According to the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) annual newspaper survey released in April, Black journalists’ jobs were cut by 19 percent, and Blacks in supervisory roles dropped by 20 percent in 2009. It also reported that since 2001, U.S. newsrooms have lost more than 25 percent of their full-time staff.
Among the 17 Minnesota mainstream newspapers that participated in the ASNE voluntary survey, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has the most persons of color (16.1 percent): Black (4.5), Latino (6.3) and Asian (5.4). The Star Tribune is second with 13.8 percent: Blacks and Asians at 4.6 percent each; Latinos (2.9) and 1.7 percent Native Americans.
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) adds that Black journalists have seen a net loss of over 30 percent in U.S. newsrooms since 2001.
“Journalism is no different than any field in America where race is real, and we’re often the last hired and the first fired,” believes Corey Johnson, an investigative reporter with California Watch in Sacramento, Calif.
Chicago Public Radio public affairs reporter and former Pioneer Press reporter Natalie Moore said she survived a first-time layoff at her station a couple of years ago, but things now have stabilized. “Things aren’t perfect but nowhere near how bad it has been in print,” she points out.
Columbia University Associate Journalism Professor June Cross believes that what still exists among many who hire reporters is “a hurdle…that Black folk can’t write the language or aren’t as smart, or they want to be stars and aren’t interested in doing the real work. There’s a lot of that kind of bias.”
Therefore, what is journalism’s future? University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Dean Neil Henry admits, “If there aren’t jobs out there, and the industry is imploding, why do you have schools of journalism? The point that I have to always reinforce is there’s no more valuable time to have schools of journalism than right now. We are the keepers of the flame, and that flame is so important.”
Yet, are Blacks being seen as among those journalistic flame keepers?
Black journalists always are needed, claims Dori J. Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, Calif. “We need those stories from a variety of interests if we are going to help our country understand all of what’s going on across our communities,” says the former reporter who became president in January 2001 of the institute named for her late father.
Unfortunately, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s name seems to surface whenever bad journalism is discussed. “[Blacks] are not the only people” who do wrong, Maynard notes, adding that White journalists have also made mistakes: Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass are two examples. Shalit was charged with plagiarism as a Washington Post writer, and later again accused of it at the New Republic. Glass, a former New Republic writer, was found creating a website to support stories he had falsely written.
San Francisco film and radio producer Samantha Grant’s documentary on Blair, who resigned in the early 2000s after it was discovered that he plagiarized stories, is now in post-production and he hopes to release it sometime next year. She says she interviewed someone who worked at the Times who says in the film, “Something went wrong, but what went wrong wasn’t because he was Black. Something went wrong because the system didn’t work.”
According to Henry, “Our diversity representation [at his school] is upwards of 35-40 percent. That includes Blacks, Latinos and international students.” But he admits that it is becoming more difficult to convince Blacks to choose journalism as a career than ever before.
“It is a difficult time to get minority students interested in this field because of economics. If you are a young African American person and you’re bright and ambitious, journalism generally isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind,” surmises Henry.
Nonetheless, “It’s a shame there aren’t more Black journalists,” believes Johnson, who originally hails from Atlanta. “I graduated from Florida A&M with a degree in psychology” and later “discovered” journalism, he adds. “I’ve been in journalism for about five years now. An editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitutional was introduced to me, and he took an interest in me. Because he saw ability, they took a chance and sponsored me for a fellowship, and I got it.”
“A lot of us got into this work because we like going out and finding the facts, and shaping the story,” says Cross, an award-winning producer with 30 years of television news and documentary experience.
After almost two decades as a journalist with the Washington Post and Newsweek,
“I’ve done practically everything at the newspaper I wanted to do as a reporter and editor,” says Henry, who became dean in 1993. “I always wanted to try teaching. I wanted to do a different kind of writing.”
What about the Black press? PBS’ Frontline senior producer Raney Aronson-Rath believes that partnerships between mainstream media and Black media could be one way the industry survives the current economic crisis. “One of the things we are doing is trying to see if we can work with any local weeklies in the community,” she says.
“The Black press is one of the great and largely unheralded jewels in American journalism and what it meant historically to the betterment and advancement of African Americans in this country,” Henry notes.
“I was part of an age where the mainstream media [was] just beginning to open up its doors to minorities after the riots of the 1960s,” he concludes. “But I know that [what is true of] my career and those of many others of my generation, [is] that we walk only because of the struggles and advances of journalists of color who came before us. My roots are in the Black press and its history.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.