Developing Truth Tellers
Amortgage broker. A public school teacher. A retired elevator company employee. It’s not likely that anyone would consider individuals in these jobs to be prospective journalists. Nevertheless, officials with the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute last summer found three such individuals and several others, and trained them in an unique program designed to bring more underrepresented minorities into the newspaper journalism field. Prior to participating in the program, Diversity Institute fellows have no formal journalism training, and for three months, fully funded by the Freedom Forum, they leave their spouses, children and other loved ones behind for 12 weeks to master the journalism skills they’ll need to excel.
“Before I went, I was concerned about whether you could actually fit almost four years of journalism training in 12 weeks,” says Shanika Williams, a copy editor at The Tuscaloosa News (Ala.) and one of seven fellows who comprised the fifth class of Diversity Institute graduates.
“The foundational teachings and introduction to journalism were so thorough, and we were exposed to so many people who (are experts in the field). They went out of their way to make sure the fundamental tenets of journalism were instilled in us,” Williams says.
Interested professionals or recent college graduates — many of whom may be already informally connected with the sponsoring paper as contributing writers, or who have submitted previous employment applications — apply to their community newspapers which then nominate them as fellowship candidates. Upon their acceptance to the Diversity Institute, newspapers then sponsor fellows and once training is complete, employ them. Applications may also be made directly to the Diversity Institute, in which case successful applicants are assigned to participating newspapers.
During training, fellows live on the campus of Vanderbilt University where they are immersed in training Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. often until well into the night. The program also includes Saturday assignments at the local newspaper, The Tennessean.
COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY
The Diversity Institute was developed in 2002 as part of the Freedom Forum, a three-part initiative for “free press, free speech and free spirit for all people” that includes the Newseum, an interactive news museum currently under construction in Washington, D.C.; the First Amendment Center, dedicated to issues of free speech; and the Diversity Institute, which, along with the First Amendment Center, is housed in the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
The institute, which now boasts 42 graduates and welcomed its sixth class of fellows in June, exemplifies the kind of progress possible when there is a genuine commitment to diversity.
Robbie Morganfield, instructor/training editor at the Diversity Institute, says the motivation behind the program is inherent in the notion of a free press.
“There is a correlation there between a free press and holding a democratic awareness to have a press representative of that commitment,” says Morganfield, who has also taught at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and Texas Christian University.
Citing the 1968 Kerner Commission Report highlighting the media’s role in perpetuating the racial divide in the United States, Morganfield says the Diversity Institute is one way to enhance the democratic process.
“Newspapers are starting to understand and see the value diversity brings to their staff and their publications,” he says. “If we are supposed to be truth tellers, we have to have the eyes and ears to do that. People gravitate toward issues that affect them.”
Morganfield says that if diversity is lacking in the newsroom, so is community coverage.
THE QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE
Excellence is what Morganfield is most interested in imparting to the fellows who participate in the program.
He says getting people exposed to all aspects of the newsroom is perhaps one of his greatest challenges in preparing first-rate fellows, but Morganfield says the fellows’ success proves it’s possible.
Forty-seven newspapers have signed on to sponsor fellows, and a few have been sponsors more than once. A majority of the Diversity Institute fellows have remained with their sponsoring newspapers.
“An advantage we have is that (fellows) are not new to work,” Morganfield says. “They know the value of hard work, the culture of work, and they invest what is necessary to grow into the profession.”
Morganfield admittedly prepares fellows to exceed expectations, at the same time he urges them to understand their distinct perspectives in the newsroom.
His mission is to equip “confident and competent” journalists who “take the whole of who they are as an asset rather than a liability, who celebrate who they are and take that into their work,” he says. “This is an opportunity for them to put their own unique stamp on their work.”
Andrea Murray, managing editor at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., where institute fellow Marcela Creps, a former mortgage broker, is now a reporter, says this is one of the most valuable aspects of the program. She says the fellows’ training and awareness of the significance of things like headline construction, choices of photographs and a general sensitivity to the ways in which people are represented are invaluable.
Like other sponsoring editors, Murray has spent time at the Diversity Institute where editors participate in the program and are also made aware of the specific struggles journalists of color might face.
“You have to speak up if you see something disturbing,” Murray says. “You may be the only person of color (in the newsroom), and you could find yourself in an advocacy position.”
A DESIRE TO DO BETTER
Freedom Forum chairman and CEO, Charles Overby, and Mary Kay Blake, senior vice president for partnerships and initiatives, tapped founding executive director Wanda Lloyd, a long-time Gannett editor, to develop and implement the Diversity Institute.
Lloyd, who put her own career with Gannett on hold in 2001 to direct and oversee the development of the Diversity Institute, recently became the executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, a position she has been working toward throughout her 35-year journalism career. She says her passion for the program remains, and she will stay involved. Lloyd acknowledges the unattained goal set by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1978 to bring the numbers of journalists in newsrooms in line to reflect the diversity of the U.S. population by the year 2000. That mission is now targeted for 2025.
“I don’t know that the industry is as committed as it should be as an institution,” says Lloyd, who has served as a member of the ASNE board of directors.
Charles Pittman, senior vice president of newspapers at Schurz Communications Inc., (SCI) based in South Bend, Ind., says he was concerned by the absence of journalists of color and the profession’s apparent lack of commitment toward that end.
“As a person of color, I thought I could best send a signal that this was an imperative we needed to make,” says Pittman, who was familiar with the Freedom Forum’s Diversity Institute.
SCI subsequently sponsored four of the seven fellows from the fifth Diversity Institute class. Additionally, on an annual basis, the four Indiana newspapers under the umbrella of SCI — The Herald-Times, the South Bend Tribune, Times-Mail in Bedford and The Reporter-Times in Martinsville — will identify one fellow to sponsor at the Diversity Institute.
“It’s no secret that commitment has to start at the top,” Pittman says.
Murray of The Herald-Times echoes the importance of corporate commitment.
Murray says that because of the SCI pledge to promote the program, the paper was given a budget increase to make Creps a regular staff member. Murray also points out that all four SCI papers have journalists of color they did not have six months ago.
“What a deal,” says Murray. “The quality of the education and training is just excellent. I am astounded that more papers aren’t doing it.”
CHANGED LIVES, NEW CONVERSATIONS
All seven of the fellows from the fifth Freedom Forum Diversity Institute cadre claim there is nothing negative to report from their newsroom experiences thus far. On the contrary, the fellows comment that their new colleagues have been generous and even enthusiastic about the opportunity to have broader coverage of their communities.
Several of the fellows are working at newspapers in their home communities. Leonard Thornton, a retired Otis Elevator employee, is now a reporter at the Bedford, Ind., Times-Mail. At 58, he notes that he has been a member of the community longer than anyone else on staff. He says he is pleased with his reporting assignments, weekly military page and the opportunity to cover stories about the small Black community in Bedford.
Thornton says the rigor of the Diversity Institute program, guest speakers from organizations like the Poynter Institute and the continuing camaraderie among the fellows position them to make a real difference. He says the absence of voices of color were evident when reading his hometown paper. But now participating newspapers include perspectives they would not otherwise have.
“This is something that will probably go down in Black history,” Thornton says about the significance of the work at the Diversity Institute.
Joe Manuel Rodriquez, a former radiology and medical records clerk who is now a staff writer at the San Angelo Standard-Times in Texas, his home community, also assesses the program’s impact.
“We are meant to bring diversity into the newspaper,” he says, not just the newsroom. He says that building relationships is the means to enhance community coverage. “I stop and talk to people, get different perspectives, go into cafes,” he says. “That’s where a lot of the best stories come from, just people telling you what is going on.” As a member of the Hispanic community, Rodriquez says “you get more local coverage because people know you better.”
And the benefits of the program extend beyond communities of color.
Among the youngest fellows in the fifth class, Shauna Watkins, a 2004 Spelman graduate from Lansing, Mich., was sponsored by The Reporter-Times in Martinsville, Ind. This small town just south of Indianapolis has an enduring controversial yet contested reputation for racial exclusivity and hostility, and, as the 2000 U.S. Census information indicates, few people of color make Martinsville their home.
Yet SCI’s Pittman says demographics were no reason for The Reporter-Times to miss out on the program.
“It was tough in Martinsville to find a candidate, Pittman recalls, “so we went out and found one. We weren’t going to let that be a showstopper for us.”
Marda Johnson, managing editor of The Reporter-Times, is grateful for the company’s support in bringing Watkins on board.
“Shauna is young and has a different perspective,” Johnson says. “It has been really great.” She adds that with the training Watkins received at the Diversity Institute and the fresh ideas she brings, Watkins has become a “catalyst” in the newsroom for creating new conversations.
“We are covering communities that we were not good in covering in the past,” concludes Pittman. “It has been a win-win situation.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com