The two emails arrived at the inboxes of Washington Post staffers within ten minutes of each other on Monday: The first announced that Lonnae O’Neal, a 24-year veteran of The Post, was leaving to join The Undefeated, the race-culture-sports website under the roof of ESPN. The second announced that sports writer Clinton Yates was heading to the same place. Staffers could be excused for thinking they’d read the same message before Monday: Previous announcements noted that Soraya McDonald, who contributed to the paper’s arts and entertainment coverage, had signed on with the Undefeated, as had Michael Fletcher, a longtime reporter on race relations and national economic issues for The Post.
The Post newsroom is about 700-strong, so staff departure announcements aren’t an infrequent thing. Yet these announcements raised eyebrows for two reasons: One, the talent was recruited by former Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida, who left the paper to run The Undefeated. Two, they are all African American — working in an industry that has long struggled to maintain diversity in its news-gathering ranks.
Asked about the departures, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said, “We always hate to lose talented people.” What the departure announcements don’t quite convey, says Baron, is the number of people who’ve chosen to stay despite offers, a number that he declines to detail. Also: Departures tend to get more attention than hires, notes Baron, pointing out that the Washington Post has been growing and so has diversity.
Numbers corroborate Baron’s contention. The American Society of News Editors calculates minority representation on news staffs at papers across the country. In ASNE’s 2013 survey, The Post had 23 percent minority representation in its newsroom, a number that stands at 31 percent in the 2015 census. For the sake of comparison, the New York Times clocks in at 19 percent; the Boston Globe at 20 percent; the Star Tribune Media Company at 15 percent; the Philadelphia Inquirer at 13 percent; the Miami Herald at 42 percent; and the Idaho Statesman at 0.0 percent. The Post also eclipses several new-media outlets — including Mic and Business Insider* — on this front. “We are hiring people. That is why the number is 31 percent — is because we have been hiring people of diverse backgrounds,” says Baron. On Jan. 4, The Post welcomed 10 new hires, four of whom were African-American.
Baron laments the loss of Merida, who he describes as a “terrific” managing editor. “I did my very best to try to persuade him to stay here at The Post. He will attest to that,” says Baron. He will indeed. “By all means — from Marty to [Post Publisher] Fred Ryan, both made it clear that they really wanted me to stay,” says Merida, who is African-American, in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
To replace Merida, The Post promoted former national editor Cameron Barr, who is white; Barr, in turn, was replaced by Scott Wilson, who is white. Hiring from within to fill a top position is common at large newspapers, especially ones, like The Post, that are stacking up hardware for their journalistic achievements. Upwardly mobile white folks are very well represented on The Post’s newsroom masthead. There isn’t an African-American among the eight officials listed under the news and editorial/opinion operations. (The Erik Wemple Blog, who is white, works under the latter.) The highest-ranking African-American editor at The Post is Jesse Lewis, who oversees more than forty editors who serve as the last line of defense for the paper’s print and digital journalism. Of approximately 15 deputy editors, two are African-American.
Diversity in leadership ranks, Baron acknowledges, is a matter separate from the overall newsroom minority numbers. Asked about remedies for the situation, he says, “We continue to do the same thing we do for the staff as a whole. We always keep in mind people who might be candidates for leadership positions at The Post. So, that’s what we do.” Did Baron interview any outside applicants for Merida’s job? He “considered” such applicants, says Baron. Were any of them minorities? “I’m not going to talk about who I considered or didn’t consider,” he says. In regards to the vacancy at the top of the national desk, Baron replied via email, “I reviewed prospective candidates around the country. I did not interview all the prospective candidates I considered. As someone who has been a top editor for 16 years at three news organizations, with 40 years in the profession at five news organizations, I am quite familiar with the overall field of possible candidates.”
Breaking down The Post’s diversity via the ASNE numbers, its newsroom has 11 percent Asian American representation; 14 percent black; and 6 percent Hispanic. The Erik Wemple Blog is working on a look at Hispanic representation in the ranks of leadership.
Wesley Lowery, a 25-year-old Washington Post national crime reporter, credits the paper with a “solid” job on diversity but cautions that newsroom diversity is about more than just “filling the room with bodies.” The key, he says, is making sure that middle editing ranks are stocked with minorities ready to move into top leadership positions. “I think The Post can do much better there,” says Lowery, who started attending National Association of Black Journalists conferences when he was 18. Management, says Lowery, needs to bring in young, diverse talent and make sure they don’t end up in a career cul-de-sac. “It’s this idea that we should work in a newsroom where anyone, no matter who they are — especially if they’re from underrepresented groups — feel empowered to aspire to the greatest and biggest things,” says Lowery.
A prolific contributor to major Post projects on race and policing, Lowery noted that Merida had reached out for a “discussion” with him about his career prospects. “It’s not particularly surprising that we’ve talked since he’s been gone,” says Lowery, who says that Merida was key in bringing him to The Post from his former job at the Boston Globe. Asked if The Post had done anything to ensure that he didn’t jump to another employer, Lowery said that it had. He aspires one day to serve as a top editor, at The Post or elsewhere.
For his part, Merida notes that he’s been shopping for talent in all kinds of places. “I haven’t gotten every single person that I’ve wanted to get from any place,” he says. As for The Post: “There’s no intentional effort to hurt the cause of diversity there or to decimate The Post of black staffers or anything like that. I don’t like the term ‘raid’ because it sounds like it’s some kind of diabolical thing,” says Merida.
The Erik Wemple Blog asked O’Neal if the lack of diversity in The Post’s upper ranks had anything to do with her leaving. “I’ve worked with all types of great editors, but I would not be where I am if it were not for women and black people in the newsroom,” says O’Neal, who reports that she had few credentials upon acceding to The Post. Donna Britt, a former African-American Metro columnist at The Post (and Merida’s wife), “saw something in me,” says O’Neal, who once worked as a sales aide in the paper’s advertising division. After O’Neal moved to the news side as an aide, Britt published a piece of writing by O’Neal in her column. The budding reporter received encouragement from then-Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao, who moved her into a summer internship. “At every stage in my career, it’s been women who’ve been the ones to say, ‘I want you here,’ ‘I want you at this desk. In three months I’ll check in with you.’” Over her two-decade-plus time at The Post, says O’Neal, she has drifted in and out of prominence – or, as she calls it, visibility and invisibility. “It takes somebody to see you,” says the 48-year-old O’Neal, citing black editors like Merida, Eugene Robinson (now a Pulitzer-winning columnist and MSNBC pundit) and Deborah Heard. “I love the Washington Post, I have been here half my life. It’s been my only adult job, when I told my editors I was leaving, we all teared up,” notes O’Neal, who also credits magazine editor Lynn Medford and Style boss Liz Seymour. “I am going toward something, not running from something and the decision to leave was agonizing. I was very torn for many many days. I miss it already and I still have another column to write.”
Intra-newsroom debates over diversity have decades of history at The Post, a paper that rose to prominence with a business model that featured extensive coverage of a majority African-American city. At a town hall meeting yesterday, owner Jeff Bezos fielded a question from a staffer on the matter.
Bezos on diversity at @washingtonpost: "You have to acknowledge it's an issue." But doesn't say much beyond that.
— Alyssa Rosenberg (@AlyssaRosenberg) February 1, 2016
The Amazon founder also assured staffers that the paper remains in “investment mode,” which, in the view of one African-American staffer, creates an opening for these discussions. “The hope among some of us is that with the new approach to audience, new storytelling tools and digital products, that we also take an innovative approach toward these old issues of inclusion and diversity,” says Karen Attiah, an editorial division staffer who edits Erik Wemple Blog posts.
*Correction: This post previously included BuzzFeed in the last of outlets that The Post had eclipsed. BuzzFeed’s most recent diversity numbers, however, put it slightly ahead of The Post, at 32 percent newsroom minority representation.