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Monday, August 17, 2015
Diversity Toolbox

Continue the push toward better newsroom representation

By Walter T. Middlebrook

Among the many problems facing journalism today is the great divide developing between newsrooms and the communities they serve. It is fairly certain that a growing number of newsrooms and their managers are not and will not be prepared to deal with America's changing landscape.

Recent events in the news would indicate that society and particularly the news media have not learned their lessons from the 1960s. A major primer of that time was a report by the presidential appointed Kerner Commission, which warned, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."

Thirty years later, another government report warned: “… there is more poverty in America, it is deeper, blacker and browner than before, and it is more concentrated in the cities, which have become America’s poorhouses.”

Today, conditions are not much different. And in some respects they’re worse based on recent revelations of more separate and unequal communities in this country. For example: News coverage of the nation’s poor and black communities, news of the nation’s forthcoming population changes and its growing number of Muslim communities. Or look at the uneven wealth spurred by Silicon Valley and its related social media industry, including the disparate treatment of women in promotion and pay.

Steps to practice and recognize management potential:

1) Become aware of the overall organizational dynamic. It’s more than just your beat or your day job. Study your company and corporate dynamics.

2) Meet and chat with managers from other departments in your newsroom. Show interest and talk about the things they’ve done.

3) Become a voice and a resource in your newsroom. Set up workshops with local experts/speakers, particularly from minority communities.

4) Take leadership roles outside of your newsroom. Become active in your local chapter of SPJ, or an affiliate of one of the national journalist groups.

5) Find a mentor. Look for the person in the newsroom you can trust and who can help you navigate how to approach your future.

The Kerner Commission urged news organizations to have representatives of all the communities affected by economic and social hardship in the board room and in the places where major decisions – news coverage, promotions, hiring, for example – are being made. One of the most startling statistics of the news industry today is the low number of people of color as a percentage of the total workforce. Even more startling is the numbers of people of color in management.

Will we continue to ignore those commissions’ warnings? Are we destined for more cutbacks and realignments of media and its affiliated industries, which in turn may worsen minority representation? Must there be another awakening as those that occurred in the 1960s?

All is not lost – at least not yet. A number of efforts have stepped up to help on the management side of the equation.

Just recently, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, at the suggestion of SPJ’s Diversity Committee, agreed to fund a training opportunity for up-and-coming minority journalists seeking to enter management.

This fellowship, named in honor of former SPJ President Reginald Stuart, will enable two members of SPJ to attend the Poynter Leadership Academy, October 4-9, 2015 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The goals in setting up the fellowship were two-fold:

1) Identify and provide management training to minority journalists who are managers or have management potential.

2) Address a major need to increase the number of minority managers in the newsroom.

The American Society of News Editors has a similar effort in place. Their program provides for 16 mid-level editors and news directors to participate in training institutes at several conventions throughout the year. At the four training sites this year, participants will receive free leadership and management training on goal-setting, strategies, leadership style, driving diversity, and technology and innovation.

These are only stop-gap efforts. In a previous time, news media had leaders who pushed to get more people of color into the pipeline to fill decision-making rooms. Today’s leaders have lost sight of those needs in their unending desire to find clicks and make profits.

They also seem to have forgotten that adding these varied voices to the decision-making process have proven to be good for business and can lead to those much-desired profits.

The foundations and groups like SPJ and minority journalism groups can only do so much. This responsibility and need for change falls squarely into the laps of the owners and the corporations. Their response to date has been tepid, at the least.

The reality is that change has to come from inside. And that means it falls in our own laps. We have to push and urge our individual companies and industries to open up the decision-making panels. Middle managers have to use their influence with top managers and demand that we even the playing field.

But most of all it falls on individuals, on the persons of color who have gotten inside the door. We must look beyond the comfortable life we’re living. It is imperative that each of us take that next step to move up the ladder. We have to want to get into those decision-making rooms. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be fun. Don’t expect to be invited in. But if we don’t prepare and push to get into the room, our industry and society as a whole will continue its long-running backward slide.

Walter T. Middlebrook is an assistant managing editor at the Detroit News, a member of SPJ’s national Diversity Committee and president of the SPJ Detroit Pro chapter. Contact him at wmiddlebrook@detroitnews.com. On Twitter: @middlebrook313

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