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Bay Area Digital News Project Promises Diverse Coverage

The changing media landscape is testing the relevancy and innovation of news operations all over the country. It’s no surprise then that new partnerships among media organizations are turning to Web sites as outlets for local news.


In San Francisco, private and public entities are coming together to create the Bay Area News Project, a nonprofit local news Web site for the San Francisco bay metropolitan area. But unlike other enterprises, the collaboration between the KQED public broadcasting organization, the University of California Berkeley, and a wealthy benefactor, they have expressed a commitment to ensuring diversity in news coverage.


“I’ve never been anywhere more diverse,” said Scott Walton, a spokesperson for KQED-San Francisco. “We know the Bay area is diverse and within a few years it will be a minority majority region.”


KQED Radio is the most listened to National Public Radio affiliate in the country, Walton said, and it plans to use its popularity to fill in news coverage gaps for underrepresented groups.


But some media experts are concerned that this project and others like it will fall short of their promise and news managers will forget their commitment to ensuring multicultural representation in newsrooms—no matter how small or poorly funded.


“I have high hopes but low expectations,” San Francisco State University media professor Cristina Azocar said of digital journalism projects emerging across the country. “The decline of newspapers can be correlated with the change of demographics of the country.”


If these new enterprises such as hyperlocal Web sites and online news sources do not factor in fair representation they won’t last long, Azocar said.


“Though the reporters have changed, much of the leadership has never changed,” she said. “The ideology of diversity is important. The bottom line is its important to the communities they are trying to cover.”


Few of the digital news enterprises have featured the work of people of color or an emphasis on those communities. Meanwhile, ethnic newspapers that were gaining in circulation and readership have faced hardships in the online transition, said Dr. Frederico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media and Markets at Texas State University.


“If hyperlocal news organizations want to make impact they should be inclusive and tell what’s going on with other local communities within the dominant community,” Subervi said. “This requires new training on how to do news and  making connections with the goals of different people in the community.”


Subervi has received three grants to fund diversity-minded media research projects but adds that he believes few journalists of color are seeking the resources to acquire the skills to master the digital media realm.


“These projects are covering the void left by mainstream journalism and that could mean anything, from specific communities to more theme-based reporting,” said Ivan Roman, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “Are they focused on minorities? I’m not holding my breath.”


Roman said journalism organizations must take diversity into account not only in giving grants but also providing training. At NAHJ’s 2009 convention in Puerto Rico, organizers paid high fees for Wi-Fi service in the San Juan convention center and encouraged convention attendees to bring their laptops.


“In the process of submitting grant proposals, it’s clear to us that we need to get more Latina/o journalists prepared. We have not been the beneficiaries of that training,” he said. “We have to step in and do it. That is why we need more forceful advocacy to get our people into entrepreneurial journalism and giving them online journalism skills.”


The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awards annual grants through different initiatives, including the Knight News Challenge, a program that awards innovative digital community projects with operational funds. The deadline has been extended to December 15.


“The Knight News Challenge is extremely inclusive, because it is a world wide and open contest. Anyone anywhere can apply. The contest is promoted in nine different languages,” said Jose Zamora, an associate of the Knight Foundation’s journalism program. “Diversity is one of our priority areas, and it is also a Knight Commission recommendation.”


At the University of Texas at El Paso, Knight helped to fund, a Web community for Latino students that tells the story of the Borderlands the way they live it. At the University of Montana, American Indian students run, a news source for Native Americans funded by grant money.


But while these outlets have emerged, Roman said it’s time for news media in general to expand diversity as the industry’s practices and culture change.


“We haven’t defined what covering our people is going to look like. We were very focused on the fact that diversity meant staffing at mainstream newsrooms but that had its limitation,” Roman said. “We need to come up with a new definition and define our goals when it comes to achieving diversity in media”


Numbers may not mean enough for diversity, instead quality of coverage for communities of color could be the measure for a differentiated and divergent landscape.


“Significant presentation of people of color in all media, particularly mainstream media continues to be a focus, but we are looking into putting more of our energies in measuring media opportunities in digital media, entrepreneurial, online journalism,” said Onica Makwakwa, executive director of UNITY journalists of Color Inc. “We need to focus not solely on mainstream media but now look at the other players.”


UNITY, a collaborative organization of minority journalism organizations, have counted journalism job losses at three times the jobless rate of the economy each month. They estimate more than 45,000 jobs have been lost and 201 media outlets have closed but they have no way of knowing how many displaced journalists were people of color.


But unlike mainstream outlets, Makwakwa said digital media presents a new opportunity to be at “the front end of advocating for diversity,” rather than playing catch-up.

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