For the last few days I have been giving my desk a final clearing, packing boxes, filling trash bags, and saying goodbye to family, friends and colleagues.

With today's column, I am taking leave from this newspaper for about a year. Making such a move after more than 10 years at this task, I have gained a new appreciation for Shakespeare's sentiment that "parting is such sweet sorrow."

When I came to this city more than two decades ago, it was a sleepy Southern town, mired in segregation, privilege and a certain smugness in its being the official city. A tremendous number of problems existed, even then, among the poor, predominantly black citizens.

Over the years, I have seen the city grow into a major metropolitan area and I also have seen blacks in this city make tremendous political -- and some economic -- progress. But overall, they have lagged in making economic gain, and many of the same problems of the poor remain, having grown worse with the tragic toll of drugs and the steady stream of blood on the streets. The sad fact is that life has always been cheaper if you are poor; now it is even more so.

I have grown to have an uncommon love for this city and metropolitan area. While I have worked in the media, I also have attempted to try to help the media become better able to sensitively cover all segments of society, a society that is becoming more racially and culturally diverse.

Thus, it appeared that the time was ripe to attempt to do some work that is compatible with what I've tried to do in this column, and, hopefully, advances a cause to which I have long been dedicated.

From January through December of 1991, I will be a fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies in New York City. My project, "Racial Diversity in Media -- A Critical Analysis," will look at the still-fledgling movement to increase the number of nonwhite journalists on American newspapers, and assess the way this movement has developed, some of the efforts and people involved and their impact on coverage and portrayal of people of color.

All this is of growing importance as America undergoes enormous change in its racial and cultural diversity.

While this newspaper and others have made great strides in their diversity, more than half the country's 1,645 daily newspapers do not employ a single minority journalist. People of color account for less than 8 percent of the nation's newsroom professionals and less than 5 percent of news executives and managers. The impact of these low figures takes on even greater urgency when it is recalled that nonwhite people make up 25 percent of the U.S. population.

Moreover, the lack of an integrated work force contributes to a distorted picture of life in America. All Americans suffer when news media fail to portray people of color as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society.

I was motivated to take time off to look at this issue because there has yet to be a critical, comprehensive and interpretive look at this issue. The absence of such an effort makes it hard to fully comprehend the movement as a whole and to project strategic steps for the future.

Among the questions I want to consider is the difference racial diversity has made in the quality of news coverage. Has a partly integrated work force made coverage more reflective of society, and, if not, what more will it take to make that difference? Clearly, American business, including the news media, is going to have to change many of its management perceptions and assumptions and learn how to better manage diversity.

During this year away, I'll miss the start of a new administration and I'll miss all the people who live here. I will miss this newspaper, for, as I have said to friends, only half in jest, I have grown up in public through the pages of this newspaper.

As I cleaned out my office, I found entirely too many letters that I had wanted to answer. Some of the letters were hateful and not worthy of answers. But others were thought-provoking, and deserved much more polite treatment than I had the time to afford them.

No columnist ever works truly alone, especially this one, and I want to thank all those people who have helped me wrestle with ideas, given me rich food for thought, heard my woes and my joys and were simply there for me. In expressing a point of view, sometimes I have judged prematurely, sometimes late, but what I hope I have done is to stimulate your thinking.

I have long found this an engaging and challenging enterprise, and I look forward to returning refreshed and ready to continue what is so important in this society -- the exchange of useful information.