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Why having more Black newsroom leaders is so critical for journalism

Diverse voices in newsrooms are essential to finding and reporting stories that even the most well-meaning white editors never think of. And it’s really not that hard. 

The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) held its annual convention last week, one month late and online instead of in Washington, D.C., because of coronavirus concerns. 

Roughly 3,400 registrants logged in for this annual gathering of Black journalists in the U.S., one of the largest turnouts in the event’s 46 years. But going virtual meant recruiters couldn’t interview job seekers in person at the convention’s popular Career Fair, which was unfortunate. 

George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, and the subsequent protests in Minneapolis and around the world, reminded many of us in journalism of an ongoing problem in our midst: the small number of Black journalists in newsrooms nationwide. Even fewer occupy leadership or “gatekeeping” positions, deciding which stories get covered, and who gets hired to tell them. 

A 2018 survey by the American Society of News Editors, the most recent available, found only 7.19 percent of full-time newsroom employees were Black, compared to 78.18 percent white. And only about one-fifth of those Black employees held leadership positions. Recent rounds of COVID-19 related layoffs and newspaper closures undoubtedly affected those numbers.

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The Star Tribune, boasting Minnesota’s largest news-gathering operation, has 15 Black reporters, editors and photographers out of roughly 230 newsroom employees. Several recent departures left night photo editor Kyndell Harkness as the paper’s highest-ranking Black editor. All seven assistant managing editors under top newsroom editor Rene Sanchez are white. (For the record, all three of MinnPost’s newsroom leaders are white.)

Several weeks ago, Harkness said, Strib journalists of color began a cordial dialogue with management about how best to retain non-white talent and provide a more welcoming and supportive environment. The changes they seek are outlined here

Diverse voices in newsrooms are critical to finding and reporting stories that even the most well-meaning white editors never think of. I don’t mean stories about Black culture written for white people, like a college anthropology project. I mean topics that matter to Black readers.

Rana Cash
Rana Cash
“The best-case scenario is, it helps the newsroom with a blind spot journalism has had for so long,” said Rana Cash, news director of the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News who was formerly a sports team leader at the Star Tribune. “Stories that are miscast, stories that are told from a certain point of view — primarily, let’s write about a particular culture issue or race issue from the vantage point of helping our white readers understand it, as opposed to writing for and about African-Americans in their respective community.

“To be honest, there probably is a certain element of that that is necessary. But that can’t be the only approach to covering race and culture in 2020. By this point, people need to take some responsibility of their own to bring themselves up to speed on their fellow Americans.”

Cash, who shortly after Floyd’s death wrote a deeply personal column about police brutality, is one of a handful of fast-rising Black news executives who assumed new positions in the last few months. 

Another is Duchesne Drew, the longtime Star Tribune reporter and editor named president of Minnesota Public Radio in May. Drew joined an organization known for being overwhelmingly white, something he’s determined to address. (His wife, MPR News host Angela Davis, is one of the few other Black employees.)

“I’ve jokingly said I can fit all the people of color in the newsroom in my wife’s Honda Pilot,” Drew said. “We might have to have one or two people on someone’s lap. The truth is, it’s not enough. … We need diversity, and we need it at all levels.”

Two recent examples from the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the largest Black newspaper in the state, show the value of that perspective: A Charles Hallman piece about one man’s campaign to make the Twins’ Minnie and Paul logo, to put it bluntly, less white; and the paper’s ongoing Black Business Spotlight, highlighting entrepreneurs of color. 

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So how does journalism get more Rana Cashes and Duchesne Drews in the gatekeeping pipeline? That takes work and commitment from the white editors who still occupy roughly 90 percent of newsroom leadership positions. 

And it’s really not that hard.

The NABJ Career Fair is a great place to start. Savvy news executives know it as the place to find rising Black talent. 

It’s even easier to do in sports. In 1992, two visionary editors — Leon Carter, who is black, and Sandy Rosenbush, who is white — founded the Sports Journalism Institute, which trains promising women and minorities for internships. Candidates come from well-known college journalism programs (Northwestern, Columbia, Missouri, etc.) as well as schools lacking formal communications curricula.

“Sometimes we have more people asking for interns than we have interns,” said Carter, an ESPN vice president. Those internships usually lead to jobs; Carter counted 19 SJI graduates at ESPN and 15 at The Athletic. 

Leon Carter
Leon Carter
However, Carter said, few SJI grads show much interest in going into management. (Gregory Lee, senior managing editor of The Athletic DC, is an exception.) Carter said he aspired to be a boss from junior high school. Right out of college at Norfolk State, he accepted a copy editing job at the Louisville Courier-Journal with an eye on becoming a supervisor. But few college grads take that route.  

“To this day, many of them still want to be writers as opposed to editors,” said Carter, who spent a decade as sports editor of the New York Daily News. “They’re not really thinking about advancing and becoming a boss. You can beat the drum all day, but a lot of folks follow their heart. Managing people is a trait, and you’re going to have to want to do it.”

So potential leaders must be identified, trained and encouraged. Drew might still be an education reporter had then-Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire not seen something in him as a Strib summer intern. McGuire hired Drew full-time as a reporter in 1993 after Drew finished his master’s degree at Northwestern, a rarity at the Strib, which usually requires reporting experience elsewhere. 

Drew left in 1997 to cover education at the Dallas Morning News. Two years later, McGuire lured him back with the promise of an editing job. Drew wasn’t ready to switch, so McGuire put him back on the reporting staff for two years before moving him over. 

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Eventually Drew rose to be St. Paul bureau chief, an assistant managing editor, then managing editor for operations before joining the Bush Foundation, his last stop before MPR. For a time Drew also ran the Strib internship program, assembling with colleague Neal Justin a spreadsheet of colleges outside the journalism hierarchy to better identify candidates of color.

Duchesne Drew
Duchesne Drew
“(McGuire) saw leadership potential in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself at that point,” Drew said. “I wouldn’t be in this chair today if Tim McGuire hadn’t seen something and decided to force the issue. 

“You’ll hear different stories from other people about their experience at the Star Tribune. But for me, my break came when the editor of the entire paper said, ‘I want to invest in you and advance you to take even more advantage of what you have to offer than maybe you see for yourself.’”

That’s what has to happen across the board. Carter recalled his days at the Daily News, meeting with a diverse group of editors to kick around back-page headline ideas. Collaboration, he said, usually created the best headlines. And the voices of color kept those headlines from straying where they shouldn’t.     

“We have work to do,” Carter said. “We’ve always had work to do in the industry. I’ve always said, diversity is easy. Some companies make it hard. If you commit yourself to diversity, you’ll find the right candidates for different positions.”