In survival mode, diversity is a luxury. Few question the rallying cry that newsroom diversity is woefully lacking. Truth be told, though, good intentions to boost hiring haven’t translated to robust numbers: ASNE pushed its 2000 “racial parity” goal to 2025, but as the body count rises, the percentages are slipping (see tinyurl.com/yln53eh).
Everything we know about the newsroom is changing, and nobody knows what it will look like five years from now. More predictable, however, is the readership makeup. Efforts to develop a diverse workforce shouldn’t be abandoned, but ruthless pragmatism dictates shifting the investment to readers. Plus, diversifying the audience jibes closely with goals to woo them. Some suggestions:
With more time spent talking buyouts than coverage, it’s little wonder that the large-scale diversity audits of old have fallen to the wayside. Revive them, and recruit readers (and potential readers) for regular audits. Cull volunteers by posting notices, and also solicit from local organizations, subscriber bases and so on. Besides a newsroom audit, host a simultaneous audit “event” online. Rolling audits by section may be more manageable, but a periodic mega-audit is essential.
Readers shouldn’t just assess coverage; they could help establish standards. They may define diversity beyond ethnicity, age, gender, ability and class with unique community standards (e.g. under-covered neighborhoods, religious institutions, rural populations). A blue-collar population might see too much emphasis on quarterly earnings and prefer more on workplace rights.
Remember: Follow-through is essential. Publish preliminary results within a week. Is this a huge undertaking? Yes. Do it. Investigate partnerships (e.g. local universities) to coordinate.
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND LET THEM INFLUENCE YOU
Circumstances now make more urgent a practice that should’ve always been in place: collaborative journalism. (Versus citizen journalism, defined by PBS at tinyurl.com/ddefh4.) Clearly the Web has uncovered a population that’s willing to share, but plenty of whistleblowers, watchdogs, gadflies, rubberneckers, do-gooders, spectators and nitpickers don’t necessarily share online. Seek out sources missing from your pages and get them to speak.
Set up ongoing relationships with school papers and republish their stories. Get community advocates and religious leaders in under-reported neighborhoods or groups to be correspondents. Set up a multi-language whistleblower line. Ally with local ethnic press. Create an online mommy’s group. Subscribe to newsletters.
REFINE THE ROLODEX
Or these days, LinkedIn. The first journalism article I ever published happened to be in Quill. “Ordinary People” analyzed major magazine trend stories and found how reporters relied on friends, neighbors and co-workers as sources. (Notably, the minority reporter made the greatest effort to reach beyond her own circle.) Sad to say, while the Web has made it infinitely easier to find sources, the practice still continues. Diversify sources for all story types. For example, see HGTV, which often features interracial or gay and lesbian couples.
EXPAND THE COMMENT-SPHERE OR DON’T USE IT
Extreme? Maybe, but unattended comments are a cheap salve to give the illusion of involving readers. Worse yet is letting that area devolve into brawling matches. Forget diversity, who wants to enter a barroom with a knife fight taking place? A reporter (or ideally, an ombudsman) should interact with commenters, correct false information, recognize cogent points and answer questions. Diversity twist: Invite specific people/groups to comment.
MEDIATING THE MESSAGE
Diversify the audience by increasing the means to reach them. Figure out what information is best delivered as mobile alerts and Web updates, and what features deserve a richer “magazine” format. Some outlets have whittled back graphics and slideshows online — bad idea. Graphics may tell a story better and also communicate to a diverse wired audience whose first language may not be English.
DON’T LET FACTS GET IN THE WAY OF THE STORY
Diversity is about inclusion. Too often, condensed prose tells stories in bits and pieces, and assumes knowledge that people don’t have — and readers tune out.
In “An Antidote for Web Overload,” Matt Thompson highlighted a 2008 AP study that had anthropologists analyze young media consumers. “‘The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.’” (Read Thompson’s column at tinyurl.com/lsysfz.)
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