Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

“What general-market local newsrooms fail to understand is that readership is inextricably tied to representation.”

2020 forced several newsrooms to — finally — reckon with the complaints that journalists of color have lobbed for years: The industry is too white, male, and straight. Our collective failure to recruit, develop, and retain talented journalists who don’t fit into any of the above has resulted in narrow coverage of the world around us. The consequence is Americans’ failure to understand what’s going on in their own backyards.

I say “several” because, while many of the country’s largest print and digital outlets have made headway in diversifying their entry-level hires and executive promotions, the same can’t be said for all the newsrooms outside New York City and Washington.

I watched publications in my hometown of Detroit — the nation’s largest majority-Black city — stick to the status quo with multiple job opportunities presented this year. At The Detroit News, where several Black reporters and editors have been laid off or bought out in recent years, a prime managing editor slot — that newsroom’s No. 2 — was filled by a white male Michigan State graduate, who now reports to that newsroom’s No. 1, who also happens to be a white male Michigan State graduate.

In an election year that demanded nuanced commentary and reporting of the Black, Latino, and Arab-American vote, the Detroit market’s largest newsrooms only employ one Black commentator in its opinion sections and one Black reporter in the state capital press corps. A white journalist working at any of Detroit’s publications may offer tough economic circumstances as an excuse for why editors can’t bring in diverse talent, but off-the-record conversations with almost any journalist of color — employed there or not — reveal that newsroom diversity remains a lower priority than, say, rebuilding a subscriber base, scooping the cross-town competition, or coming up with viral tweets about how bad the hometown sports teams are.

What general-market local newsrooms fail to understand is that readership is inextricably tied to representation. When an audience sees itself not just in a paper’s coverage, but also in its bylines, a newsroom’s fortunes can increase as a result. National newsrooms, in my opinion, are on their way to making this click. Local newsrooms still lag.

Where non-white and queer journalists can be found is in community newsrooms that target specific audiences. Weekly newspapers that target Black, LGBT, Jewish, Asian — whatever the identifier may be — have been just as much of a backbone in local news as the dominant dailies in any market. The industry at large — especially in two-paper, hyper-competitive “news towns” like Detroit — don’t acknowledge them as such. Our industry still operates very much on a star system that can usher a young journalist who starts entry-level at a daily to the top. But what becomes of the young journalist who begins at a weekly and doesn’t meet the rigid qualifications to get their foot in the door at a daily?

One potential solution that could aid in the development of young, diverse talent, as well as expand an audience for general-market publications, is to explore synergies between community weeklies and metro dailies. It has long been overdue for general-market papers to change their attitude toward so-called “ethnic” papers. But content-sharing partnerships, reporting collaborations, and other joint ventures (note that I said joint “ventures,” not “operating agreements”) would signal to audiences a commitment to covering all their communities and keeping them informed.

I was buoyed to see a partnership develop between Texas Metro News, a weekly Black newspaper, and The Dallas Morning News that boosts the reach of the former and adds Black-centric content to the latter. In order for partnerships to work, both parties must mutually benefit; there can’t be a situation where one publication, especially the larger one, is dominant or taking an unequal share.

Now, imagine a further exploration of such partnerships: Bringing in funding to hire young, diverse talent, then building a pipeline that would let them enter the same star system we’ve had for years. Or, at the very least, seeing community publications not as being less-than, but as fertile recruiting ground for editors and journalists who are already tapped into their communities.

Aaron Foley is director of the Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

2020 forced several newsrooms to — finally — reckon with the complaints that journalists of color have lobbed for years: The industry is too white, male, and straight. Our collective failure to recruit, develop, and retain talented journalists who don’t fit into any of the above has resulted in narrow coverage of the world around us. The consequence is Americans’ failure to understand what’s going on in their own backyards.

I say “several” because, while many of the country’s largest print and digital outlets have made headway in diversifying their entry-level hires and executive promotions, the same can’t be said for all the newsrooms outside New York City and Washington.

I watched publications in my hometown of Detroit — the nation’s largest majority-Black city — stick to the status quo with multiple job opportunities presented this year. At The Detroit News, where several Black reporters and editors have been laid off or bought out in recent years, a prime managing editor slot — that newsroom’s No. 2 — was filled by a white male Michigan State graduate, who now reports to that newsroom’s No. 1, who also happens to be a white male Michigan State graduate.

In an election year that demanded nuanced commentary and reporting of the Black, Latino, and Arab-American vote, the Detroit market’s largest newsrooms only employ one Black commentator in its opinion sections and one Black reporter in the state capital press corps. A white journalist working at any of Detroit’s publications may offer tough economic circumstances as an excuse for why editors can’t bring in diverse talent, but off-the-record conversations with almost any journalist of color — employed there or not — reveal that newsroom diversity remains a lower priority than, say, rebuilding a subscriber base, scooping the cross-town competition, or coming up with viral tweets about how bad the hometown sports teams are.

What general-market local newsrooms fail to understand is that readership is inextricably tied to representation. When an audience sees itself not just in a paper’s coverage, but also in its bylines, a newsroom’s fortunes can increase as a result. National newsrooms, in my opinion, are on their way to making this click. Local newsrooms still lag.

Where non-white and queer journalists can be found is in community newsrooms that target specific audiences. Weekly newspapers that target Black, LGBT, Jewish, Asian — whatever the identifier may be — have been just as much of a backbone in local news as the dominant dailies in any market. The industry at large — especially in two-paper, hyper-competitive “news towns” like Detroit — don’t acknowledge them as such. Our industry still operates very much on a star system that can usher a young journalist who starts entry-level at a daily to the top. But what becomes of the young journalist who begins at a weekly and doesn’t meet the rigid qualifications to get their foot in the door at a daily?

One potential solution that could aid in the development of young, diverse talent, as well as expand an audience for general-market publications, is to explore synergies between community weeklies and metro dailies. It has long been overdue for general-market papers to change their attitude toward so-called “ethnic” papers. But content-sharing partnerships, reporting collaborations, and other joint ventures (note that I said joint “ventures,” not “operating agreements”) would signal to audiences a commitment to covering all their communities and keeping them informed.

I was buoyed to see a partnership develop between Texas Metro News, a weekly Black newspaper, and The Dallas Morning News that boosts the reach of the former and adds Black-centric content to the latter. In order for partnerships to work, both parties must mutually benefit; there can’t be a situation where one publication, especially the larger one, is dominant or taking an unequal share.

Now, imagine a further exploration of such partnerships: Bringing in funding to hire young, diverse talent, then building a pipeline that would let them enter the same star system we’ve had for years. Or, at the very least, seeing community publications not as being less-than, but as fertile recruiting ground for editors and journalists who are already tapped into their communities.

Aaron Foley is director of the Black Media Initiative at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

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