When Ernie Webster first stepped foot in a newsroom, he made a keen observation:
He was the only black man, let alone minority reporter.
Then, after eight years of covering Rockford, Ill., he moved west to work for the Nevada State Journal and Reno Evening Gazette. For both of those papers, he was again the first minority reporter. He had a knack, though, for covering the police beat, where he befriended many police officers, even playing poker with them during off hours.
He was also assigned to minority-related stories. The opportunity was good, Webster said, as long as he stayed at a certain level. He faced not only challenges for advancement, but also many racial encounters and jokes, both inside and outside the newsroom.
“Experiences for minority reporters were something else in those days,” Webster said.
It was the 1970s, the decade after monumental civil rights movements took place. But fast-forward to the 21st century, and the country and newsrooms look a lot different.
Although the floodgates have opened for many minority journalists, the industry still faces challenges with the ever-changing landscape. The recent acquisition of Knight Ridder is emblematic of not only the uncertainties of newspapers but the uncertainties of where the diversity equation is heading.
Knight Ridder has been one of the leaders in hiring minorities and increasing coverage of that group. But industry insiders say the ownership changes may not have as much of an effect on diversity as other factors inside and outside the industry.
Until The McClatchy Company bought Knight Ridder for $4.5 billion in cash and stock in June, Knight Ridder was the second-largest newspaper company in the country with 32 daily newspapers and a circulation of 3.4 million daily and 4.5 million Sunday. Of those 32 dailies, McClatchy announced its intentions to sell 12 that didn’t fit with its business philosophy of buying only those newspapers that have a fast-growing market.
Knight Ridder also was reported to have the second overall record on diversity, following Gannett, in 2005, according to information collected from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and compiled in a report, the “Newsroom Diversity Index,” for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
McClatchy followed in third place.
“Knight Ridder had a great record for diversity,” said Howard Weaver, vice president of news at McClatchy. “It’s one of the many things we shared with Knight Ridder.”
Weaver said that McClatchy intends to continue its diversity efforts, including diversity training and internships, as well as sponsoring the National Association of Black Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association. He added that the company plans to continue to have a manager bonus program that will be not only a financial incentive, but a business and moral imperative in hiring minorities.
“In order to be a mass medium, we need to relate to all kinds of people,” Weaver said. “We see an imperative in reflecting the communities we serve and that’s not just ethnicity, but also gender and age.”
Weaver, who has spent more than 25 years at various posts with McClatchy, relates to the importance of reflecting the kind of communities the company serves. When he was a young editor, he pushed for a front-page story on the death of a rock singer. The copy desk, however, disagreed. That singer was John Lennon.
“We needed a kind of diversity, including age and social economic background,” Weaver said. “If we did, we would have put it on the front page.”
Although McClatchy aims to continue its diversity efforts, the company and other newspaper companies face a daunting challenge: keeping up with the growing minority population.
Stephen Doig, who had a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter and is now a professor at Arizona State University, sees some uphill battles for the future of newsroom diversity.
“We may see the diversity index get worse,” Doig said. “In part, the country is getting more diverse faster than newspapers are.”
Each year, Doig and Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, compile and analyze the Newsroom Diversity Index, which shows the racial and ethnic composition of newsrooms along with the racial and ethnic composition of a newspaper’s circulation data.
Although 2006 figures are expected to be released early this year, Doig said that for the recent figures, they compared the numbers to recent U.S. census figures as opposed to the 2000 census figures. He said that since 2000, the country has become more diverse, especially with a larger number of immigrants. He added that he expects the new numbers will reflect the growing gap between the country’s diversity and the newsroom’s diversity.
“Since the country is becoming more diverse, the industry is chasing a moving target and not chasing it at the same speed, even with the best intentions,” Doig said.
In regard to the ownership changes of Knight Ridder, Doig sees a discouraging symptom of the overall state of newspapers.
“The indirect scary thing about the loss of Knight is that it happened as part of the shrinking newsroom,” Doig said. “The quest for profits has driven the newspaper companies to do a variety of things, including trimming staff.”
On the flip side, Doig said that with the way the industry is now, many minority journalists may see opportunities outside the newsroom, including stints in public relations or public offices. Doig said that newspaper managers need to be aware that other industries are also trying to increase diversity and provide opportunities to their minority staffers to make them want to stay.
What’s a newspaper to do?
Larry Olmstead, who spent 25 years at Knight Ridder at different posts — including four years as vice president, overseeing recruitment, training, leadership development, succession management and diversity programs — echoes many concerns regarding the future of newsroom diversity.
In the last 20 years of Knight Ridder’s existence, it had a companywide diversity goal, Olmstead said. In the early days, it was called a “pluralism plan” that was aimed at increasing minority head count. Knight Ridder’s minority goals were also reflected in its executive bonus plans.
Olmstead said that Knight Ridder’s diversity efforts were driven by a desire to have content in newspapers that reflect the community. Over the years, it became a huge pay-off as Knight Ridder won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Over a 15-year period, Olmstead said, 1,000 minorities entered through Knight Ridder’s mechanism of having a diversity goal in place.
“That helped boost minority representation,” Olmstead said, “All of the executive editors understood diversity staffing and content. People of color were able to work on a variety of projects and make strong contributions.”
Olmstead, who started a consulting firm called Leading Edge Associates, said the bigger question now is which companies are going to be market-focused and will want to use diversity to drive success and engage their marketplace.
He said newspaper companies would want to have an adequate representation of minorities on staff to create content that represent different groups. But, at the same time, Olmstead sees the population of America changing. For instance, with the increase in the Hispanic population, many immigrants are moving from the coast to the heartland.
“It’s not so much a numbers game, but do you have what it takes to cover (diversity) issues and cover it well?” Olmstead said.
Olmstead adds that in order for a company to excel at diversity, it needs certain ingredients. One is that the CEO has to be a champion in diversity, to push the issue and keep it at the forefront. Also, everyone at the company needs to see a compelling reason to push the issue and see that success is linked to the company’s ability to do well with diversity issues. Also, Olmstead said there needs to be financial incentive for managers to maintain a diverse staff.
NABJ President Bryan Monroe, vice president and editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines and a former assistant vice president for Knight Ridder’s news, also understands the importance of maintaining a diversity plan.
Monroe said he encourages McClatchy to continue the diversity tradition by looking at who it hires as well as who runs the top. The underlying issue, he said, is how the company develops and cultivates them.
“If we look at the top companies who have high diversity — Gannett and Knight Ridder — they did not just talk the talk, but walked the walk,” Monroe said. “Diversity affects the bottom line.”
Although many in the industry hope diversity remains in the spotlight, it has come a long way since the early days when reporters, such as Webster, were the first minorities to be hired.
Still, taking a microscopic view of where diversity is now and where it’s headed certainly raises many concerns.
Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education remains optimistic but echoes the same concerns regarding the future of diversity in newsrooms.
“As the country becomes more diverse, if we do not have the staff that reflects our news medium, then we become a niche organization for a shrinking population,” Maynard said.
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