Minorities in the Mainstream

Arnold Garcia of the Austin American Statesman

photograph by Jana Birchum

Alternative weeklies and progressive publications are hardly alone in their problems with minority recruiting. Mainstream dailies may be doing a better job of recruiting, but most editors and newsroom managers still complain that their staffs have yet to reach a level of diversity that they consider satisfactory.

In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) set a goal of achieving minority representation in newsrooms equivalent to the racial minority population of the United States by the year 2000. The general population is currently about 24% minority, but, according to ASNE's annual census, non-whites only comprise 11.35% of daily staffs. The bulk of those are reporters -- only 8.9% of newsroom supervisors are minorities. Only 56.5% of dailies employ minorities in the newsroom at all. It should be noted that these figures reflect daily papers of all sizes, from The New York Times to The Temple Daily Telegram.

"I've been involved at diversity efforts at the national level, and I know that we won't reach the 2000 ASNE goals," says Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, speaking about dailies in general. "I know that when we set goals at parity, the proportion of minorities in the nation was smaller than it is now. Back then, it was about 13%... and the proportion of minorities in the newsroom was 4-5%. There's a substantial increase in absolute numbers, but the target keeps moving farther away."

Some major newspaper editors say that while their numbers still don't reflect their ultimate goals, progress is slow. Tommy Miller, the deputy managing editor in charge of hiring for the Houston Chronicle's news division, blames the glacial pace of diversity on a static market.

"Most metro papers are destination papers," Miller says. "Most of the reporters are experienced and less likely to leave. In the 100 people I oversee, I've only had four or five departures per year. It's challenging to improve minority hires with that kind of turnover."

However, says Miller, "When you look at the last five or six years, minority hiring has been closer to our goal. Since 1992... we've had seven minority hires out of 25 total. Among editors, there have been 11 hires and two were minority." In the last ASNE census, non-whites composed 12.5% of the Houston Chronicle's news staff.

Oppel says that, similarly, the Statesman currently hires minorities at a rate of about one out of every three hires. Oppel refused to release specific figures on where his staff percentages are now, but the ASNE census put the paper at 17.6% at the end of 1996, and Oppel says it is higher now.

Oppel says that the Statesman has no specific programs for minority recruitment and retention, but "I expect editors to have at least three qualified candidates for every opening, and we expect to have diversity among those candidates every time. It's usually achieved, except for some specific jobs [such as technology writers].

"This effort was in place at the Statesman way back," says Oppel, who became editor in 1995. "[Former editor] Arnold Rosenfeld was quite conscious of it, and Maggie Balough after him... [Managing editor] Kathy Warbelow spends a fair proportion of time recruiting: She's been to [minority journalist] workshops in El Paso, conventions, and recruiting. I'm sure Maggie and Arnold worked at it just as hard."

In fact, the Statesman's numbers are down slightly since the Balough years. Yearly ASNE censuses from1992 to 1995 have shown the daily's minority percentages at 20.7, 17.9, 19.5, and 18.2, respectively.

Austin's highest-profile magazine has had as much trouble as any alternative paper. A well-publicized stink was raised recently when Texas Monthly tried to interview San Antonio writer Sandra Cisneros. The interviewee demanded that a person of color (or, if that was not possible, a gay or lesbian) write her up -- thus pointing out that TM has never had a Hispanic writer on its editorial staff, and currently also has no African-American writers either. (TM refused, and kept its original writer on the assignment, which resulted in no interview.)

TM editor Gregory Curtis says that while he has searched for minority writers by reading "the black press and other minority press," and has "talked to people over the years from around the state about this," he has not made any minority hires in editorial. Mostly, he says, "I'm looking for good writers, period. I do that in the same context that I read daily papers and the alternative press to see if I can find somebody out there, but there's not any color attached to those bylines, unless they refer to themselves in the story."

Curtis echoes Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black (see main story) when he says, "I reject the notion that if I had a minority writer that that person would be limited to minority stories. I would want someone to write on a variety of subjects no matter what, and that's what I have on staff right now."

Is enough being done to integrate newsrooms? That depends on whom you ask. In 1993, the National Association of Black Journalists' (NABJ) Print Task Force (of which then-Statesman editorial writer Roxanne Evans was a member) issued a report titled "Muted Voices: Frustration and Fear in the Newsroom." One of the most telling findings of the report was in answer to the question, "Does your news organization make a serious effort to recruit black journalists?" Ninety-one percent of newsroom managers said yes, but only 47% of NABJ members agreed. Managers and their African-American employees also had widely divergent opinions on whether the standards for promotion were higher for blacks than non-blacks: 92% of managers said blacks received equal consideration, but 59% of NABJ members felt that they had to accomplish more to move up.

Evans, who also worked as a reporter for the Statesman, and is now an employee at the Texas Land Commission, says, "Sometimes I felt I was held to a higher standard, that my stories were held to higher scrutiny. Some of the story ideas I put forward, particularly about the minority community, weren't considered as critical" by her superiors. Some black and Latino journalists interviewed for this article say that when they generate stories about minority issues, editors tend to view them as politically motivated, while not applying such standards to their white counterparts.

That type of subtle, unintentional racism is the kind most likely to crop up, say most minority journalists. "Most journalists consider themselves fairly liberal," says Evans, "So there are not too many uses of the n-word in the newsroom. Sometimes I got the sense that race was a factor beneath the currents."

And of course, there's the inevitable affirmative action backlash: "When I got this job, there were people here who had the gall to say I only got the job because I was Hispanic," says Arnold Garcia, editorial page editor of the Statesman. "They didn't talk about my 26 years of experience. Not every-body said that, but there were some grumblings."

Many people interviewed said the best place to start changing newsroom attitudes is at the top.

"I think that the Dallas Morning News is unrivaled among the top 10 papers in the nation at having minorities in upper management, says Gilbert Bailon, executive editor of that paper and a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "I'm executive editor, the deputy editor is African-American, the deputy managing editor is a woman... all people involved in the daily operation. It sets the tone of coverage, although it's not a sign that we should stop trying to diversify."

Some editors disagreed, but Bailon said that bidding wars can develop over quality minority writers, although "there are bidding wars for talented writers, period.... We can't go willy-nilly hiring minorities," he says, but he does add that race can be a factor in a writer's favor.

"There are good people to be hired," says Garcia. "I'm tired of this dialogue that separates `qualified' from `minority.' I've done every job in the newsroom but sports. You can find qualified candidates, but you have to search for it. You can't just go to a minority journalists convention and hire the first five people you see." -- L.N.

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