Until a colleague mentioned it, Dana Slagle didn’t know she worked as the only black person, the only non-white person at all, in the small newsroom of The Herald-Palladium serving Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, Mich.
“He said, ‘You’d think it was the early 1900s because there are no black reporters here,’ (and) that was the first time I’d realized it,” said Slagle, 34. In September, she joined the staff of the paper that calls itself “The Newspaper for Southwest Michigan.”
“I’ve had (local residents) say to me, ‘I’m glad you’re over there,’ ” Slagle said. “Or people say, ‘You mean they got a black reporter?’ One day, I got asked that so much I said to San Dee (Brown), who sits next to me, ‘San Dee, am I the first black reporter here ever?’”
She’s not. But she’s not far from it.
Only a “handful” of minority reporters have worked at the paper since it began publishing in the late 1800s.
And so The Herald-Palladium remains a part of an ambitious goal set by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. ASNE wants to improve news coverage by increasing the number of minorities in newsrooms nationwide. The organization serving daily newspaper editors wants to see U.S. newsrooms by 2025 reflect the racial makeup of communities they cover.
It’s not an easy goal to achieve for any newspaper, although large newspapers can afford to attack the issue on the job fair circuit, often used to recruit minorities. Also, minority journalists typically gravitate to urban areas served by larger newspapers.
But for papers such as The Herald-Palladium, which for years had no minorities in its newsroom, meeting the goal is especially difficult. It struggles against lagging circulation and a dwindling reporting staff.
It can’t afford to make “adding color” to the newsroom a top priority.
But it’s easy to understand why newsroom diversity might be important for The Herald-Palladium. The paper’s nearly allwhite staff is responsible for covering the racially divided communities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.
Benton Harbor comes with high unemployment and low incomes and more than 90 percent of its residents African-Americans.
Across the St. Joseph River sits St. Joseph, an affluent resort town on Lake Michigan and predominately white. The ASNE goal and the paper’s priorities and the community’s makeup beg the question: Just how much impact can one African-American journalist have on a local newspaper and the community it covers?
‘ONE’WAY TO LOOK AT IT
The Herald-Palladium newsroom offers the feel of an army barracks.
It’s about the size of a basketball court and takes up one sideof The Herald-Palladium building.Metal filing cabinets in military green flank the walls along with metal “Army-drab” desks. The fluorescent lights provide a dim signature, and the wall clock looks like one you might find hanging in an old classroom with its big white face and large black numbers.
Dave Brown’s office sits just off the large, open room that houses his staff. Brown, the managing editor, directs six news reporters, two feature writers, three sports reporters, a clerk and a summer intern, along with other staff that puts the newsroom personnel at about 30.
In 1984, Brown came to the paper from a job as editor of a county weekly. He became managing editor 13 years later. Since 1997, Brown has hired three African-American reporters. Two stayed about a year. One left for personal reasons and the other because of a job opportunity at a larger paper.
Slagle is Brown’s third minority hire. The first person Brown ever hired at the paper was an African-American, the newsroom’s clerk. The clerk moved.
Brown, 44, has lived in Michigan most of his life. He went to high school about 25 miles away in Buchanan. Today, he lives in a racially mixed, middle-class area southeast of the city of St. Joseph, called Fair Plain. His evening drives home to his wife and three boys take him through streets where black and white kids play together, he said.
Brown enjoys a pretty good situation as editor of a small paper. The publisher lets the editorial side run itself, Brown said.
“He doesn’t come back from a Rotary meeting and say, ‘Cover this story,’ ” said Brown. The Herald-Palladium is owned by Paxton Media Group, a family-owned newspaper group founded in Kentucky in 1896.
Also, Brown doesn’t worry about pressure from his advertising director to run a story.
“Advertising pressure can be a serious problem for a small paper,” he said.
Still, he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like for newsroom mentoring and management, and he must lay out Page 1 a couple days a week.
His biggest concerns don’t include minority hiring.
He’s more worried about covering a large region with a dwindling news staff, a tight budget and declining readership. The paper’s circulation is about 28,000, about 9,000 subscribers less than 20 years ago.
As longtime Herald-Palladium columnist Rick Ast III puts it, diversity in a newsroom “is a worthwhile goal, but … we have other problems. The discussion is a little like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”
Brown looks at it another way.
“I don’t accept the notion that we can’t do a good job if we don’t have parity,” said Brown, referring to the ASNE term for equality between a community’s demographic and the news staff covering it.
“We’ll never be a perfect reflection, but the more reflective we are of our community, the better we are, and that should be our goal.”
Slagle offered this view. “I fully support the notion of what (the) ASNE is doing to try to encourage diversity in the newsroom,” she said. “But when we talk about diversity, it shouldn’t be just about race and skin color. I’d like to see a diversity of thought.”
When hiring, Brown advertises on Web sites that attract minority journalists such as that of the National Association of Black Journalists. From what he can tell from the applications, not many minorities apply to his paper.
The paper doesn’t have the resources to regularly do the job fair circuit or attend journalism conventions, both venues where larger papers often recruit top minority journalists, he said.
Yet, hiring Slagle was easy.
“She’d been freelancing for a month, and she was a natural and from the area,” Brown said. “We didn’t have to do anything special.”
As Slagle drove her gray Toyota Camry through the neighborhood in Fair Plain where she grew up and where her father and brother still live, she offered this thought: “Somebody said to me, ‘We haven’t had so many black stories (until) you came to the paper.’ I don’t know if it’s black stories or just different stories. Race is not the primary reason I choose to do a story. Maybe it’s my way of really showing our white readers what’s going on in the black community.”
Slagle admits that she worried a bit once it sunk in that she was the only minority reporter at The Herald-Palladium.
“After I realized it, I started thinking, ‘I hope I don’t offend anyone or I don’t make anyone uncomfortable,’ ” she said.
She had other thoughts, too.
“You wonder if they’ll be less room for error,” she said. “But that hasn’t happened.”
Two years after college, where she graduated with a telecommunications management degree, Slagle worked for WSJM-AM 1400, a local news and talk station that hired her to cover Benton Harbor.
“I thought that was a smart move because people opened up to me,” Slagle said.
The radio experience prompted her to get a master’s degree in journalism, which she did in 2003 from Michigan State University.When she graduated, she began freelancing at The Herald-Palladium.
“There — that’s the house I grew up in,” she said while nod-ding toward a single-story white brick home with white trim in St. Joseph Township.
It’s an area that is far more racially diverse than Benton Harbor, where she attended public high school and “one of the safest neighborhoods around here,” she said.
“Benton Harbor has always gotten a bad rap,” she said. “I’ve never seen a drug or been offered any. (Outsiders) think that just because you’re black or live in Benton Harbor, this is what you’re surrounded by. It’s insulting.”
After a few turns and traffic lights, she arrived at her home in St. Joseph that she now rents with her new husband, Cooper, and her daughter, Jessica, 15, from a previous relationship. Jessica’s father died of cancer soon after she was born.
It’s a cream-colored bungalow on a block made up mostly of white residents, said Slagle.
In August, Slagle — tall with relaxed shoulder-length hair often pulled back in a headband — married Cooper, who is white.
The two generally haven’t had much trouble in the neighborhood or elsewhere in the community, although she did have to special order a biracial wedding-cake topper from the local bakery.
“When I asked at the cake place if they had a black bride and a white groom, she said, ‘You’re marrying a white man? Why?’ ” Slagle said. “And she was white. She seemed shocked. Surprisingly, I don’t get that too much.”
Slagle’s interest in journalism started in high school.
“I always loved to write in high school, but I didn’t have a role model or mentor,” said Slagle, whose father attended junior college and whose mother never went to college.
“We all did it together,” she said.“My parents watched (Jessica) while I went to college. It took me a long time, but I made it.”
As for Slagle’s presence in the Benton Harbor community, she may be better known as a hometown girl returned rather than the sole African-American reporter on The Herald- Palladium staff.
Some notice her. Some that you think might, do not.
For example, when the editor of The Benton Spirit, a free weekly newspaper that devotes itself to boosting the community and positive news, was asked about the impact of Slagle’s reporting on The Herald-Palladium’s coverage of Benton Harbor, she said:
“I’ve never seen her. She is not in Benton Harbor covering anything.”
The editor, Princella Tobias, hollered out from her makeshift office in a warehouse that the Spirit occupies, “Does anybody know Dana Slagle?”
One woman said she knew Slagle because Slagle attended the same church. She also recalled Slagle’s recent story about a group at the church. The other person in the office claimed Slagle as a cousin.
ACCURACY AND INSIGHT
The impetus behind the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s parity goal is that minority reporters bring a different approach to reporting and writing than white reporters. A diverse staff is important when reporting on a diverse community, the thinking goes.
“We think it’s important as a matter of accuracy,” said Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “I don’t mean spelling and grammar. I mean accurately reflecting the community that you serve.”
It’s wrong to assume journalists of color are there to cover issues of blacks and Hispanics, said Bosley, the former editor of The Detroit Free Press.
“They are there to be journalists,” he said. “They bring a perspective that allows a newspaper to miss fewer questions and fewer angles.”
So, how does that translate for Slagle and The Herald- Palladium’s coverage?
“Last Sunday, Dana did a feature on hip-hop culture, a story that could be done by a white reporter as well as an African- American reporter,” Brown said. “But I’m not sure another reporter would have even thought of doing the story.
“It’s a little insulting to say you have to be black to do a story about black people. It’s more about, ‘Would that story have been done had she not been on staff?’ You’re getting new perspectives you hadn’t otherwise had.”
Brown echoed Bosley’s sentiment that a journalist of color shouldn’t necessarily cover the ethnic neighborhoods in a community, although he does acknowledge that developing good sources in Benton Harbor has been a challenge.
“There is in Benton Harbor an issue of access,” he said. “Sometimes sources may be less comfortable talking to someone from a different culture.With city government and other officials, the race of the reporter won’t make a difference. But if you’re doing a story on migrant farm workers, it would be helpful to be from that culture.”
As one of two feature writers at the paper, Slagle must write about four stories a week. She’s written some stories uniquely Benton Harbor: one on two sisters from Benton Harbor, a doctor and a lawyer, who returned to give back to their hometown; one on a dance group from a Benton Harbor church that calls itself the G-Code Steppers; one on Benton Harbor’s chief of police, an African-American; and one on a band camp that some local Benton Harbor kids started.
But many of her stories don’t have Benton Harbor angles, such as a piece on the activities at the children’s museum in St. Joseph or a profile on the Santa at the local mall. “I never use his real name in the article,” said Slagle.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Not many residents in Benton Harbor subscribe to The Herald-Palladium, or “The Herald-Pollution,” as some call it, although the paper’s single-copy (over-the-counter) sales run higher in Benton Harbor than anywhere else in the region. And when a story on Benton Harbor makes the front page, singlecopy sales there spike.
But with combined sales, the paper consistently sells more papers in St. Joseph.
Still, it’s not hard to find people in Benton Harbor to complain about the paper. The coverage is too negative, even racist, some say.
So the issue of having minority journalists at community newspapers is particularly crucial in communities facing racial issues.
The national media descended on Benton Harbor for a week in June 2003 after a motorcycle chase prompted riots in Benton Harbor.
On June 16, 2003, a Benton Harbor resident, Terrance Shurn, an African-American, died when he crashed his motorcycle during a police chase.
Residents said national reporters didn’t understand the complexities of their town — it’s more than just poor, black Benton Harbor and rich, white “St. Joe.” And many took pride in The Herald-Palladium coverage of the incident, calling it insightful and going beyond stereotypes.
But despite such moments, locals can’t get beyond their history with the paper.
There’s a lone black reporter now, and negative stories keep coming, some say.
To residents, these two problems are connected.
Changing that perception is difficult.
“If you were to poll the residents of Benton Harbor, there’d be a strong opinion that the Herald-Palladium is biased against Benton Harbor,” said Jeffrey Noel, the president of Cornerstone Alliance, a business development nonprofit based in downtown Benton Harbor. Noel, originally from Kentucky, said he knows the Paxton family, which owns The Herald-Palladium.
“There is a strong sentiment (in Benton Harbor) against the establishment,” he said. “If it is white-owned, that’s the establishment. You can lessen the impact of that by hiring a diverse workforce, but you’ll never get over that it’s white-owned. It’s about control, and it’s about money. It’s about more than white.”
And it’s about geography, too.
Noel’s office is part of an old bank building in the heart of downtown Benton Harbor. Behind the bank is the building that once housed The Herald-Palladium.
The paper’s move “created a lot of resentment for abandoning the city,” said Noel.
Several blocks from downtown at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, The Rev. Russell Baker watched the clock so he didn’t miss leading a sing-along with a dozen neighborhood kids in the Summer Enrichment Program sponsored by his parish and the nearby Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. He offers another diverse perspective.
“With very few exceptions, the only time you see something in the paper about the African-American community here is when something has gone wrong,” said Baker.
He is a white pastor of a predominately white congregation an African-American community. He also is married to an African- American.
“The establishment white-controlled paper can’t help but perpetuate racism in this area,” he said. “They need to have more than one African-American on their staff. They need to follow the lead of the Benton Spirit newspaper. It’s filled a void.”
FILLING A GAP?
On a cool Friday morning, Slagle sat in the conference room of the only plastic surgeon in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph area, her tape recorder turned on. Slagle was working on a story on the increasing interest, particularly on the part of teenagers, in cosmetic surgery.
During her hour interview at the cosmetic surgeon’s, Slagle juggled interviews with other employees, a patient and the doctor as he swept in and out of the conference room between seeing patients.
She asked the doctor near the end of the interview: “Do you have any African-American patients or patients of color? I ask because it’s important because of the scarring that can occur.”
The cosmetic surgeon discussed the effects of darker skin pigmentation on his results and pulled out his book of “before” and “after” photos to demonstrate his success with such skin types.
The five-minute exchange resulted in a single sentence in Slagle’s story.
But it was a sentence that might not have been in the story if Slagle hadn’t been assigned the story.
After the question, the doctor added: “I had an African- American woman from Benton Harbor working for me for years, and she just retired. I really miss her.We like that diversity.We are looking for someone to replace her. But we haven’t found the right fit yet.”
Slagle smiled at the doctor.
“You will,” she said.
Sue Ellen Christian is an assistant professor of journalism at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. She was a full-time reporter at the Chicago Tribune for 10 years. She can be reached at sueellen.christian@ wmich.edu.
Tagged under: Freelancing