chosen us

When I started writing this article, support for the Black Lives Matter movement among Americans was at a record high. A Marquette University Law School poll from June found that 61% of Americans approved of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just a few months later, that number had dropped to less than half (48%) of people supporting it.

How people felt about racism also changed. A CNN poll a week after George Floyd’s death found that 42% of Americans thought race relations were extremely important during this election year, placing race up there with health care and the economy in terms of importance. A June survey conducted by The Economist/YouGov found that 45% of white people in America thought racism was a problem; by August that number had dropped to 33%.

In November, American voters elected Joe Biden as their next president. His running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, made history by becoming the first Black person, first woman, and first South Asian person to become Vice President of the United States. Leading up to the election, there was a lot of scrutiny of white, Black, and Asian voters who live in the suburbs or have college degrees. However, news coverage painted the “Latino vote” as a monolithic liberal voting bloc. Exit polling data, however, suggests that while most Latinos voted for Biden, Trump made gains with some groups. Wadsworth explained that uncovering the differences and nuances within the Latinx community requires committing newsroom resources and time.

“The most pressing issues and experiences of older Cuban Americans in South Florida are different than the issues and experiences most relevant to Central Americans or Mexican Americans,” said Wadsworth. Interviews with Latinx voters in Florida showed that those who those who had experienced socialism in their native countries voted for Trump in larger numbers than their Mexican and Puerto Rican counterparts.

With the election (mostly) behind us and a new administration taking office in a matter of weeks, we are seeing early signs that President-Elect Joe Biden will be following through on his campaign promise to both fight systemic racism and to appoint a cabinet that reflects the full diversity of America. He gave one early hint of his commitment to change in the speech he gave the night he became the President-Elect by thanking what he called “the broadest and most diverse coalition in history” and mentioning “gay, straight, transgender” voters. According to writer and trans activist Charlotte Clymer, that mention carried weight. “It was an extraordinary gesture of support for our community and part of his enduring commitment to trans and non-binary people.” She says she wasn’t surprised. “This is who he’s been. [Joe Biden] was the first national leader to publicly support trans rights back in 2012, the first national leader to publicly endorse trans candidates on the ballot, and he’ll be the kind of leader who ensures no one gets left behind, regardless of gender identity.”

It’s hard not to wonder now if companies and newsrooms around the country, which started to show interest both in more diverse hiring and programming, will follow the lead of the new administration by mirroring these larger trends and pick up a focus on diversity, or whether they will reflect the polling around the Black Lives Matter movement and lose focus on covering and addressing racism and inequality. This is where the moral case for diversity can help us.

As I discovered through my research and interviews, the business case for diversity in journalism is strong. I saw it in the successes of Blavity. I saw it in Maribel Perez Wadsworth’s success in hiring and promoting senior leaders from marginalized communities. I saw it in Outlier’s community reporting.

But there’s something else that stands out with these three stories: They’re not driven just by making money. Rather, each leader showed a core commitment to reflecting the audiences they serve authentically and prioritized supporting journalists from marginalized communities. All three realized they had to get that right in order to serve their audiences and reach new ones. All three knew they could do so in ways that added value to their companies’ bottom lines.

Although overall interest in combating racism seems to be declining, there is one thing I’m hoping will make a difference in newsrooms this time around: Journalists from marginalized communities are still speaking up. While they are limited by ethics codes to what they can say through their employers’ platforms, many have turned to social media to share what they are experiencing first-hand in their newsrooms. These newsroom whistleblowers are demanding accountability and change in a way we haven’t seen since the #MeToo movement. We’re in a moment driven by journalists who are trained to report on facts, fairly and accurately, while also speaking truth to power.

There has also been a growing movement of journalists pushing for newsrooms to not just become more diverse and inclusive but to be actively anti-racist and not afraid to call out racist systems, actions, and/or language. Journalists have pushed back on the notion that objectivity should reign supreme. Instead, many journalists from marginalized communities have called for journalists not to be afraid to call out racism, sexism, or homophobia when it rises to the surface in their reporting, even when it comes from the President of the United States.

As investigative journalist Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” In our newsrooms and in American society, the light has shown us that racism continues to be a problem. It’s the responsibility of both to decide whether this will be a fleeting moment or the time we bring forth real change.

Nicole A. Childers is an award-winning journalist and executive producer of Marketplace Morning Report. She’s also a contributor for the upcoming anthology Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture, and Community, out November 30. This report was made possible by the Talent, Change and Inclusion Community of Practice and the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism. This piece was edited by Nicole Torres and overseen by Ki Sung.

Illustration by Jean Wei.

POSTED     Nov. 24, 2020, 1:40 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Business Models
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
ProPublica’s new “50 states” commitment builds on a decade-plus of local news partnerships
With annual revenue of $45 million and a staff approaching 200 people, ProPublica has been one of the big journalism winners of the past decade. And it’s been unusually willing to spread that wealth around the country.
“Journalism moves fast…philanthropy moves slow.” Press Forward’s director wants to bring them together
“I see, every week, some example of where the two don’t understand each other. Each of them needs to shift a little bit.”
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”