August 04, 2004

Unity, Then and Now

Unity, the quinquennial conference of America's minority journalists, opened today in Washington and the convention newspaper led with a story reporting that only 10.5 percent of the Capitol press corps is not white.

This is not surprising news. Why should the reporters who comprise D.C. press corps - still an aspiration of many reporters despite its primarily stenographic function - be any different than the newsrooms from whence they came, which remain stubbornly uni-toned despite years of effort by the industry and by advocates to diversify them.

When the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported this year in its annual newsroom employment survey that the percentage of minority journalists had crept upward a few tenths of a percentage point, I pointed out that despite an educational pipeline stuffed with promising young journalists of color, a confluence of factors - primarily fast-food level salaries and lack of advancement opportunities - were spinning a revolving door that was driving minorities out of newsrooms almost as fast as they could enter.

In the years 2000, 2001, 2002, for example, the ASNE survey found that the base number of minorities in newsrooms decreased or remained. Their newsroom percentage rose only because the industry recession was reducing the overall number of journalists. In fact, between 1996 and 2002, the number of newsroom minorities only rose by 500 people.

Longer term, the newspaper industry has fallen far short of its goal of parity - having newsroom employment reflect that of the nation, which would put minority journalists at about 30 percent of the staff. It now stands at 12.9 percent.

The first Unity conference was held in 1994 during a sweltering summer week in Atlanta (isn't that redundant?). I spent several days there interview journalists at the job fair with the hope of enticing them to San Francisco. I came home with something I expected - a briefcase of resumes - and something I didn't - a different view of my profession, a perspective that was decidedly different, and somewhat disconcerting, from my own.

Until that conference, I never understood at a gut-level the separation minorities must have felt then - and still do - in most newsrooms. For several years I had been working - without much success - to hire more minorities at my newspaper, but it was an intellectual effort, not an emotional one. I didn't truly appreciate the difficulty a minority journalist, especially a young person who hadn't developed the newsroom scar tissue that experience brings, faces in an almost all-white newsroom where, at that time, many reporters and editors viewed "minority hires" with suspicion.

At that first Unity, I felt the emotions of those minority journalists - anger at the discrimination, frustration with the system, impatience with promises not kept and faith in their peers, of whom I was not one. For the first time in a career in which I had always been a member of inner circle - a white, male, aging group - I was an outsider.

That convention changed me. It reinforced my desire to be a better journalist and reawakened my belief that community coverage was at the core of that. It also planted the seeds of frustration with the lack of change in my own newsroom (as well as my inability in how to effect that change).

In the 10 years since the first Unity, the number of minority newspapers journalists has increased 25 percent, to 7,000. The conference itself has grown, from 6000 attendees in 1994 to and estimated 8,000 this year. The agenda reflects some progress - with numerous sessions devoted to management techniques and business-side knowledge, indicating the rise of more minorities into roles of influence within their organizations, but other workshops, "Surviving the Cross-Cultural Newsroom" and "Retention: A Super-Focus Group," demonstrates how little some or the basic challenges minority journalists face have changed.

Some journalists, namely those dinosaurs who think newspapering is all about covering cops and courts and believe that minorities need to "fit in," will dismiss Unity as a self-reinforcing gathering of the diversity choir - but that is not a bad thing. The choir needs to get together. It's called practice. It's about keeping the voice in good form. Unity represents a set of values that are needed in every newsroom - diversity of voice and viewpoint, reflection of community, inclusiveness, elevation of craft - but are often buried in the daily avalanche of news and production. These values need daily reinforcement and minority journalists, often lacking that support in their own newsrooms, have this opportunity to seek that out.

Posted by Tim Porter at August 4, 2004 11:42 AM

Why don't those "fast-food" wages push non-minority reporters out of this business? Could it be because they love the craft and don't do it for the money, while minority students -- egged on by diversity-minded counselors in college -- find themselves in a profession they don't love enough to accept the meager pay? As an editor I went to many minority job fairs only to find Asians with Stanford degrees lining up with inner city kids from HBCUs. Sadly, many newspapers hire the Stanford kids so they can fill their minority quotas and the HBCU kid has to work for a real fast-food company.

Posted by: rivlax on August 4, 2004 12:47 PM
Post a comment