While city after city exploded into riots in the mid-1960s, George Lane was hauling a mailbag in Denver, Colo. On weekends, Lane, then 27, worked as a copyboy at the Denver Post but he didn't think he could be a reporter.
The newsroom, he said, was all-white. In 1968, there were fewer than 100 nonwhite journalists among 38,000 professionals; today, there are 1700 nonwhites among 43,000.
But three things happened in quick succession to change Lane's mind and to alter the status of minorities in the news business. As the cities burned, some black janitors, switchboard operators and copyboys were upgraded many only momentarily, to reporters. Then in 1968 the Kerner Commission, in its study of the causes of the riots implicated the insensitivity and minority employment practices of daily newspapers. It called the employment record "shockingly backward."
Reacting to all these pressures, a summer program to train and place nonwhites in the communications industry was started at Columbia University. George Lane was a member of that first summer session in 1969 and returned to the Denver Post as a full-fledged reporter.
"It took a bunch of brothers burning Watts and Detroit for an assistant managing editor to say 'Why don't you quit the post office?' And I was reluctant because the post office was security," Lane recalled yesterday. He was one of 100 alumni of the summer program, now run by the Institute for Journalism Education (IJE) at the University of California at Berkeley, who attended a conference yesterday on minorities and the news.
The news isn't that good, said Jay Harris, the assistant dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northern University.
"Over the last ten years, the number of minorities in daily newspapers has increased fourfold, primarily in the reportorial category on large, urban newspapers.
"But over half of the (1,750) daily newspapers employ no minorities in reporting or editing capacities. The industry is still segregated."
Sitting in the hallway of the Capital Hilton Hotel, the headquarters for the two-day conference, George Lane laughed uneasily. "We now have four black reporters and a Chicano reporter who covers sports. But the changes are slow. They try to cover minorities more objectively but it's not a mecca yet," said Lane. George Lane has experienced many of the trends and attitudes that have been common to the black journalistic experience in the last 10 years: the period of being the Arthur Ashe of the newsroom; the fight for the black instead of Negro, Chicano instead of Hispano; refusing to be tagged a "black" reporter but finding the stories were being ignored; and then the criticism of positive minority stories as public relations.
"Now the sensitivity comes from a respect for me, the individual, and the changes in editors, many are younger. But the only time the story is suggested by them is when it's riot potential, a crowd in the shopping center."
Many, of the summer program alumni were sales clerks, librarians, unemployed, census takers or students before trying journalism. Michael Lopez, 34, who was unemployed in 1976, was recently named Arizona Newsman of the Year for his stories on corruption in prisons and the funeral home and mobile home industries.
David Reyes, 30, who drove a truck for eight years before he decided to study journalism, was confronted with the problem of portrayal of nonwhites when he got his first job in the industry: "The Latino community in Los Angeles was ignored; it still is. When I worked at the San Jose State paper, and later at the Sen Diego Citizen, I didn't do stories about the Spanish community because I didn't realize they wanted it covered."
After the summer program in 1976, Reyes joined the Oregon Statesman in Salem, Ore. He is responsible for coverage of the Latino, black, Vietnamese and Russian Orthodox communities.
"They didn't go out of their way to cover any of these communities. If the police had a story on Mr. Rodriquez, the police work was taken. So I decided to approach it softly. I wrote about the different food, the different dancing," said Reyes.
After a few months, Reyes said, he had sensitized his editors. "Then I went after the hard story. The police conducted an unorthodox illegal alien raid. They stopped anyone with brown skin on the streets of Independence Ore., and asked for proof of citizenship. In four months I wrote 23 new stories and the state attorney general handed down an opinion that the police could no longer conduct a raid on their own."
Reyes laughed about his editors' reaction, pointing out that the lesson of the previous decade still hasn't changed from the last.
"You have to have the outside pressure.That series put me in the hotshot ranks. Now my own attitude is, nobody better bother me," said Reyes, adding very quickly, "But we still have to go out there and drum up the new blood, the new voices."