Diversity in the nation’s newsrooms is becoming the latest casualty of the economic woes facing the American newspaper industry. For the third consecutive year the number of minority journalists continues to decline, mirroring a national trend of newspaper layoffs. In its most recent 2011 census, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) reports that minority journalists now comprise only about 13 percent of the workforce, as compared with the remaining 87 percent of white journalists. The number of minority journalists nationwide declined from 5,500 to 5,300 individuals.
The plummeting numbers of African-American, Asian, Latino, and Native American journalists reflect a broader trend of economic contraction in the news industry. In their latest book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols cite a 2010 Poynter Institute Study that outlines that trend in stark statistics. “The newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in reporting and editing capacity since 2000 or about 30 percent over that period,” they write.
In 2009, 300 newspapers in the U.S. shut down, while another 150 folded in 2010. Broadcast news has also scaled back operations, adding to the decline of the number of working journalists in cities across the country. In Baltimore, Portland, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, the Twin Cities, and Milwaukee, the number of paid journalists is down dramatically from where it was one or two decades ago, McChesney and Nichols report.
Local news organizations are being hit hard as well. According to the latest count, minority reporters comprised 22 percent of newsroom staffers at The Seattle Times. Of that total, 13 percent are Asian American, 5.4 percent are African American, and 3.2 percent are Hispanic. At the News Tribune in Tacoma, minority journalists accounted for 12.8 percent of the total newsroom.
Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen attributes the downward trend to the growth of media cross-ownership in recent years. “Pure and simple – it’s the obscene concentration of ownership coupled with a broken, dominant ownership model which doesn’t care about journalism or diversity, or any other communal values.”
“The newspaper business model is very sound and can support journalism and diversity if freed from these financial mercenaries and the unsustainable debt they piled on newspapers. Even in the worst of the recession, the big chains who went through bankruptcy, or still might, were pulling down 14-20 percent cash flow margins — hardly a distressed business model.”
Sharon Pian Chan, a Seattle Times journalist and vice president of UNITY Journalists of Color, notes that online news publications have suffered steeper declines than print newspapers in hiring and promoting minority journalists. “Journalists of color have career options outside of the industry, and if the path isn’t clear within journalism, it’s probably more attractive to leave,” Chan said. “It’s partly a pattern from the past played out. “
“Journalists of color were probably less likely to seek out mentors among senior managers, less likely to be sought out as mentees by senior managers and may not have felt confident in their upward trajectory. This was made worse with the industry downturn.”
News industry leaders are voicing alarm about the shrinking diversity numbers. “At a time when the U.S. Census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction,” said Milton Coleman, ASNE president and deputy managing editor of the Washington Post. “This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms.”
Highlights of the 2011 survey showed that minorities account for 11 percent of all supervisors in newsrooms, which remains virtually unchanged for the past four years. Four hundred forty one newspapers responding to the ASNE census had no minorities on their full-time staff. This number has been growing since 2006.
Of all minority newspaper staffers, African American reporters make up half, while Asian Americans comprise 42 percent. Two hundred eighty four Asian American journalists are newsroom supervisors. Minority women working full-time account for 19.3 percent of female newsroom staffers, while minority men account for 10.8 of male newsroom staffers. Although minorities represented 19 percent of the journalists hired for their first full-time newsroom job — up 16 percent from the last year, the percentage of interns who are minorities stands at 24 percent — a 27 percent decrease.
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