The Not-So-Great Migration

He added that ASNE — with funding from the McCormick and Ford foundations, and coordinating support from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and Unity Journalists of Color — is holding two meetings this year to begin formulating a new case for diversity. The first will be held in June in Orlando during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention and the second at The New York Times in September. Coleman argues that the discussion should be framed in such a way that "the news industry understands that as we go forward, the case for diversity is not a social experiment — it's an industry imperative. As the demography changes, in order to be mainstream you're going to have to be more diverse. And if you're not more diverse, someone will take it away from you."

"Diversity is a part of being accurate in your news coverage," he said. "If it's not, people will not read it. We still need diversity because we still need accuracy."

Kathy Times, of NABJ, said she was taken aback during a recent visit to the Houston Chronicle. She went to the news meeting and "was very disappointed to see not one black editor in that room of about sixteen editors who decide what readers would see." When asked about her observation, Jeff Cohen, the Chronicle's editor and executive vice president, said that, depending on the day, there would usually be two to four editors of color at the meeting (three are Hispanic and one is Palestinian). But he acknowledged the problem.

"We're not where we want to be today," Cohen said. "Diversity is extremely important to me, the management of the newspaper, the readers, the community. But for various reasons, the last two years we've had a slight decline in the number of minorities in the newsroom." Cohen pointed out that 23 percent of the members of the paper's newsroom staff are people of color. (That, he acknowledged, includes the staff of the Spanish-language paper.) He said Houston's metropolitan area, which includes outlying suburbs, is 35 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African-American, and 7 percent Asian. In the city proper, the last US Census showed that African Americans and Hispanics alone comprise 63 percent of the population.

Given the economy and the dearth of available media jobs, the parity goal seems less achievable than ever. Meanwhile, Times notes that black-oriented media often offer her members the opportunity to report on issues — health disparities between blacks and whites, for example — that are close to the hearts of some black journalists, and issues that often are not explored in depth by the mainstream. African-American outlets frequently don't have the same level of resources as mainstream outlets, she said, "but the good news is that some of our members are in a position that they can afford to explore those opportunities because they are very passionate about covering the black community. They're at a point in their careers where they have the luxury."

Many of these reverse migrants describe a sense of relief about working for African-American media after years in the mainstream. "It was like coming home," said Michael Cottman, a senior correspondent at BlackAmericaWeb.com, who in 1978 began his career at the Atlanta Daily World, the city's oldest continuously published black newspaper. In between he worked for The Miami Herald, New York Newsday, and The Washington Post. Cottman said at mainstream organizations he sometimes felt resistance to story ideas or suspicion about his ability to be objective while covering black-oriented subjects. He said at Reach Media, his professionalism is assumed.

Jack White agreed. "You can presume a commonality of interest of editor and audience. There's a comfort zone." At mainstream outlets, he adds, "You had to be ready to fight. My back used to be up a lot. My back hasn't been up."

Mira Lowe, like many of these reverse migrants, described feeling a greater sense of purpose when she moved to an African-American outlet. Lowe joined Newsday in 1989, a year after graduating from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and held a series of copy-desk positions on the features, business, and news desks, and then became the Long Island Life editor at the paper. But in 2007, she jumped at the chance to work for Johnson Publishing, where she was initially hired as assistant managing editor for Ebony and Jet. In 2009, she became editor in chief of Jet, which has a weekly circulation of more than 750,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "I had the opportunity to have an imprint on a legacy brand," she said. "They needed an injection of new ideas, new energy. I felt I could make a difference and give back to publications that have meant a lot to the community."

Sylvester Monroe, a cum laude graduate of Harvard and an author who, over the course of nearly four decades, has worked as an editor or writer at Newsweek, Time, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moved to Ebony in 2006. "There was a time when I never thought I would consider working for Ebony. It was just that that wasn't what I was interested in. But Time and Newsweek are no longer Time and Newsweek, and newspapers have shrunk. Journalism as we once knew it is gone."

Monroe said he was disheartened by his experience at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he said editors "now shamelessly say they don't cover Atlanta unless there's a compelling reason. They've moved to the suburbs. They make no pretense about covering the city." As other opportunities dwindled, he said, black-oriented media "began to look better and better — and one of the reasons is because they needed help. Not just in terms of bodies, but know-how. I got to use what I know and help improve this magazine I grew up with."

Joel Dreyfuss said the failure of the mainstream to embrace diverse viewpoints is helping to drive the reverse migration. From 1996 to 1997, he was editor in chief of a weekly black news start-up that, despite support from a business executive named Donald Miller and seed money from Dow Jones, never got off the ground. "I always felt we needed a chance to tell our stories without filters," said Dreyfuss. "A lot of us are now seeing the possibilities of unfiltered content."

But Dreyfuss and others point out that black-oriented media can pose their own set of challenges, including limited resources. Many of the journalists initially recruited from the mainstream by Johnson Publishing beginning in 2006 have since left. Some confided that they were asked to pay their own way on assignments, while others described the shock they felt at having to use outmoded equipment. Lowe said while her salary at Johnson Publishing was competitive with the mainstream, other resources were lacking. (Last August the company appointed Desiree Rogers, the former Obama White House social secretary, to be chief executive and announced a major reorganization.)

Dreyfuss said while editors at The Root receive full-time salaries, most of the writers are freelancers, so they do not have the benefits offered in mainstream journalism. And Jack White said that there are fewer opportunities to do original reporting. "I wish that something like The Root had had the money to cover the Obama campaign the way I covered the Jesse Jackson campaign," he said. "The big weakness is they can't pay for reporting. We're recycling in a lot of cases. There's something reductive."

He and others stressed that this is among the many reasons why diversity in the mainstream still matters. Otherwise, "We go right back to where we started after the Kerner Commission," White said, referring to the 1968 National Advisory Commission report.

Yet Coleman points out that while resources are more plentiful in mainstream media, they have little value if you can't use them to pursue what you think is important. "What good does it do you to be in a newsroom with a lot of resources if you can't do what you're there to do?"

 

Tags: african-american, american society of newspaper editors, ariana huffington, asne, black entertainment television, chicago defender, civil liberties, ebony, essence, freedom forum, huffpost global black, jet, journalism, journalists, kerner commission report, mainstream media, minorities, new york times, newsroom, newsweek, pittsburgh courier, the root, time, usa today, washington post

    • Pamela Newkirk
    • Pamela Newkirk is professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the prestigious National Press Club Arthur Rouse Award for Media Criticism. She is also editor of Letters from Black America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Beacon Press), and A ...

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