Newsroom diversity: Falling short could be fatal

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 28, 2010; A13

Two years ago, The Post's top editors were warned in a memo that they needed to expand newsroom diversity "or suffer the consequences."

The writer was deputy managing editor Milton Coleman, who noted the rapidly changing racial and ethnic makeup of The Post's circulation area. "Already we know that we are losing black readers and not gaining Asian and Spanish-dominant readers," said Coleman, now a senior editor. "Immigration is driving population growth, especially throughout our increasingly important suburbs."

The memo had special resonance this past week when The Post submitted staffing breakdowns for an annual "Newsroom Employment Census" conducted by the American Society of News Editors. The Post numbers were sobering, although they were not below industry norms.

To the contrary, The Post remains a leader in newsroom minority employment. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who is white, took over five months after Coleman's memo and soon assembled a leadership team perhaps more diverse than that at any other metropolitan newspaper. His top tier of editors is about equally divided by gender and includes three African Americans, one Asian American, another of South Asian ancestry and another of Spanish heritage. All told, journalists of color comprise about 24 percent of the newsroom, comfortably above the ASNE census average of roughly 13 percent in recent years.

But here's the problem: Minorities are 43 percent of The Post's circulation area, and a large part of the region is edging toward "majority minority" status. For The Post, being "good on diversity" isn't enough.

Brauchli and his leadership team acknowledged the same in a note to the staff last Monday. "We are in danger of losing ground if we do not consistently try to recruit the best minority journalists," they wrote.

Back when newspapers generated huge profits, altruism often drove diversity efforts. Today, there's an urgent business imperative. For The Post, struggling to regain profitability and retain subscribers, reaching expanding minority audiences represents opportunity -- and perhaps survival.

"I think the more relevant you are in your community, the more successful you will be," Brauchli said in an interview this past week. "It's axiomatic." He's right. Newsroom diversity is about accuracy and relevance. It can yield market penetration and revenue.

"You can't cover your community unless you look like your community," said Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who is a diversity consultant for ASNE. (Full disclosure: I sit on its board). "If you have a community of basketball players, it's difficult for a newsroom of opera lovers to cover them."

The Washington area has an exploding Spanish-speaking population. Yet Hispanics on The Post's staff include only eight reporters and four supervising editors. Similarly, African Americans account for about 12 percent of the staff, but the African American percentage of the population in parts of The Post's core circulation area is more than four times greater.

Numerous Post minority staffers have complained to me that there are too few journalists of color in middle management, especially among assigning editors who decide coverage. Predictably, what is "news" risks being seen through a white prism. Newsroom discussions about issues affecting minority audiences may be spurned instead of spawned.

A major challenge is diversifying as the newsroom shrinks to reduce costs. Waves of Post journalists have departed in recent years through buyouts or voluntary departures. While more staff reductions are expected, The Post is still hiring for essential jobs. That creates opportunities to diversify, but a review of recent hires shows they have been overwhelmingly white. "I don't think it's a great record" of diversity hiring over the past year, acknowledged Peter Perl, who oversees newsroom personnel. Pools of job candidates must include minorities, he said, adding, "It's a mandate, and every manager here knows it."

"Retaining and promoting minorities is harder than recruiting them, and we've had a spotty record," he said.

As The Post's focus shifts from print to online, so will job descriptions to accommodate new media. The Post is examining the media consumption habits of different audiences, along with strategies for delivering content to nonwhite audiences on mobile devices. "We haven't reached any conclusions about what the right way is," Brauchli said.

Whatever the technology, the key will be whether The Post can deliver content that's relevant and credible. More diversity will help the newsroom be attuned to growing nonwhite audiences.

"You use diversity as an advantage in these economic times to get a leg up on the next guy," said former Post reporter Richard Prince, who writes "Journal-isms," an online column about minorities and the media.

Or you suffer the consequences.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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