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Media Matters

Veteran journalists weigh in on everything from the threats to diversity to the future of how the news is delivered.

Diverse asked five veteran journalists to reflect on the current and future state of journalism. Despite almost daily reports of media consolidation and newspaper layoffs, these journalists sound a cautionary but optimistic tone about the industry. The need will always be there for content and for diverse perspectives contributing to news coverage, but journalists and the industry must make substantial changes.

The Many Sides of Media Consolidation
Media consolidations in recent years have threatened the diversity of the journalism profession, which, despite expanded opportunities during four decades of uneven efforts, had already fallen well short of racial/ethnic parity in newspaper and broadcast newsrooms.

There are many cross-currents whipping across metropolitan dailies, broadcast networks and local stations, though. Some of these currents dim — others brighten — the future prospects of journalists of color. It may take a while for the picture to clear.

The sales and mergers of newspaper groups, largely the result of financial pressures in a mature industry, have contributed to a slight decline in diversity.

An annual survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, released in March, pegged the overall loss in the previous year at .25 percent. ASNE found minorities made up 13.6 percent of journalists, compared to 33 percent of the nation’s population.
It was only the second drop reported since ASNE started tracking minority employment in 1978. The first was in 2001.

Senior journalists of color may have taken a bigger hit. “It is true that as the number of journalism jobs is reduced, many managers of color are losing their jobs,” says Richard Prince, who writes a thrice-weekly online column, “Journal-isms,” for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Bryan Monroe and Larry Olmstead lost jobs as executives with Knight Ridder, for instance, when the newspaper company was bought by the McClatchy Co. Two other African-Americans, the publisher and editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, which had been a Knight Ridder paper, also departed.

Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists for the past two years, landed as editorial director of Ebony and Jet. His move to the Black-owned magazines and his recruitment of other Black daily news veterans reflect a positive trend for journalists of color:
Many Black, Spanish-language and other ethnic papers are growing, making them more able to snap up seasoned pros.

The demographic trend behind the growth in those publications also confronts dailies and broadcasters with the fact that most markets are becoming less non-Hispanic White. Some papers have launched Spanish-language editions. NBC purchased the Telemundo television network in 2002.

So diversity remains a market imperative, if not in this period of
financial distress, then in the near future. “To many managers worried about just keeping the place afloat, diversity has been downgraded as a priority,” Prince observes.

Past patterns suggest media consolidation ought to be good for diversity in newspapers. ASNE’s annual surveys have consistently found that larger newspapers have better hiring records than smaller ones. The biggest newspaper companies — Gannett and the former Knight Ridder, for instance — have been industry leaders in diversity.

One uncertainty is how quickly journalists of color develop the multimedia skills needed in online news operations, which are growing. The ASNE survey, for the first time, included those operations and found, surprisingly, that minorities had a larger presence there than in traditional newsrooms — 16 percent versus fewer than 14 percent.

The survey covered only the online operations of newspapers, not freestanding online publications. Their diversity has not been measured, though a broad impression exists that their records are as poor as those of printed magazines.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a former national editor for the Boston Globe, is a Boston-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Diverse.

Coverage of American Indians Is Usually Wrong
Whenever I’m at my local bookstore, I usually check out the Native American section to see what’s new. There aren’t many high-profile Native American writers, so I was intrigued when I spotted a book that I had never heard of by an author I didn’t know — a Navajo man named Nasdijj.

In Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, he gives an account of the life and death of his adopted son, who had fetal alcohol syndrome. According to his book jacket bio, Nasdijj had written for Esquire and had been nominated for a National Magazine Award. I was impressed. I didn’t know of any other Indians besides Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich who had been able to break into to such high-profile magazines. Who is this guy I wondered. I started skimming passages for clues. The writing was engaging — crisp and lyrical — but something
seemed off.

A few years later I found out what. The man whose writing Esquire described as “unfailingly honest” was a total liar. He turned out to be a White guy named Tim Barrus — a writer of gay erotica no less. The truth was revealed in an L.A. Weekly exposé.

People wanted to know how he got away with it. Perhaps it was because, to the editors, he seemed an exotic find. It fit into their preconceived ideas, however misguided, about Indian authenticity.

A poor reservation Indian whose “very nearly perfect” writing style was cultivated “far from the clutches of New York publishing, further still from any kind of MFA writing program,” seemed too good to be true, and it was.

The Ivy League-educated fact checkers who typically work in mainstream magazines are unfamiliar with the facts that would have given Tim Barrus away. Most wouldn’t know that Navajos identify themselves through their clans, that someone raised on a reservation should be able to name their relatives and that anyone who claims to be Indian, whether they live on a reservation or in a city, is accountable to a larger community.

When reporters and editors fail to dig a little deeper, the results are shallow articles devoid of context. This is especially true of stories about
our social ills. When Time published “Indian Casinos: Wheel of Misfortune,” a two-part series on the impact of gaming on tribal economies, it was justifiably criticized by Native leaders for lacking an understanding of tribal sovereignty and federal treaty obligations, among other things.

When it comes to Native issues, it’s easy to get the story wrong because it takes much more work to get it right. Why crack open a history book when doing a LexisNexis search is so much faster? Why take the time to cultivate the right sources when you can interview the usual suspects quoted in every story? And why check to see if Nasdijj really means anything in Navajo or Diné? Until there are more Native writers, editors and fact checkers at Time or Newsweek or Esquire, mainstream magazines must take the extra steps to make sure their stories about Indians are balanced, well researched and at the very least, true.

— Rita Pyrillis, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is a Chicago-area writer. She teaches media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

From Watchdog to Lapdog
My love is in trouble. Her name is newspaper journalism. I fell madly in love with her as a kid.

I lined up at the corner newsstand to get my hands on her — the New York Daily News “bulldog” edition. I worked there for 15 years and loved nearly every minute of it.

The bulldog, by the way, is the logo for the scrappy paper I work for now.

But public service journalism and the bulldog-like axioms that I still try to subscribe to — watchdog rather than lapdog, bite ankles, raise hell, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — seem to have their legs caught in a potentially lethal claw trap. The trap’s razor sharp teeth are declining readership, competition for people’s time and dwindling profits caused by the growing and troubling defection of advertising to the Internet.

So what is my love doing to save herself? She’s chewing her legs off. To maintain net profits, newspaper owners — who were snail slow to capitalize on the advertising potential of online ventures — are axing journalists and quality journalism in the process.

Thousands of editorial staffers have been laid off or left through buyouts at newspapers nationwide in recent years. Investigative reporters or teams are disappearing fast from newsrooms, like endangered species.
The same holds true for reporters covering local, state and national politics. Foreign bureaus are closing or shrinking in the midst of a war and rising globalization.

Diversity is another casualty. Internship programs that were crucial at many papers in bringing promising journalists, particularly those of color, are being whacked like a mob turncoat. Newsroom editors are dealing with protracted job freezes. When a position opens up, they quickly fill it — whether the hire fits diversity goals or not — before the publisher notices it and guts it from the budget.

Hard news and hard-nosed reporting — from the nuts and bolts of covering a school board meeting to exposés that uncover public corruption or malfeasance — are giving way to stories on how to plan a Harry Potter book party or how to use an iPod.

It doesn’t matter whether it comes on paper, online or through convergence media projects, good journalism will sell as long as there are talented and committed people around and allowed to do it.

In his book, The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, University of North Carolina journalism professor Phillip Meyer finds a strong relationship between credibility — the driving engine of valued journalism — and business success.

“It just pains me to see them cutting the quality of the content by laying off editorial staff,” Meyer has said. “It’s as though they’ve given up and simply want to harvest their market position to get as much money
[as they can] out of the business before it collapses.”

To maintain the historical social function of the press in America, Meyer believes owners and investors should place more importance on “moral and capable journalists.”

Now that’s advice that can spring one from a death trap.

— Ruben Rosario is the public safety columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Job Prospects Limited, But There With Right Skills
A few years ago, Stanley Donaldson was an aspiring college journalist on the Spartan Echo, the campus paper of Norfolk State University.
Today, the 26-year-old Ohio native is living his dream as an urban affairs reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, writing stories that make a difference.

Donaldson is also one of a shrinking number of Black male daily newspaper reporters. In fact, the ranks of people of color in the news business — male and female — had been stagnant for several years and are now beginning to fall at an alarming rate.

Many veteran journalists hired in the aftermath of the civil rights riots of 1967 and 1968 are retiring. Others are losing their jobs as news media companies combine operations, shrink payrolls or both.

Also, anecdotal reports from news recruiters across the nation suggest fewer people of color are starting careers in the news business.

“This is a disturbing trend if you ever want to see any kind of equity in our country,” says Dori J. Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “And if we don’t have a news media that reflects our populations, it is very unlikely we’ll be able to give our fellow citizens the accurate and clear info they need to make informed public policy decisions.”

Opportunities in the news business still exist, despite the gloomy stream of reports about retirements, buyouts, layoffs, vanishing opportunities and shrinking pools of talent. News media jobs are more important than ever too, as the nation becomes increasingly diverse and the planet
shrinks, figuratively, through global advances in global communications, transportation and commerce.

Today’s aspiring journalists may have to look a little harder for that job and adjust their sights at the start. They must have a strong inner desire to succeed in journalism and the ethics to go along with that desire. They will also need a wider array of skill sets than their predecessors.

Students, career-changers and skill-builders pursuing journalism careers need to have a firm command of the English language plus a working knowledge of other languages. Spanish, at the least, with Mandarin and Farsi not far behind, is needed to be competitive and competent to succeed in today’s newsroom. Ideally, the more languages one speaks, the better.

Computer skills for Web production are quickly becoming a must, as employers seek to turn journalists into multimedia reporters who can make audio and video versions of their interviews and post them on a Web site.

Fully equipped journalists of color may still find the going tough, but not impossible. Yes, the job market is quite different and the skills needed to succeed in our business today are more demanding than ever. People of color should not be deterred however, as the stakes are too high if too many of us opt to abandon journalism. The impact of the press on the lives of all communities is too great to leave the decisions of the press to only a few. A message I shared with journalists years ago stands today: Journalism needs minorities and minorities need journalism.

— Reginald Stuart, a journalist for nearly 40 years, is the corporate recruiter for McClatchy Newspapers.

Reinventing and Sustaining Journalism With New Media
Anyone following news about the media might believe that one morning soon we will wake to empty driveways, idle delivery trucks and paper boys’ bikes all locked away in garages. The last newspaper will have been printed. Such is the doom and gloom that now seems the constant story about the future of newspapers.

To be sure, newspapers face unprecedented challenges amid an uncertain future. After prosperous centuries, the very foundation of the press — the printing press — has been wiped away. The question is: Will the media find a new foundation upon which to stand?

I am confident it will, although it’s in for a bumpy ride. For the media — and newspapers, in particular — to survive these uncertain times, there will need to be a complete, fundamental restructuring of their basic business model.

This restructuring cannot continue piecemeal as it has. Our audience has fragmented. There won’t be many 500,000-circulation papers. But that does not mean we won’t and can’t reach a larger total readership than before. Instead, we might be supporting a number of smaller publications and Web sites, with content that is targeted by subject, demographic or psychographic. Some of the audiences will overlap, but the collective whole of what the media produce will complement itself while more narrowly appealing to its varied readership.

This media will also have to be far more nimble about developing technologies that will enable them to work across these multiple products in a seamless, streamlined manner. We’ll still need to be quick, after all, because the news won’t slow down. And how we deliver that news to our readers, when and where, will just continue to speed up.
Likely, this new delivery of news will include “citizen journalists,” but their reports need to be placed in context by reliable, unbiased reporting. Their new voices are valuable, and it can only be beneficial to add multiple perspectives to our coverage. But not all voices are created equal, and I don’t believe citizen journalists will replace well-trained, well-edited reporters.

I also don’t believe that those reporters will be able to carry on as they have. Just as new technologies will need to come along, new conceptions of the term “reporter” will need to follow. We cannot continue to be isolated from our readers — a major failing, I think — because when we are, we are isolated from what they want and need from us.

The business model that will ultimately succeed will be one that nurtures interaction between readers and the media. Readers are pressed for time, and they demand immediate and lasting value from what they pick up. We need our readers to think of newspapers as a place they go to “do things,” not just to read about them. Right now, our classified sections are probably the only place where that kind of interactivity — really, just “activity” — exists. Changing this perception for our print and online products is crucial to reinventing ourselves, retaining our relevance in the market, and long term, creating a sustainable future for journalism.

Elaine Zinngrabe is the senior vice president for the online division of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which publishes The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. 

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