Newsroom Diversity: An Online Paradigm Shift

While the long-predicted downturn among U.S. news publications is taking its toll on journalists everywhere, minorities in the news industry are impacted more than most. Total newsroom employment at daily newspapers declined 2.4 percent in 2011 while the loss in newsroom positions among minorities was 5.7 percent, according to a recently released census by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Center for Advanced Social Research at the Missouri School of Journalism.

ASNE has conducted its Newsroom Employment Census of professional full-time journalists since 1978. Despite this year’s loss in newsroom positions, the decline in jobs that began in 2006-07 appears to be stabilizing, according to the census report.

“Clearly, we have more work to do,” said Ronnie Agnew, executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and co-chair of ASNE’s 2011-12 Diversity Committee. “While the numbers suggest stabilization, the trend shows that the exodus from this important industry among people of color continues. This is far from just a numbers issue; this is a troubling content issue. The decline will only stop when people in leadership embrace diversity as an essential part of their business.”

Following a decline of approximately 800 minority newsroom positions in both 2008 and 2009, the total loss over the last two years was 500 jobs. There were slight decreases in the percentage of employees in each minority category in 2011, although the census was revised this year to add a category of “multi-racial,” which may account for some of the loss in other categories.

“I’m glad that the percentages appear to have stabilized, but our industry still falls significantly short of accurately reflecting the population it serves,” said Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president of news for the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group of Rochester, N.Y. “As our ‘Future of Diversity in the News’ report warns, diversity is a business imperative. We must ensure that we cultivate diverse, creative staffs to create content that is relevant to growing communities of color. It’s a critical key to our survival.”

It is abundantly apparent that newspapers across the country are struggling. Most recently, The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans announced that it will cut back the city’s daily paper to three days a week, bucking a 175-year history due to declining print revenue. The change, which is slated for this fall, will make New Orleans the largest city without a daily newspaper.

The Washington Post newspaper offered buyouts earlier this year to newsroom staff in an effort to reduce the paper’s payroll. It is the fifth in a series of buyouts that have helped reduce the size of the staff by more than a third over the past decade as circulation and advertising revenue have fallen.

Washington Post Guild co-chair Freddy Kunkle wrote in a memo, “a high number of the participants are Asian, African-American or Latino. By our count, more a dozen of these Guild-covered employees are minorities, most of whom are Black.”

News outlets across the country are faced with a dual challenge of addressing advertising shortfalls while attempting to maintain staff diversity.

Across all market sizes, minority newsroom employment is still substantially lower than the percentage of minorities in the markets those newsrooms serve. On average, newspapers with daily circulation between 250,000 and 500,000 had a minority workforce of about 20 percent of their total workforce, while they reported that about 30 percent of the population of their circulation areas is made up of minorities.

The smallest papers — those below 5,000 circulation — had an average of 6 percent of their workforce classified as minorities, though the average minority population of their circulation areas was about 18 percent. Slightly more than three-fifths of all minority journalists work for papers with greater than 100,000 circulation. This percentage has been relatively stable for the last two decades.

Former reporters like Danielle C. Belton represent a new breed of journalists-turned-entrepreneurs who are carving out their own niches after working in the old paradigm of print media. A former newspaper reporter and columnist for the Bakersfield Californian, Belton launched her blog in 2007 after leaving the newspaper.

“Daily newspapers are struggling, so it’s not shocking that there is a decline,” Belton said. “Whenever things get narrow, newspapers are not as open to diversity. The reality is that you don’t make a lot of money starting out in the middle of nowhere, in small towns and the rural South. It’s harder to be a minority uprooted from your community and thrust into a sink-or-swim situation.”

“The report is not taking into consider online journalism. I really would like to see journalism more open-minded to bloggers and online writers,” Belton added.

Belton has proven that there are alternatives to a traditional career in print journalism. With 2 million readers in less than two years, Belton’s satirical look at politics in her blog, The Black Snob, has earned recognition on CNN and in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Observer (UK), The Daily Beast, NPR, “Good Morning America” and on ABC’s “Nightline.” She is a regular on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin and PBS’ “To The Contrary” with Bonnie Erbe.

“If you want to expand the number of minorities in the field, we should be cultivating the talent as opposed to creating these separate spaces for online writers,” Belton said.

As the new reality continues for newspapers, some minority reporters are re-emerging by creating their own voice and filling voids that not been captured through traditional news media. They represent a paradigm shift that may not be easily captured in media surveys and they are deciding how and in what capacity they will participate in the news arena.