The checkout-line display of tabloids at the Jewel grocery on Route 31 in Aurora, Ill., gives shoppers a choice of English or Spanish-language headlines. On this Sunday, so does the local newspaper. “Aqui estamos (Here we are),” reads a front-page headline in The Beacon-News, one of the Hollinger dailies in Chicago’s outlying counties. In the story, Michelle Krupa, the paper’s sole Spanish-speaking reporter in a city where one in three residents are Hispanic, writes (in English) about how the two languages are spoken side-by-side in churches and on street corners. Krupa, a social-services reporter, compares it to her Polish-speaking grandfather’s Chicago neighborhood after World War II. The Beacon-News newsroom doesn’t match the ethnic variety of its readers, but Beacon-News reporters are working to address the needs of their diverse community. Krupa’s piece was part of that work; it was part of a series called “Celebrating the Difference” that the 32,000 circulation paper ran in May. Such series are just one way small newspapers are addressing the growing diversity of their communities. Few small towns can boast of a multiracial newsroom: Just as the 2000 Census began reporting unexpected growth in the U.S. minority population, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ own annual census of daily journalists this year showed the first proportional year-to-year minority drop in 23 years. Racial minorities make up 30 percent of the population but less than 12 percent of newsrooms, with more ground lost among newspapers with less than 50,000 circulation. “Hiring at smaller papers can be difficult,” said Deb Flemming, editor of The Free Press in Mankato, Minn., a paper in Dow Jones & Co.’s Ottaway chain. “As much as you want to increase the diversity in your newsroom, if your community is not diverse, candidates do not want to work where they are the only person of color, and we are competing for these candidates with papers the size of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.”
A recent Freedom Forum initiative aims to train as many as 50 people from non-traditional backgrounds and place them in two-year stints at small newspapers with mentors to further develop their skills as reporters, editors or photographers. The program, developed with the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors, involves setting up a “boot camp” in Nashville for editors’ local recruits, graduates of small colleges, former military journalists and other candidates from outside journalism schools. The Freedom Forum will send the new hires to conferences for networking and supplement their small-paper incomes with $20,000 stipends. “Money is a big thing,” said Joe Distelheim, editor of The Huntsville (Ala.) Times, an Advance Publications daily with a 77,000 circulation. Flemming recently succeeded him as ASNE’s small newspaper committee chair. “The way I look at it,” he said, “the problem isn’t finding jobs for people with bright, shining newspaper degrees and two internships. Small newspapers aren’t finding them.” Another problem that some papers have run into is finding the right mix of diverse coverage. One of the most ambitious approaches, a Spanish-language weekly section produced by The Times Daily (circulation 38,000) in Florence, Ala., folded in April after less than a year of publication. De Nosotros, an insert that was wrapped around the Friday paper at key locations, broke even only in its first month and did not increase rack sales, said executive editor Kathy Silverberg. The Times Daily, a New York Times Co.-owned newspaper, might yet revive De Nosotros as a free weekly. Most smaller papers try to cover emerging communities with the resources at hand. “We expect stories that reach deep in the communities, stories with heart,” said The Beacon-News sunday editor Denise Crosby, who produced the The Beacon-News diversity series. “I write columns for our paper, and that’s kind of my philosophy too, just bringing some humanness to your paper. If your phone is not ringing three or four times a week from people that read your story and thought you were someone they could talk to, you’re not doing your job.” Among the strategies small-newsroom editors can bring to bear in reaching into increasingly complex communities: • Keep close tabs on the minority support system, including local churches and social service agencies. “It’s the same skill we use as reporters, making contacts with the people who have the information we need,” said Silverberg. “It’s just old-fashioned reporting techniques.” • Don’t neglect developing your reporters. Send them to the local junior college for foreign-language classes. Convene on-site classes conducted by senior staff, local educators or community resources. “We brought in readers to talk with us about community perceptions and media perceptions,” said Bill Church, managing editor of Gannett’s Palladium-Item in Richmond, Ind. “They saw good things but also areas in which they would like to see us more aware of racism and its ramifications.” The Beacon-News series grew from a Thursday newsroom writers’ group that Crosby leads as writing coach. Crime reporter Brian Shields suggested that reporters build a diversity series from examples gleaned on their beats. Crosby coached the writers to take the risk by adding personal reflections. “I told them it does not necessarily mean it’s first person, but the reader has to know it’s your feelings,” said Crosby, a columnist for the paper. Shields went so far as to write about a cousin in prison. “In Aurora, we have to write a lot of bad news,” Crosby said. “There’s a lot of crime here, and a lawsuit about racial profiling. Most of our reporters came from white, middle-class backgrounds and nice schools, and what they saw on their beats profoundly affected them.” • Grow your own minority recruits. Groom high-school minorities for an open newsroom spot after college, or use them now on a teen-feature or prep-sports page. “We have one staff member that started as a high-school writer,” Silverberg said. “Two or three of our staff members have gone to a minority high-school workshop at the University of Alabama, and some have been interns.” “If you can do it,” said The Huntsville Times’ Distelheim, “those are the people who stay with you. Traditionally the small newspapers hire young reporters. The 10,000- to 30,000-circulation paper doesn’t expect to keep these people for life, unless something ties them to the community.” • Diversify your non-news features. Look for minority voices in your op-ed or comic-page choices. • Try another content audit. Many editors have experimented with marking up back issues to gauge the extent of minority coverage, the diversity of sourcing or the light in which minorities were cast. But regular analyses of this type can be hard to sustain. Such surveys have gotten more sophisticated. The ASNE/APME Time-Out for Diversity this May used an extended analysis kit, drafted by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Journalists were invited to guess newsroom demographics and probe content along economic or generational fault lines. The analysis also looked for racial, gender or urban-rural splits. “A story about taxation affects the young person differently from the senior citizen,” Church said. “The reality is that diversity goes beyond race.” • Involve the community by listing reporters’ contact information and involving community members in the paper. Distleheim has a pool of community activists who write on local issues. It’s not civic journalism, he said. “It’s just journalism journalism.” New editorial hires in Aurora must go through a local Study Circles program. Local governments, school boards, YWCAs and other civic groups nationwide take part in these small groups, a legacy of the 19th-century Chautauqua movement. Citizens from all walks of life hash out community issues. Beacon-News City Hall reporter Mike Cetera’s contribution to the Aurora diversity series was a piece about how his Study Circles participation forced him to confront his early view of Aurora as “gangs, drugs and a riverboat casino.” • Keep at it. “Amid all the responsibilities an editor has there is one they cannot ignore,” Flemming said. “If you really believe you exist to serve your readers you have to understand them, and that means all of them.”
Stephen Rynkiewicz, a former SPJ diversity chair, produces business news and database projects, including the 2000 Census, for chicagotribune.com.
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