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New media, old problem: Where's the diversity?

Diversifying newsrooms can be profitable for media organisations.

Last updated: 14 Apr 2014 11:23
Michael A Deas

Michael A Deas is a lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former editor at the Chicago Tribune. He teaches editing and reporting.
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Traditional media newsrooms in the US have only12 percent minority journalists [AP]

The expectation was that new media would not inherit the legacy of homogeneity. The wish was that new media would evolve from the historical tradition of under-representation for minorities and be better.

But here we are, with the same old problem.

Despite the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the US, news organisations - including digital news startups - are mostly white. This centuries-old carryover is at the expense of workplace diversity and responsible democracy. And perhaps most important to the bottom line, it does not make financial sense.  

White newsrooms

The State of The News Media 2014 report from the Pew Research Journalism Project released late March, shows a bright landscape with 5,000 new digital jobs. However, viewed through a diversity lens, there is no such good news.

Listening Post - The changing face of news

The newest wave of Internet startups including Vox.com and First Look Media - led by mostly white men such as former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar - came under fire over their distinct lack of diversity recently. The uproar as outlined by The Maynard Institute (with the tagline "changing the face of media since 1977") challenged the assumed historical repeat of the questionable hiring practises of traditional media.

The 3,000-member National Association of Black Journalists recently sent an open letter to news media startups expressing initial excitement about the possibility for diversity in digital newsrooms: "After all, these startups will exist primarily on digital platforms, where African Americans and Latinos are proportionately larger consumers of news than whites. But our excitement has turned to concern as the parade of recent hires hardly reflects a commitment to ensuring that these new newsrooms reflect all the communities they will cover."

More than 38,000 journalists work at 1,400 US newspapers, but only 4,700 are minorities. That is an average of three non-white journalists per newsroom, according to the most recent survey of American Society of News Editors. The newsroom composition of traditional media as measured by ASNE in 2013 includes 88 percent whites compared with 12 percent non-whites.

This is a far cry from equal in any equation. Not only is this not fair in terms of representative voices, story choices and editorial decisions, it is also not a smart business plan.

While ASNE surveyed 68 online news organisations on the minority percentages of their newsrooms for 2013, 43 sites reported zero minorities. Twenty-five of the online sites had minority representation from a low of five percent at KyPost.com in Cincinnati, to 100 percent minorities in the newsroom of The Natomas Buzz in Sacramento, California.

As a journalist and an educator for more than two decades, I'm concerned that digital newsrooms that exclude minorities, who make up nearly 40 percent of the US population, will render themselves irrelevant and hamper rational public discourse. What is obvious is that in a quest for audience and revenue for media organisations of all stripes, diversity is a tool for building market share today, just as it was during the civil rights era. 

Both old and new media operations are alienating themselves by producing content that often lacks depth on issues such as jobs, immigration, poverty and crime, as stories are slanted towards one group or another.  

Listening Post - The Washington Post: Conflicts and interests

Besides bringing credibility to newsrooms, a diverse staff provides access to communities typically wary of outsiders. During the turbulent 1960s, for instance, newspapers hired scores of black journalists to cover the racial unrest and the sensitive issues in their communities. Inclusive coverage can affect readership, which will affect revenue. It can be that simple.

Diversity means higher profits

In order to boost market share, media can learn from other industries.

Decades ago, fast-food and retail chains figured out the symbiotic relationship between diversity and profitability. Imagine a company such as McDonald's or Wendy's employing only one sector of society and selling food only one niche audience would eat. Or imagine a giant retailer such as Wal-Mart or Kmart only employing and catering to one segment of our culture. Both scenarios would amount to financial suicide.

Jennifer Steinmann, Deloitte's deputy CEO and chief talent officer told Forbes.comrecently: "The minority is now the majority. The women and minorities in our ranks will soon be over 50 percent. That's a major shift, the burning platform."

Ignoring that reality is a mistake many news organisations make too often. To their own detriment, newsrooms appear to have pushed off their agenda any efforts to hire, retain and promote minorities. Only a fraction of minority journalists are in positions of leadership. Minorities fill 900 managerial jobs compared with 8,000 for white journalists.

Based on my assessment after years in the industry, many minorities serve as figureheads who wield very little or no influence. As newsrooms strategise to survive in the new economic reality, executives and experts have focused primarily on marketing and innovation as a way to generate revenue. Meanwhile, they continue to ignore the ethical and financial benefits of diversity.

When newsrooms do not reflect society as a whole, it shouldn't be surprising that consumers - regardless of race and ethnicity - will gravitate to media that address their interests and concerns. Milton Coleman, the senior editor of the Washington Post and former president of ASNE, three years ago broached the issue of diversity from a revenue perspective. Simply put, media outlets are squandering a financial opportunity to attract diverse consumers whose buying power is simply staggering.

According to the Multicultural Economy report, Hispanics command $1.2 trillion, African-Americans $1 trillion, Asians $700bn and Native Americans $96bn in consumer spending in 2013. The Latino population, currently at 17 percent, is projected to nearly double by 2050. The Latino market is reported to be larger than the entire economies of all but 13 countries in the world.

Within these numbers and this vision of the future, there is possibility for success in all forms of media - traditional and new. Media outlets can hire minority journalists who can step into meaningful leadership roles immediately. Newsrooms and outlets can recognise minority journalists as contributors to the broader topics such as economics, global affairs and national security. And in journalism schools, we can educate students about the ethical and financial benefits of diversity and place good journalists in the pipeline.

History does not have to keep repeating itself. Excellence and fairness in media can co-exist. It doesn't make any sense to call the traditional distribution in newsrooms of 88 percent white to 12 percent non-white a fair representation of the world and to keep employing that model of sameness for new media emerging today. And it also doesn't make dollars or cents.

Michael A Deas is a lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former editor at the Chicago Tribune. He teaches editing and reporting.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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