Wednesday, September 25, 2013

NEWSROOMS NEED TO DIVERSIFY DIVERSITY

For decades, the most commonly heard buzzword in newsroom staffing has been "diversity." Over the years the scope of what that term means has changed, slowly becoming more inclusive.

When I started in the newspaper business more than 44 years ago, newsrooms were, as they still sadly are today, primarily male dominated from management to worker bee level. Many newspapers began to officially recognize this as a problem in the early '70s and started talking about "diversity" in terms of trying more aggressively to hire female news staffers, a drive that seemed to reach its apex when Geneva Overholser was named the first female editor of The Des Moines Register in 1988. During her seven years in that post, Overholser led the paper to a public service Pulitzer and helped solidify its standing as one of the top 10 newspapers in the United States. Her success helped, in particular, to open more newspaper management doors for women across the country.

Meanwhile, although most newspapers still remain conscious of the need to hire and retain female staffers, the primary focus of newsroom diversity efforts slowly shifted from gender to race following the passage of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act in 1972. At some point, editors began looking around their newsrooms and realized that they saw very few black faces even at papers in cities where a substantial percentage of the residents were African Americans. Slowly, the nation's newspapers began the push to hire more black staffers, an effort which -- despite an extreme commitment on the part of many papers -- has met with what I believe is only limited success, but still continues.

Today, the primary drive for newsroom diversity has again shifted as newspapers push to become more ethnically diverse. Although newspapers have grown more conscious of the need to hire staffers of all sort of ethic backgrounds, the effort seems to be mainly focused on recruiting staffers of Hispanic origin, in large part because Hispanics have become nationally and in nearly every state the fastest growing minority population.

As an editor, I was -- and still am -- a strong supporter of every effort to make newsrooms more diverse in gender, race, ethnicity and sexual preference. I firmly believe that if a newspaper is going to effectively serve its community, it must strive to reflect that community's demographic make up. Yes, it's a difficult task, made even more so in recent years as newspapers have slipped into their financial morass that has led to staff reductions and frozen or reduced salaries, making it more difficult to recruit staffers of all sorts.

Nonetheless, the efforts must continue and, in fact, should be expanded beyond just cold demographics into an area of diversity that I am not sure has really been given anywhere near enough consideration to this point.

For lack of a better term, I will call it "experiential" diversity.

To date, the common thread throughout the various diversity drives has been the idea that gender, racial and ethic staff gaps must be filled by "qualified graduates" of college journalism programs. A mantra that ignores the fact that many of the best journalists this country has ever known never even went to college, much less graduated with degrees in journalism. Once upon a time -- including during the "heydays" of American newspaper in the '20s and '30s when nearly every major city had two, three, four or even more daily newspapers competing for dominance -- a large number of staffers started out as copy clerks who, in many instances, weren't even high school graduates. They learned the journalism craft from the ground up. They understood the news interests of the ordinary citizens of the communities their newspapers served because they were products of those communities and reflected them well.

I am not saying that newspapers need return to the days of hiring non-college grads and training them from the ground up. However, I do believe that to fully reflect and understand their communities, newspapers do need to give greater consideration to hiring staffers who didn't merely graduate from high school, go off to college to major in journalism and then offer themselves on the job market. Newspapers need to give greater consideration in hiring to a job candidate's background of life and educational experience.

Here's a for instance. If you are an editor, take a look around your newsroom. How many military veterans do you see, particularly among those staffers who are not creeping close to retirement and keeping in mind that after a decade of war in two countries we have more vets now than at anytime since the end of the Vietnam War?

When I retired as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, a few months ago, one of the things that worried the bejesus out of me was that fact that when I departed the staff, there wouldn't be a single person left who had ever served in the military. This worried me for a number of reasons, one of the most significant being that the area of deep South Texas The Monitor serves has one of the highest per capita population percentages of veterans in the nation and a substantial portion of them are subscribers. I can't even count the numbers of times over my nearly 12 years as editor that I caught potentially embarrassing mistakes regarding the military before they got into print. Granted some of them might seem, particularly to non-veterans, fairly inconsequential -- like referring to a former Marine as a soldier -- but to the many former Marines in our community, such a reference would be considered the sort of slap in the face that could shake their faith in the paper at a time when we can ill-afford to lose public confidence on any level.

My concern over the presence of veterans in newsrooms was brought home to me again this morning as I watched a news report on one of our local TV stations. A teenage Mexican national was arrested before crossing one of the local border bridges after apparently getting cold feet on a attempt to smuggle a hand grenade back into Mexico. He was seen tossing the device into a dumpster at a Whataburger just this side of the border and was arrested. In her report, the TV reporter referred to the grenade as "a dud." Which to me, as a veteran, would suggest that the suspect pulled the pin, tossed the grenade into the dumpster and it failed to go off. Most veterans know that a "dud," by definition, is an explosive device that fails to detonate. My guess is that the grenade was a "dummy," not a dud. A dummy grenade has no explosive charge. It is typically filled with sand instead of gunpowder and is used as training device to teach GI's how to throw a grenade without the risk of  doing something stupid and blowing their hand off. Consequently, I concluded that not only was the grenade a dummy, but so, too, was the TV reporter, who might have known better had she ever served in the military. What's more, she might have been saved the embarrassment had someone at her station been able to point out the difference between a dud and a dummy grenade.

The problem with life experience among today's news staffers, however, goes beyond merely how many have been in the military. How many have ever worked in a factory? How many have ever worked on a farm? How many have a physical handicap that does not impede their ability to gather information and write or edit copy and design pages? How many have ever had experience in any of the multitude of occupations filled by the people we expect to read our papers and trust us to understand what makes them tick and what is important news to them?

Unfortunately, many of the people who are involved in the employment process for America's newsrooms engage in a form of hiring snobbery. They are unwilling to "take a chance" on candidates who didn't have the right type of internships or no internships in college, or who didn't go to a "quality" journalism school, or who didn't even graduate from college but have been working perhaps for a couple of years on a weekly, or who got their training through one of the military's journalist training programs rather than from a college or university, or who display a strong desire for an opportunity to become a newspaper staffer despite having no training of any sort in the craft but, nonetheless, possess an ability to write and gather information.

For example, about a month or so before I retired, we posted a job opening for a copy editor/page designer, one of the toughest positions to fill at any newspaper.  Among the applications we received was one from a woman who was in the military. She had been trained in one of the military's journalist programs and had been working for several years as a copy editor/page designer for a military base newspaper. I wanted us to give her a serious look, but met resistance from some of my newsroom managers who felt that the military journalist training and the years of working for a base newspaper were not adequate. While we wrangled over that, she was hired by another newspaper that was more willing to take a chance and where, I am reasonably sure, she likely is performing up to expectations and preventing stupid mistakes regarding the military from getting into print.

Of course, there have been some noble efforts aimed at bringing people with possibilities but no formal journalism training into the newspaper business.

One of those was undertaken by Thomson Newspapers as part of it's broader Readership Inc. project that died when Thomson Corp. sold off its U.S. newspaper holdings in 2000. As part of the project, the company established a training program under which the newspapers would identify potential journalist candidates from among ordinary people in their communities who had a strong interest in becoming journalists and possessed decent spelling and grammar skills and displayed some rudimentary skills in information gathering and writing. The candidates could have been housewives, hair dresser, carpenters, bus drivers, teachers or factory workers. Those selected were to be sent to a training site where they would undergo an intensive, crash course of journalism training. Upon successful completion of that course, they were to be sent back to the newspaper that selected them where their training would continue under the watchful eyes of trained staff mentors. It was an innovative idea that could have yielded some potentially outstanding journalists who possessed a background of life experience and understanding outside the newspaper business.

Unfortunately, the Thomson training program concept didn't have a life beyond the sale of the papers and, considering the financial condition of most newspaper groups today, it is not too likely that anyone else will pickup on the idea and run with it.

That, however, does not mean newspapers should just ignore experiential diversity. Instead, if they hope to continue to be as relevant as possible to the communities they serve, they need to embrace the concept and value of experiential diversity as much as they do diversity in gender, race and ethnicity.

 
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