The Not-So-Great Migration

It started as a trickle. Sylvester Monroe resigned in 2006 as Sunday national editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and, two months later, joined the staff of Ebony magazine. In 2008 the renowned byline of Jack E. White, the first black columnist at Time magazine, began to regularly appear on The Root, where Lynette Clemetson, formerly of The New York Times and Newsweek, was managing editor. By March of this year when Constance C. R. White, once an influential New York Times fashion writer, was named editor in chief of Essence, the trickle had swelled into a river of prominent African-American journalists streaming to black-oriented media.

The names of veterans like Lynette Holloway and E. R. Shipp, formerly of The New York Times; Teresa Wiltz, Natalie Hopkinson, and Michael Cottman, all of The Washington Post; Joel Dreyfuss, formerly of Fortune and PC Magazine, and Amy DuBois Barnett of Harper's Bazaar and Teen People, are turning up in places like Ebony, Jet, and Essence; at BlackAmericaWeb.com, a division of Reach Media, Inc.; and at The Root, the online site spearheaded by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. and published by The Washington Post Company.

Some of these moves were prompted by layoffs and buyouts; others by disillusionment with mainstream journalism or a desire to delve more deeply into African-American issues. Whatever the reasons, with increasing frequency, African-American journalists are reversing the once common trajectory from the black press to the mainstream. New ventures like HuffPost Global Black, a vertical for Arianna Huffington's widely read website that will be launched in partnership with Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, are likely to quicken the pace.

On the one hand, this reverse migration has brought new luster and talent to black-oriented media. On the other, it is further draining mainstream media of diverse perspectives, raising the specter of a retreat to the days of all-but-segregated newsrooms.

Mainstream newsrooms were nearly all white back in 1968, when the National Commission on Civil Disorders famously warned that America was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal." The news media, it continued, reflected the biases, paternalism, and indifference of white Americans and treated blacks "as if they don't read the newspaper, marry, die, and attend PTA meetings." At the time, African Americans held less than one percent of newsroom jobs.

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement became a major national story, and as dozens of American inner cities became the sites of urban riots, African-American journalists employed by the black press finally found a door opening to mainstream media. Some of them said they could name the specific riot that resulted in their hiring.

The black press, then, became a casualty of the integration it had long championed. Unable to compete with the extensive coverage provided by television networks and major newspapers, or the higher salaries they provided, its fortunes dwindled. The Chicago Defender's weekly circulation fell from a high of 257,000 in 1945 to 33,000 by 1970. The Pittsburgh Courier shrunk in the same period from a high of 202,000 to 20,000.

In the years following what came to be known as the Kerner Commission report, African Americans and, later, other members of minority groups, were hired in record numbers, slowly altering the complexion and ideals of American journalism. Among the new hires was Jack White, who left Swarthmore College in 1965 to pursue a journalism career. In 1966 he became a copy boy at The Washington Post. The next year, after covering a riot in Cambridge, Maryland, he was promoted to reporter. In 1972 he joined Time as a staff writer, where he would become Nairobi bureau chief, Midwest bureau chief, deputy chief of correspondents, national correspondent, and, for six years, write his popular "Dividing Line" column. In 1969 Joel Dreyfuss began his career at The Associated Press and went on to the New York Post, The Washington Post, USA Today, Fortune, and PC Magazine, where he was the second-in-line editor. In 2009 he became managing editor of The Root.

Ten years after the Kerner report, the percentage of minorities in mainstream media had increased fourfold, to 3.9 percent, as diversity became an industry buzzword. By 1988, the total number of minority journalists more than doubled, to 3,900, or 7 percent of the newsroom workforce. But newsrooms had trouble stemming a high turnover of journalists of color. In 1985, "The Quiet Crisis: Minority Journalists and Newsroom Opportunity," a study by the Institute for Journalism Education (later the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education), reported that more than 40 percent of minority group members tracked over a ten-year period expected to leave the industry, largely due to a perceived glass ceiling. A year later, the institute released "Musical Chairs: Minority Hiring in America's Newsrooms," which argued that "it is on the battleground of retention that the struggle for full parity" would be won or lost.

Indeed, a Freedom Forum study in 2000 by Lawrence T. McGill found that while the newspaper industry had hired 550 journalists of color each year since 1994, 400 had annually left the business. More distressing were figures showing that 596 journalists of color came into the industry in the year 2000, but by year's end 698 had left. A year later, McGill was commissioned by the then-named American Society of Newspaper Editors, or ASNE (now the American Society of News Editors), to investigate the poor retention rate. Why was this happening? His meta-analysis of thirteen studies done between 1989 and 2000 cited a lack of professional opportunities and an absence of career advancement as two of the main reasons.

At the peak, in 2006, African-American journalists held 5.5 percent of newsroom jobs. But between 2001 and 2011, the number of African Americans in mainstream newspaper newsrooms plunged 34 percent, according to ASNE's 2010 survey. That compares to a 0.9 percent decrease in the number of Asian journalists and a 20.5 and 8.5 percent decline of Native American and Latino journalists, respectively. As of 2010, African Americans, who nationally comprise 15 percent of the US population, hold 4.68 percent of US newspaper newsroom jobs. (The magazine industry does not track minority group employment.) The numbers, said Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, "are devastating."

In 1978, ASNE pledged that its newsrooms would achieve racial parity by 2000. With just 12.8 percent of newsroom jobs held by all minority group members — who comprise 36 percent of the population — the parity goal has since been pushed back to 2025. "Clearly we have issues," said Milton Coleman, senior editor of The Washington Post and the immediate past president of ASNE. "A lot of people are no longer excited about what's happening in the newsroom and left either by choice or by chance. There was the feeling that they were bumping up against glass ceilings, and that the newsrooms they were in were no longer interested in the news they wanted to do. Then on top of it, we have the turn in the news industry."

Coleman said many African Americans come into journalism driven by a passion to illuminate issues in their communities. And that, he said, explains some of the movement to the black press. "People of a like mind saw they could take the skills that they had picked up in mainstream media and go back to ethnically oriented media and make them better." For example, he named a half-dozen journalists — including Sylvester Monroe and Newsday's Mira Lowe; Eric Easter of Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive; Dudley Brooks, of The Baltimore Sun; and Bryan Monroe, an assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder, who had all been lured to Johnson Publishing Company. "Ebony and Jet improved just like that," Coleman said.

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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