Keeping the Heat On
Twenty-five years later, newsroom diversity remains elusive.
By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (firstname.lastname@example.org), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
D RIVING AROUND DOWNTOWN PHOENIX, I scarcely recognized the place I lived a decade ago. Here a new basketball arena, there a new cineplex. New freeways, new shopping centers, new glass-box office buildings. Most improbable of all, a new baseball stadium with a roof that opens and closes at the flip of a switch, miraculously keeping the desert heat at bay.
Still, even baseball fans have to go outside eventually, and Phoenix in August is a blast furnace. You need a good reason to be there.
I had one. I was back for the National Association of Black Journalists convention, which also marked the organization's 25th anniversary. NABJ's choice of Phoenix had surprised more than a few people, and not just because of its summertime clime. After all, it hasn't been that long since the "pickaninny" effrontery of Evan Mecham and his kind. But NABJ's Phoenix-area chapter had lobbied hard to host the convention, anxious to demonstrate that not all the changes in Arizona lately have been of the bricks-and-stucco variety.
Inside the convention hall, however, one thing most assuredly had not changed. The journalists and their industry were still having the same desultory conversation about the snail's-pace diversification of the nation's newsrooms. Despite clear gains--in 1999 the percentage of minorities in newspaper city rooms was nearly 12 percent, compared with 4.9 percent in 1980--the industry admits the numbers are nowhere near where they should be. That's especially true for African Americans, whose percentage has essentially flattened out at a little over 5 percent.
As was noted by Andrew Barnes, chairman of the St. Petersburg Times and the Newspaper Association of America, the only upbeat news here is that there no longer is any argument about the necessity of diversifying. The bad news is, we're stuck. "We seem to be in a period where if you don't keep pushing, the damn thing [diversity momentum] stalls," Barnes said in evident frustration.
It's not really for lack of trying. The armies of recruiters on hand in Phoenix bore testament to that. But their energies may be misplaced. A more critical problem is that there still aren't enough minority journalists in the pipeline. To change that, colleges like ours must redouble their efforts. (Two years ago, Christopher Callahan, an associate dean here, demonstrated the discouraging fact that the heavier a high school's black population, the less likely it is to have a student newspaper.)
More distressing yet is the exodus of accomplished African American journalists from newsrooms, not just for higher-paying opportunities in other fields--though certainly that's a factor--but because of newsroom cultures they feel remain hostile to them.
"We're not going in the right direction," summed up NABJ President Will Sutton. "We've got to do something about it. And we've got to do it one newspaper, one news organization...at a time."
Let us resolve that 25 years from now we're not still talking about this.