The media industry should be ashamed of itself. All of this talk about the economic downturn has, once again, caused publishers, top editors, general managers and news directors to review the options and implement buyouts, cost-cutting, hiring freezes and more as advertising has fallen. It’s not a shame that people with the best interest of these enterprises in mind are focusing on such actions to prevent a painful situation from becoming even more painful. No, what’s a shame is that the potential impact on diversity is not receiving much attention as all of this takes place.

Ask black journalists how they perceive their situation in the midst of these cutbacks—as we did in July on the Web site of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ)—and their dissatisfaction becomes quickly apparent. About 80 percent of those who responded to our unscientific poll felt black journalists are bearing the brunt of the buyouts, hiring freezes, and layoffs. There were no written responses, but many black journalists have expressed their view that the few among us who have been affected by these cutbacks are being affected disproportionately because of the size of our representation in the larger mix.

I won’t pretend there is any hard data to back up this perception. But I can confirm that when we see a black person walk out the door, it has greater impact because there are so few of us. And if that person covers an important beat, or holds a critical production job, or has an important supervisory job, the impact is more dramatic. We feel as though we’re losing a game that was stacked against us.

As corporate leaders at media companies consider what they can do to improve the bottom line, they should also consider what they can do to improve the quality of employee relations and of the content they provide readers and viewers. At the heart of that consideration should be diversity. It is not the answer to the economic downturn. Nor is diversity the answer to the future success of all media. But it surely is an important part of the answer to both, and too many media leaders are either ignoring it or not understanding its significance.

This industry has done a woeful job in newsroom diversity staffing during economic good times. This leaves journalists of color feeling distrustful: How can we expect good things to happen during these more difficult times? But it doesn’t have to be that way. Media leaders can change that perception by creating a new reality.

Some might think the suggestions I am about to offer are outrageous. To them, I ask whether they are any more outrageous than linking editors’ compensation to gains (or decreases) in circulation and readership? Or more outrageous than tying some of an editor’s income to top quality coverage? I don’t think so, but take a look at what I suggest and, if you see some merit in these suggestions, talk about them with your publisher, editors and staff, particularly with staffers of color.

  • During this economic downturn, every publisher and general manager should require top editors to have at least two out of three finalists for every position be journalists of color. Normally I’d require one, but with the few chances anyone has to be hired this year, two seems more realistic. Not enough diversity in the pool? Sorry, no hire. Or a news outlet could link an exception for this hire to a commitment to hire someone of color for the next opening in that department.
  • Every publisher and general manager should require top editors to fill at least 50 percent of all vacancies with journalists of color. Why so many? Because we are so behind, and we can’t afford to fall farther behind during these rough times.
  • Publishers and general managers should tie more of an editor’s income or a news director’s income to diversity through management-by-objective or bonus/incentive programs. Make it at least 15 to 40 points and there will be results.
  • Don’t get rid of summer internships at newspapers and television stations; enhance them. Newspapers should refocus their paid summer internships on those newsroom areas where journalists of color are needed most: copy editing, design, graphics and photography. Broadcasters should change their industry culture and start paying for summer internships, identifying the students of color they want in their shops, and giving them a valuable, hands-on experience in broadcast writing and producing—the two areas in which journalists of color are needed most. Make a commitment to having at least 50 percent of all internships filled by students of color as a way of significantly improving the chances that the industry will become more populated with journalists of color.
  • Support journalists of color as they seek training and development opportunities through various in-house programs and elsewhere. Support your staffers by supporting their attendance at conferences and conventions of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA); the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ); the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ); the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). If you can, offer them conference registration, time off, and some travel money. If you have to do something less than that, give them time off and a stipend of enough dollars to cover a night or two of hotel bills and/or the registration. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because a lot of people “look like each other” or “act like each other” or “think like each other,” that these are not professional development opportunities. Like the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), and other media industry groups, there are those conference-goers who go to play and others who attend to learn. Don’t assume the worst for your own staffers. Ask them to bring something back as you invest in their professional development. If they fail to do so, consider that the next time they ask.

Diversity is critically important. Nonprofit media organizations can’t make diversity happen and work in newsrooms. It remains the job of individual media outlets to make these critical hiring and promotion decisions one by one, position by position. Of course, it is important to assess the overall picture as portrayed by newsroom census reports of such organizations as the ASNE and the RTNDA. But that tells only part of the story, because some publishers and editors and some general managers and news directors don’t participate in those surveys. And there will be other outlets that should have an even greater focus on diversity because of the market in which they operate. Individual market leaders must be held accountable for diversity, as must the corporate executives who decide whether and how to make diversity a primary focus of their organization, in both good times and bad.

There are too few black publishers and top editors, too few black general managers and news directors. The same is true when it comes to our colleagues of color who are Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American. We are, of course, proud to see Paula Madison as an NBC vice president and general manager of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and Dean Baquet as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. We’re proud to see Phil Dixon as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Gerald Boyd as managing editor of The New York Times. Each of these promotions sends important signals to those of us who aspire to do more to help our people and our industry at a higher level. But still it is not enough.

Some of these news organizations are making great strides. Madison, Baquet, Dixon and Boyd are not alone. There are others of color in their newsrooms, and they helped get them there. Their newsrooms still need more diversity and they know it. But what about the rest of the newsrooms that remain much too lily-white? It is critical that efforts be made in those newsrooms during these difficult times.

There were more than 1,700 daily newspapers in 1950 and now there are about 1,480. In 1950, there were 98 television stations; now, there are 1,290. There were no cable systems in 1950; now, there are 10,481. These media outlets provide plenty of opportunity for journalists, but as we emerge from this economic downturn, the true measure of success for journalists of color will be whether and how well the corporate leaders managed to turn things around with diversity as a central focus. That means having more of us in positions of newsroom leadership and on staff than when the downturn began and with more accurate, balanced and fair coverage of our communities.

William W. Sutton, Jr., a 1988 Nieman Fellow, is a deputy managing editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, a McClatchy newspaper, where he supervises the features design, news design, graphics, photography and news copy desks. He was editor and managing editor at Knight Ridder’s Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana, before joining The N&O and spent 10 and one half years with The Philadelphia Inquirer as a reporter and editor.

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