There’s nothing wrong with small newsrooms; I just knew I didn’t want to work in one. So last year, when I was accepted into the Tribune Company’s two-year Minority Editorial Training Program (METPRO), beginning at the Los Angeles Times, it was a dream come true. Not only was I skipping the small time, but also I was going to be a reporter at one of the country’s biggest daily newspapers.
Let me be clear: I was certainly not getting around paying my dues. The program, which recruits and trains young reporters of color and exposes us to some of the most talented people in journalism, is highly competitive, rigorous and firmly rooted in the basics: accuracy, solid reporting, news judgment, and strong writing. Eight classmates and I might have made it to the Los Angeles Times, but by no means had we “arrived;” in fact, I doubt entitlement was on any of our minds as we sat humbly beside Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and editors during these past 10 months.
So when the correlation was made between former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s age, race and his journalism, I was offended. For anyone to blame his numerous errors, fabrications and even quick ascent on the color of his skin or his rookie status was unfair and unwarranted. And for anyone to conclude—or even speculate—that the Blair incident was proof positive that young or minority journalists rise too far, too fast, made me nervous for my colleagues and myself.
Would veterans and others begin to wonder where rookies belong at big-time news organizations? How many people would accept the argument that diversity, whether of race or age, was being used as a substitute for talent? I hoped journalists wouldn’t take as long to recognize the flimsy argument of diversity being the cause of this problem as Blair’s bosses did to see through his flimsy and false reporting.
The numbers would certainly belie such an accusation. According to the 2002 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates, conducted at the University of Georgia, the number of graduates with full-time jobs in journalism decreased for the second year in a row—down from 71 percent in 2001 to 65 percent last year, the lowest number in a decade. More importantly, the survey indicated that the gap between minority and nonminority graduates is widening: 61 percent of minority graduates had jobs after college, compared with 71 percent of nonminorities. Only a handful of these graduates are hired each year to work at newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Similarly, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported this spring in its annual Newsroom Census that only a third of last year’s newsroom internships went to minority candidates. This number has declined since 2001, and it shrinks even more if one considers placements at top-tier newspapers.
Two Journalists, Two Paths
Blair began his ascent as a 21-year-old minority intern at a top-tier newspaper. The journalistic juggernaut attended the University of Maryland, but left school his senior year for a job at The New York Times. There were many things he did right to land him in this position. He was a legend at his alma mater and college newspaper. He had been a star summer intern at The Boston Globe and The New York Times. Like many young reporters, he was a hungry, talented writer who knew how to schmooze his higher-ups. He had a big personality for a big newsroom. But unlike the majority of his peers, Blair used his charm to mask, not complement, his character and reporting flaws.
In my three internships and at the Los Angeles Times, I was frequently cited for both my upbeat personality and my ability as a reporter. While I have many years to become a curmudgeon, building a reliable reputation as a journalist my editors and colleagues can trust and depend on is something I cannot afford to delay. And both my hard work and pleasant disposition have paid off: My coworkers look to me as a reporter who can step up and deliver when big stories break and as someone who can contribute relevant ideas to the paper.
My youth and race have been assets to my journalism during my budding career. I’ve written several stories that required me to interact with children—no easy task, but I like to think it was made easier because I’m only a decade older and a lot more friendly than some reporters. It doesn’t hurt that I’m familiar with the Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants, and donning a pair of Seven jeans when I have to go to a high school breaks the ice faster than small talk ever could. As one of my peers observed recently, “I might not have as much experience as other reporters here, but I’m eager to learn, and I don’t mind doing assignments other people don’t want to do. Plus I can tell an older journalist that Britney Spears isn’t as hot as she used to be.” She and I decided our younger years bring just as much to the table in terms of diversity as our race or gender and wondered whether she is the only person in the newsroom with a nose ring. (Odds are she’s unique in that way, too.)
Thankfully, at the Los Angeles Times there is generally a mutual appreciation among veterans and neophytes. Our main advocate in the newsroom has been Assistant Managing Editor Miriam Pawel. She is excited about METPRO and the opportunity to grow young talent. Not only is Pavel aware of one rookie journalist’s slam poetry hobby, but she also appreciates this, values that reporter’s youth and culture, and fully expects these experiences to manifest themselves in our newspaper’s coverage on any given day. For the most part, the nine interns in this year’s METPRO class were fortunate to find at the Los Angeles Times what I believe is a rarity at other big daily newspapers—a nurturing home at a paper that wants to run our stories as much as we want to tell them. Instead of finding ourselves in a cutthroat environment with a sink-or-swim mentality, reporters and editors are genuinely interested in our success and progress and helping us reach our journalistic goals.
I also receive support from scores of men and women colleagues of all ages at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), where I serve as the chair of the organization’s Young Journalists Task Force. In that role, I’ve discussed with dozens of my peers and mentors why the Jayson Blair affair is not a reflection on either young or black reporters. Currently, my contemporaries (NABJ members ages 18-34) are working to erase the stain on diversity caused by Blair and proving every day that young minority journalists are getting it right and will continue to do so. Meanwhile, other journalism organizations, such as the Asian American Journalists Association, UNITY: Journalists of Color, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association were swift to publicly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with NABJ and young journalists to aggressively decry any attempts at a connection between Blair’s actions and his minority status or youth.
No matter our age, I’d like to think similar motivations attracted us and keep us coming to the newsroom. Journalists share a sense of curiosity, a desire to accurately chronicle events around us, and a dedication to the public responsibility of our craft. Green journalism isn’t necessarily yellow journalism. As young journalists, we don’t connect ourselves to Jayson Blair or to others who perform their jobs as irresponsibly as he did any more than do our veteran colleagues. On closer examination, we have more in common with the veterans than with our misguided peer. Regardless of race, age or the other differences that separate us, the Blair incident is a call to all of us, young and old, to come together in the name of what unites us—journalism, practiced with fairness and accuracy.
Errin Haines is a 25-year-old reporter who has worked at the Los Angeles Times for the past 10 months and is entering her second year of the Tribune Company’s Minority Editorial Training Program (METPRO) at the Orlando Sentinel. (In METPRO’s first year, reporters are at the Los Angeles Times; the second year is spent at one of the Tribune Company’s 11 daily newspapers.) She has interned at The Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Associated Press. Haines chairs the Young Journalists Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists.