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Getting African American Journalists on the ‘Write’ Track

Getting African American Journalists on the ‘Write’ Track

William W. Sutton Jr., 45, is outgoing president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a deputy managing editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. He is a 1977 graduate of Hampton Institute (now University); he briefly attended law school at Rutgers University-Camden and received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 1987-88.
Sutton’s professional career includes more than 10 years with The Philadelphia Inquirer in various reporting and editing jobs before joining the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind., as managing editor in 1991. Two years later he became editor and vice president of the Post-Tribune.
Once he hit the management track, Sutton sprinted ahead, leaving Gary to join the staff at The News & Observer in January 1997 as an assistant managing editor responsible for recruiting and community outreach. He became deputy managing editor in December 1997.
Sutton has been an active member of NABJ since 1977, where he served more than five years on NABJ’s board of directors in the mid-1980s. Along with Juan Gonzalez of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Sutton was instrumental in bringing the four media organizations of journalists of color together for a joint convention, which led to the historic Unity ’94.

BI: What is your view of current journalism education, especially the education of Black student journalists?

Sutton: One of the biggest gaps for Black student journalists is the opportunity to work on a daily student newspaper. Those Black students who attend universities such as Northwestern, the University of Maryland or Columbia can have that opportunity, though they face other serious issues at those publications.
 However, not a single HBCU (historically Black college and university) has a five-, six- or seven-day a week student newspaper. Like the sciences and other fields of study, you cannot properly prepare for the profession with just class work. It is important to have the balance of class study and practical experience. A daily student newspaper is an important asset, and the HBCU that recognizes that, supports the concept and takes action to create a daily student newspaper complete with free press authorization, will find that their students will get a lot of attention real fast.

BI: What were your goals as NABJ president related to journalism students? Did you meet those goals?

Sutton: One of the primary goals was to refocus our NABJ-specific internship efforts on internships for first-time interns. Because of the fight to have the industry do more for African American students through the year, the media industry has a lot of programs geared toward the best and the brightest Black students. NABJ was focused that way, too.
But we’ve changed that. With the help of Robin Stone, Louise Ritchie and Gregory Lee, we have focused our internships on Black students who need a first break, a first-time opportunity to see what the media business is all about. We’ve added a spring internship boot camp to provide these young people with specific skills and an introduction to newspaper journalism so they’ll be more prepared when they go into these newspaper newsrooms. I want to emphasize that our internships have been open and continue to be open to Black students at all colleges and universities, but we certainly have a special affinity for HBCUs.

BI: As associate NABJ members, are journalism professors considered an important component of NABJ? Can more be done to promote participation among academics?

Sutton: Frankly, NABJ needs more from our journalism professors, and journalism professors need to push NABJ for more. They are right there in the trenches with many of the students we need to reach.
We have the experience — the daily, weekly and monthly news jobs so many of these students want. We have a wonderful organization that can provide Black students a significant leg up if they associate with us and allow us to help them. Journalism professors like Gerald Jordan at Arkansas, Joe Ritchie at FAMU, Susan Mango Curtis at Northwestern and others know that, so they are continuously involved with NABJ, helping their students make the appropriate connections.

BI: What is NABJ doing to involve students in the organization? Is the internship program successful?

Sutton: NABJ has always done a lot to get students involved in the association, and we continue to do a lot. We have more than $100,000 in scholarships and internships awarded each year. We have students involved at the chapter, regional and national level to help them grow professionally and to grow their leadership skills. We include students in a lot of our professional development programs, but we place special emphasis on student development with student-specific development.
Just this past year, we struck a historic agreement with Scripps Howard Foundation and Hampton University to provide students with ongoing training and development for the next few years. We need more of those partnerships with other foundations and other HBCUs.

BI: As many Black journalists leave the business, some of them turn to teaching. But often they are rejected at the college level because they don’t have advanced degrees. What is your view of this situation?

Sutton: As the son of two academics, (a former college president, William W. Sutton, former president of Mississippi Valley State University and education teacher Leatrice Sutton, Dillard University) I know firsthand the importance of meeting academic expectations for degrees and publishing. However, journalism is different. The sooner HBCUs come to understand that, the better off our Black students will be.
HBCU chancellors and presidents need to understand that you cannot force the technology industry to place a high value on research and academic publications when what they value most is research and development that results in new hardware and software products on the market. Not a degree. Not a publication. The same is true with journalism, though journalists must recognize that colleges and universities have to seek a certain level, and type, of degree across the whole campus.

BI: What is your view of journalism education at historically Black colleges and universities?

Sutton: HBCUs provide an incredible service to the Black community and to our society at large. I fully recognize the value provided by HBCUs. Journalism education, however, has taken a back burner at many of our HBCUs. I want HBCU chancellors and presidents to recognize the tremendous opportunities that exist in the journalism field, and I want them to decide to create a niche in copy editing, design, infographics, photojournalism or online. If you build the students, the industry will come knocking on your door. Nothing beats a failure except not trying, so why not try making some small segment of journalism a success at your school?
We need to stop looking at HBCUs as less-than, as institutions that are second to many and third-tier to even more. As long as we look at our institutions that way, others will do the same. (I say this) as a graduate of Hampton University, the son of two Dillard University graduates, the son of a father with two advanced degrees from Howard University. And (I have) five brothers and sisters who attended historically Black colleges and universities.

BI: A number of censorship issues have arisen in recent years at HBCUs. Are administrators at HBCUs generally supportive of the student media?

Sutton: Unfortunately, far too few HBCUs respect, understand and help student media. It is not acceptable to trash student publications, radio programs or television programs just because you don’t like what you see. If you want the respect of the media, they have to see a respect for the basic tenets of journalism, particularly free press. That doesn’t mean that it is OK to slander and libel people. It is not. Student journalists and journalism advisers have to be held accountable, but administrators should not attempt to use student media as public relations mouthpieces.

BI: With recent reports from ASNE (American Society for Newspaper Editors) about the lack of diversity at newspapers, what is NABJ doing to get more minority journalists hired and retained?

Sutton: We have ramped up our efforts, looking at specific markets and specific newspapers as a means of evaluating what is happening and why. We cannot afford to look at these numbers so broadly that they fail to have impact because there is not enough focus newspaper-by-newspaper.
It is a shame that this past year the number of journalists of color has fallen in all four measurement categories — Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American — for the first time in 23 years. However, it is the second year in a row that the number of Black journalists has fallen. That’s a shame. The industry should be horrified. We certainly are.
But being horrified isn’t enough. We have to fight for what’s right, and that includes the industry providing more opportunities, HBCUs providing more support to prepare their students for these opportunities and NABJ working with the industry and HBCUs to serve as the cultural link with Black students.

BI: What about diversity in broadcast? What is NABJ’s role in increasing minority hiring and retention in broadcast media and new media?

Sutton: The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) seems to be proud of their progress because their overall numbers are much better than the ASNE numbers. They shouldn’t be so happy. And we shouldn’t be fooled. Those RTNDA numbers include Hispanic-owned and operated television stations. Just think what the ASNE numbers might look like if the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA)’s newspapers were included in the ASNE numbers. What a difference that would make!
I’m not saying that RTNDA general managers and news directors haven’t made progress. They have. But they, too, have a long way to go, particularly when we look at supervision and management positions. Too many of our students are focused on being anchors and in-the-field reporters. Those are good jobs, but it’s like aiming for the NBA court jobs instead of aiming to be in the front office or even to own one of the teams.

BI: Are there any new challenges facing minorities in journalism? Has the newsroom climate changed? If so, how?

Sutton: The challenges facing journalists of color these days are the same as the old days, except for a couple of key areas. First, Black journalists continue to be Black. So, when we walk into the newsroom there’s no guessing about some part of our background, our ethnicity. It’s right there for all to see in most cases. A lot of people in society and in newsrooms make assumptions based on skin color. It’s not fair, but it is reality.
Second, the key areas that are challenges for us these days include specific types of skill development. For instance, you cannot operate in a newsroom these days and be afraid of computers. Most Black journalists are in the reporting ranks, and we need more of us in that part of the business. But there are many more opportunities in broadcast writing and producing; copy editing; infographics; design, photography and online or new media. If you look in any newsroom, you’ll see far too few people of
color in those fields. That’s not to say that students shouldn’t pursue being a reporter. But if they want to be a reporter, they should develop a firm foundation and develop a focus. I suggest business reporting because the financial journalism field has boomed during the last decade.

BI: Are more or fewer minorities, particularly African Americans, still interested in pursuing journalism jobs. Why or why not?

Sutton: A lot of students of color are still interested in pursuing journalism as a
career. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough Black males looking at journalism as a career option. We need more brothers in all aspects of journalism, and not just sports journalism.
Still, pay can be an important issue for some deciding whether to pursue journalism as a career. There’s no denying that there are not many people of any ethnic background who get rich in journalism — unless they own the media outlet. But I suggest that Black students look at the first 10 years of any career, look at the survival rates and look at the enjoyment and fulfillment. You might make as little as $15,000 to $25,000 a year as a starting journalism salary, depending on the market size and location.
But if you’ve had two or three summer internships, focused on one of the special skill areas such as copy editing or design and continue to develop your skills, you could make as much as $40,000 to $60,000 a year in less than five years. That’s not a bad income, and there’s a lot of fulfillment, and usually a set schedule. 

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