The Freedom Forum Diversity Institute trains talented minorities to be journalists.
By Erin H. Bryant
Erin H. Bryant is a former AJR editorial assistant.
Roxye Arellano probably would have stuck with the familiar grind as an editorial assistant if she hadn't attended the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute — a program that trains minorities to be journalists in three short months.
Now a full-time staff reporter at Colorado's Greeley Tribune, Arellano, whose mother is Filipino, credits the "crash course in journalism" with jump-starting her career. "You're constantly working, constantly busy," she says of the training.
As a member of the program's inaugural class, Arellano is one of the Diversity Institute's success stories. Launched in 2002 and housed at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the 12-week program tries to address the chronic underrepresentation of minorities in journalism. Racial minorities accounted for 13.4 percent of reporters at daily newspapers in 2004 but made up nearly 32 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual census.
The Diversity Institute aims to improve these statistics by preparing "nontraditional" candidates — those who haven't been journalists before — to work in newsrooms. It has lured people from such varied professions as social work, municipal planning and real estate.
Newspaper editors nominate candidates from their communities to attend the program, which teaches the basics of reporting, writing, editing, photography, media ethics and journalism history.
The Freedom Forum pays students' expenses, and participating newspapers agree to hire their nominees as full-time reporters, photographers, copy editors or page designers once they finish. Sixty-seven students had graduated as of April 2005.
Participating editors praise the program's approach. "The Diversity Institute is the best solution I've seen to equip talented, but untrained, writers and editors for careers in journalism," wrote Perry Flippin, editor emeritus at the Standard-Times in San Angelo, Texas, in an e-mail to AJR.
But are these Diversity Institute fellows, often plucked from unrelated fields and thrust into the demanding life of a newsroom, staying there?
It's early to evaluate the retention rate, but Institute Executive Director Robbie Morganfield says 75 percent of the graduates are still working full-time in journalism. "We're getting more in, but we gotta keep more in," he says, adding that journalists of color leave the field at higher rates than their white counterparts. Minority journalists "sometimes feel like they've reached that glass ceiling, run out of opportunities."
"They are sometimes accused of being too militant, too prone to activism... Some journalists of color tend to be very idealistic. [They] become frustrated when they sense the news organization isn't interested in the stories they have to tell."
Morganfield should know: An African American journalist with more than 20 years of experience as an editor and writer at papers including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Detroit News and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Morganfield has seen firsthand why minority journalists may head for the door.
Several Diversity Institute graduates also cite a lack of newsroom support and interest in minority issues as reasons their peers may have left journalism. "I think some had bad experiences when they returned to the newspaper — not really knowing what to expect, not being in a welcoming environment," says Nancy Deville, an African American who left her career managing life insurance policies and became a reporter at the Tennessean in Nashville before leaving in December. "Some of them might not have been given a mentor. Without the right support system, it is possible that someone could fail."
Adds Arellano: "Sometimes newsrooms hire, but they don't enforce the fact that minority issues are important. It's one thing to hire a minority and another to let their voice be heard."
Shawn White Wolf, a member of the Northern Cheyenne American Indian community, became a staff writer for the Independent Record in Helena, Montana, after graduating from the Diversity Institute's second class. He left the paper during the summer of 2004 for medical reasons and later started a magazine called Native Journal Montana. But he couldn't find funding and shut it down last spring.
White Wolf, who had previously worked as a restaurant manager, told AJR in an e-mail that his presence at the Independent Record led to an increase in stories about American Indian issues, but that coverage hasn't been sustained. "I don't know now what my purpose really was at the Independent Record. After I left, things just fell back into the same place they were before," says White Wolf, who plans to assist with public relations on bills pertaining to Montana's seven reservations during the 2007 legislative session. "A whole Indian community slipped back into the cracks. Sad."
Dave Shors, who was White Wolf's editor at the paper, says he hopes the writer will return to professional journalism. White Wolf "added a very important voice in our newsroom. American Indians make up about 7 or 8 percent of our Montana population; without a doubt, they're underrepresented in print journalism here," Shors said in an e-mail.
Participating editors say that the Diversity Institute, while successful, is but a small part of making newsroom staffs more reflective of the communities they cover. "The Diversity Institute is one solution for the lack of ethnic diversity in newsrooms," e-mails Susan Ihne, editor of the St. Cloud Times in central Minnesota, "but, obviously, we need to develop many more."