Newspapers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain journalists of color. Right now, their annual turnover exceeds 10 percent, which is significantly higher than for their white counterparts.

The industry has tried to respond with a number of initiatives. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has been especially active, pursuing a long-standing goal of getting newsrooms to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. In a June 2005 study funded by the Knight Foundation, Bill Dedman and Stephen Doig revealed that the only company whose newsrooms were, on average, as diverse as the communities they RELATED WEB LINK
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served was Gannett. Among the 1,410 newspapers included in their study, only 13 percent had newsrooms as diverse as their communities; another 21 percent were at least half as diverse. Dedman and Doig also found that newspapers are losing ground, as communities diversify faster than newsrooms do.

ASNE’s efforts reflect its leadership’s belief that it is the right thing to do journalistically and not because it would increase company profitability. And various other statistical analyses support ASNE’s belief that the goal of having the newsroom mirror the community is a wiser strategy than only trying to increase the number of journalists of color. Still, many editors have resisted efforts to tie diversity initiatives to business results. This could be a mistake, because there are at least two business-related steps that newspapers could take to improve minority representation:

  1. Performance measures should more explicitly incorporate efforts to reach the newspaper’s diversity goals.
  2. Newspapers should manage their Newspapers in Education (NIE) programs to further their diversity goals.

There are statistical ways of measuring the effect of taking such actions. For example, if utilizing more minority journalists does improve a newspaper’s ability to reach a broader audience, then the newspaper’s reach should be expanded throughout a community, and its penetration should be uniform throughout the newspaper’s primary market. By tracking this distribution, evidence can be gathered about a newspaper’s commitment to investing in its community. A positive finding would mean that journalists are being used effectively and that the newspaper has adequate infrastructure in all areas, something that is often not true. Moreover, if this calculation is used as a performance measure for the newspaper industry—one that is tracked and publicly reported—it would send a message to journalists of color, as well as to circulation managers.

Why Youngsters Choose Journalism

To understand how NIE programs might be used to help achieve diversity goals, it is important to know what motivates young people to enter journalism and how these programs operate. A number of studies have explored why individuals decide to enter and leave journalism. In them, three points emerge:

Socialization: Becoming a journalist is a socialization process that begins at home. Those who grew up with newspapers in their home are three times as likely to develop an interest in journalism as those who did not. The earlier someone reports "reading or watching the news at home" is an important factor in career choice.

… NIE programs could do more good with the print newspapers they distribute by concentrating efforts on low-income and minority middle schools and by marketing them as support for efforts to improve students’ reading performance.Making a Difference: Young people tell us that they decide to pursue a career in journalism for one of three reasons: They want to make a difference; they like to write, and they want to be "where the action is." Only the first motivation has a lasting effect. Students who chose journalism as a college major because they "like to write" were twice as likely to switch to another major as those who chose it because they "want to make a difference." Journalists are almost twice as likely to change careers within the first few years if they are not in the job "to make a difference." Having this motivation and passion is so important, because the job of a newspaper journalist does not particularly appeal to young people. In high school and college surveys, respondents view long hours and low pay as significant characteristics of a newspaper journalist’s job. Most also perceive that career advancement is a slow process, and indeed many editors believe that young journalists must "pay their dues." Persons of color who became journalists because they wanted "to make a difference" and then left the profession usually questioned the relevance of the newspaper they worked for to their lives and whether the newspaper truly valued their presence.

Finding a Voice: School programs generally reinforce prior decisions rather than providing the initial trigger for a different career choice. High school students find in their school newspaper evidence of this reinforcing factor when they learn whether or not the paper gives them a "voice." In schools in which students of color are in the majority this is a critical factor; having a voice is regarded as evidence of being taken seriously. Usually students in such schools are more likely to develop an interest in journalism as a result of encouragement from a teacher, but such encouragement tends to be tied to a student’s ability to write, rather than because of a student’s passion for serving the public. In addition, many professions requiring similar skill sets are actively seeking to diversify their staffs and heavily recruit students of color who might otherwise have retained an interest in journalism.

Connecting With Minority Youth

NIE programs provide a significant opportunity to overcome some of these obstacles. They can have a strong impact both on students’ educational performance, as measured by standardized reading tests, and on students’ attitudes about newspapers. The largest impacts are found with low-income students, students of color (including those for whom English is a second language), and students who live in households with no newspaper present.

For example, in middle schools where the majority is students of color, those schools with a substantial NIE program had standardized test scores that were 30 percent higher than scores at similar schools with no NIE program. This finding was reported in a Newspaper Association of America study that identified characteristics of school programs that contribute most to the impact made by NIE. They include:

  • Schools getting newspapers more than once a week and for more than three-fourths of the school year.
  • Schools having NIE programs in at least one-third of the classrooms and getting at least one paper for every two students, and students being allowed to take the newspapers home.
  • With low-income students and students whose native language is not English, the parents not only begin to read the newspaper, but the paper also becomes a vehicle for them to become involved in their children’s education.

Educational factors such as these are not always made prominent at newspapers. Even though NIE programs are defined and marketed as educational programs—and have demonstrated these capacities—they are managed as newspaper circulation programs. Most NIE directors report to the circulation manager. In fact, most NIE directors are rewarded not for the students’ academic improvement but for positive circulation performance.

In recent years, school copies have accounted for about two percent of total paid circulation at most newspapers, but more than 10 percent at some. Schools used to pay for most of the copies students received, but today more than half of them are contributed when subscribers donate their vacation papers or through third-party funding. This gives significant discretion to NIE directors. The typical pattern is to target the subsidized copies not to the schools where research tells us they would do the most good, but to those in areas that have the most value for advertisers, which means that students there are least likely to get any significant benefit from the program.

Teachers are also targeted by NIE programs, but communication with them revolves around marketing efforts, not the program’s educational value. Teachers are viewed as the customer; this means that the focus of supporting materials is on making it easier for them to use newspapers in the classroom rather than on what will help the students. Moreover, labor-intensive support, such as training or site visits, has been drastically cut or eliminated in recent years. Less than one percent of NIE programs even measure how the newspapers enhance the students’ classroom experience. What teachers are usually asked is whether they are "satisfied" with the program.

One new challenge facing NIE programs is the increased use of the Internet in many classrooms, especially civics and social studies classes. According to a recent report by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, students and teachers alike prefer online to print as a way to access news content and that this preference is likely to grow. The study also found that they prefer a few national sites to the Web sites of local newspapers, in part because most NIE programs have done little to provide support for using their online content. Of relevance to the arguments being made here, the survey underlying this report also showed the following:

  • Computers were less available in schools serving lower income and minority students.
  • These schools were more dependent on getting free newspapers and less likely to get one for every student.
  • Teachers in these schools were more affected by the need to prepare students for standardized tests.

These findings actually help to strengthen the argument made here that NIE programs could do more good with the print newspapers they distribute by concentrating efforts on low-income and minority middle schools and by marketing them as support for efforts to improve students’ reading performance.

Recasting NIE as truly an educational program—with diversity issues at its core—could have a significant effect on how it operates and its overall impact. Donated and other subsidized copies could be targeted to those most likely to benefit. Such changes could positively affect the supply of journalists of color in three ways:

  1. Increase the pool of students of color who regard a newspaper as something important.
  2. Make it easier for teachers to encourage students of color—based on their passion for making a difference—rather than focusing first on their writing skills.
  3. Send a message to journalists of color that circulation within these communities matters. Today NIE programs send exactly the opposite message.

A new focus on minorities could improve diversity and still advance the original goal of NIE to create new long-term newspaper readers.

Dan Sullivan is professor and Cowles Chair in Media Management and Economics at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he examines how traditional media organizations deal with change in communities they serve and with changes in technologies affecting their business competitiveness. His current research focuses on the link between good journalism and good business and on the public policy implications of media ownership.

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