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The Changing Landscape for Aspiring Black Journalists

When the nation’s news organizations were flush with money at the turn of the century, newsroom diversity was a top priority at a number of media companies. They spent millions of dollars on internships, entry-level jobs and training.

Newspapers at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) became a gold mine for talent, expanding the abilities of HBCUs to recruit and formally train students for jobs that in past decades usually went to White students who reported for the plethora of campus papers and news outlets at traditionally White institutions.

Yanick Rice LambYanick Rice Lamb

Papers like The Meter at Nashville’s Tennessee State University, The Spartan Echo at Norfolk State University in Virginia, The Famuan at Florida A & M University and The Hilltop at Howard University in the nation’s capital helped fill the growing demand for minorities in the media, producing students with good writing skills and providing formal training to aspiring photographers and cartoonists.

Providing journalism education, HBCUs were able to get their students employed, regardless of whether the newspaper and school administration were in sync. Scores of journalists, who have avoided layoffs and staff cutbacks, now work for local and national news organizations across the nation.

Today, the landscape for HBCU campus newspapers is dramatically different.

Newspaper journalism education is losing students as more students with interest in communications are pursuing degrees in multimedia journalism or degrees in marketing, advertising and public and government relations. Campus newspapers are being increasingly pushed aside as institutions focus more and more on digital and social media training for job-bound students.

On the jobs front, newsroom employment of Blacks and other minorities — slowly inching up since the issuance of the page-turning Kerner Commission national report on civil disorder 50 years ago — has taken a nosedive. Budget cutters have demoted the importance of newsroom diversity, once considered a core responsibility, according to a number of educators and recruiters.

Newspapers across the country — for example in New Orleans, San Jose and Detroit — that were highly profitable anchors in their respective communities have laid off staffers by the thousands in the last two decades and have reduced the page count and frequency of their publications.

Meanwhile, medium and small market radio and television stations have used the Federal Communications Commission’s retreat from regulations to reduce or cut

the hiring of local news staffers and use of locally produced news and public affairs programs. More and more, companies are allocating that time to lower-cost pre-packaged news programs from independent contractors.

“There is still strong interest in journalism,” says Yanick Rice Lamb, the former New York Times copy and magazine editor who is chair of the department of media, journalism and film at Howard University. “There seems to be less interest in newspapers — print — but still interest in magazines and a lot of interest in digital,” she says. Her department has some 500 students.

“Print is not dead,” adds Lamb, echoing the sentiments of peers running journalism programs across the country. “It’s different,” she says, stressing the importance of emerging digital and legacy print media in collectively “helping students learn how to tell stories in different ways. As long as newspapers last, I think The Hilltop should still exist,” Lamb says, noting that there has been enlightening debate among students and others at Howard about whether the campus student news presentations should go all digital.

Putting together the various pieces of today’s HBCU college media landscape puzzle has been increasingly complicated of late, as recruiters, news organizations and industry groups that used to take the pulse of Black college journalism have diminished their work. Still, signs of the demise of an emphasis on diversity in the newsroom and its impact on black college newspapers abound.

The Black College Communication Association, the once vibrant small collective of HBCU journalism educators that annually gave awards to Black college media organizations for outstanding work, has been dormant for four year.

The Dow Jones News Fund, which once pumped thousands of dollars each year into copy editor training internships, has dramatically cut its support, but this was not as a result of lack of income for its parent foundation, which is backed by billionaire Rupert Murdoch.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE) nearly went broke last year as media industry support, largely based on funds from newspapers, almost totally disappeared. MIJE is the nonprofit organization that pioneered many minority news internship education programs.

“In the last decade, everybody took a big hit financially and recruiting came off the table,” says newsroom veteran Ernest Sotomayor, dean of students at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

“I don’t know how important [diversity] really was,” says Sotomayor, referring to the shifting priorities of the corporate brass. “It just came to a halt when things got tough,” he says, noting the costly race among media companies to compete in digital and social media and the parallel fall in the nation’s economy and stock market.

The landscape for HBCU campus newspapers reflects the broader reality of campus newspapers today, says Susanne Shaw, executive director of the Kansas-based Accrediting Council of Journalism Education and Mass Communication.

“Overall, they are not what they used to be,” says Susanne Shaw, offering The Daily Kansan as an example of the change in college campus newspapers. For decades, it was one of the strongest campus newspapers in the country, printed five days a week and run by student journalists who were at least juniors. Today’s Daily Kansan is smaller, printed twice a week.

At many campus papers, freshmen or sophomores serve as editors-in-chief, Shaw says. Also, the majority of communications students are in public relations or related fields.

There are moves afoot to jumpstart new diversity efforts in the news media, as the nation’s discussion grows over factual and accurate reporting.

The Marshall Project, a small, privately funded fact-based investigative reporting group that focuses on issues of concern to minorities and the poor, is actively seeking minority reporters and editors anxious to explore topics once pursued on a regular basis by local newspapers that maintained investigative reporters and teams.

Late last year, nearly half a million dollars was raised to fund the “Maynard 200,” a print-digital blend program that will train 200 storytellers, media managers and entrepreneurs across the nation over five years, helping them improve their skills.

The Maynard 200 program was launched by MIJE, which was the original Summer Program for Minority Journalists (SPMJ). SPMJ jumpstarted minority hiring in newsrooms 50 years ago, when it was started at Columbia University by CBS News president and Columbia journalism professor Fred Friendly.

Maynard 200 reflects a recognition by some in the largely White and male digital media world that diversity “is a key driver of success,” says MIJE co-executive director Evelyn Hsu, a former reporter for The Washington Post and a one-time leader of Unity: Journalists of Color, an advocacy group pushing for diversity in news media.

The Online News Association (ONA), the online news training group organized two decades ago to facilitate the evolving training needs of digital journalists, is launching the Journalism Mentorship Collaborative this year. Its goal, says executive director Irving Washington, is to create mentoring programs that can help enlist and retain more minorities with an interest in online news work.

HBCU campus paper students “sometimes have to go that extra mile” to acquire the same level of skills their non-minority peers already have, which may not have been available at the HBCU the student attended. They may have the eagerness to do digital news, Washington says, but are just not getting enough training. Helping news companies prepare their mentors to mentor, as newspapers did when they began to diversify their ranks, is the goal of the news online collaborative, Washington says.

“I think they still are,” Irving says in response to a question about the continued relevance of printed campus newspapers. “They just have to prove their relevance. The competition for attention is fierce.”

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