The limitations of our 97% white newsroom

5 Nov

It’s not an exaggeration or a figure of speech. It’s the actual percentage. Our newsroom at the New Haven Register is 97 percent white. We do not look like the city that we cover (New Haven is 37 percent white).

We are a worse newspaper because of it.

I’m not talking about extreme examples – like this racist manipulation of a news story at a Chicago TV station.

But lack of diversity in our newsroom affects us in ways that we don’t realize.

It has come up over the past few days as we’ve sought public input on changing our online story comment system at the Register. At a public forum Thursday night, a reader was incredulous that we have allowed viciously racist comments to appear on our website and have yet to fix the problem after several years of awareness.

In a blog post about that forum, I suggested that the system would have been changed a long time ago if we’d been listening like we did on Thursday night. (In-person conversations and asking the community for advice has a different impact on decisions than fielding angry phone calls or emails, which there were plenty of over the past few years.) And I said that the system would have changed long before now if the New Haven Register newsroom were not 97 percent white.

Well, the fact is that New Haven’s newsroom staff – pretty much unanimously – has been horrified and upset by racist and other offensive story comments for a long time. Former Editor Jack Kramer pushed several times for a change similar to the one we’re about to make.

If you read my post as saying that nothing was done because the newsroom is 97 percent white and didn’t care enough to make it happen, you’d be pretty upset after fighting for two years to do just that.

What I’m saying is that there was a newsroom full of people who understood and wanted to do the right thing, and it still didn’t happen. My argument is that if there were more newsroom employees of color, especially in leadership positions, the arguments for changing it (a sharper, more urgent message, perhaps) would have overcome whatever company bureaucracy, failure to agree on a plan for implementation or other sticking point that was holding things up.

Since taking over as head of New Haven Register parent Journal Register Company in February 2010, John Paton has lamented the lack of diversity both in our newsrooms and in the absence of women and people of color in key leadership positions in the parent company. He has pledged to make this a priority.

To be blunt, if the company allowed a forum for racist comments and stereotypes for years (regardless of who or how many people pushed to end it, it wasn’t fixed), and you agree with me that more diversity in the newsroom and in company leadership would have meant a different result, then how else is lack of diversity affecting us? What is our news coverage missing? How is it warped by the world view shaped by the homogenous racial experience of our reporters and editors?

It’s an inconvenient time to raise this topic. Newsrooms aren’t hiring, and the New Haven Register is no exception.

But if we’re serious about “community engagement” and building a relationship of trust with the audience, it’s the elephant in the room. Diversity has to be high on our agenda over the next year. I don’t have a plan for getting to where we need to be, but I’m committed to asking the newsroom, the audience and those who are doing it right for help in creating one.

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7 Responses to “The limitations of our 97% white newsroom”

  1. e pluribus unum November 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    So if a town’s population is 97% white it would be reprehensible to have , say, 30% non-white staff because they couldn’t possible relate to the issues affecting the “white” population?
    Too often actions are a result , not of of someone’s color. It is rather a result of the culture they espouse Culture is taught -color you can’t do anything about.
    If you espouse a gangster culture you can be any color but don’t blame society for beating you down for your color. Accept the responsibility of your actions.

  2. Dr.Wayne X. Davenport November 26, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    It may come as know surprise that Latino-Hispanic American.African American and Native American view your reportings as bias and slanted to White perspectives. We are in 2011 yet the viewpoints of the papers could be 1890’s and counting backwards. In a multiracial city with major institutions of higher learning for a lot of people of color feels like we are under occupation by invaders. I know you may ponder how can this be with all the progress being made on racial lines and outcomes. The truth is very little real changes has taken place. In order for you to fair and non bias you have to face the pie we all share and use is getting smallers

    • Tim Frost December 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      For a doctor, you have a horrible grasp of English language and grammar. Good gracious, it’s just awful. You haven’t got a single correct sentence in there. Schools are free; libraries are free. There is no excuse for your ignorance other than that it is of your own choosing.

  3. Elaine November 30, 2011 at 8:06 am #

    Obviously there’s no one solution to this, but I was reminded of the dilemma in which California colleges found themselves after the passage of Prop. 209, which banned affirmative action in admissions. One thing colleges did? Forged partnerships with heavily minority high schools to mentor and prepare students so their college applications would be more competitive. The New York Times wrote a magazine story about it: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/02/magazine/the-class-of-prop-209.html?scp=7&sq=magazine%20affirmative%20action%20california%20high%20school&st=cse&pagewanted=all. Turns out it was a more durable solution, and better for all involved, than simple affirmative action because it went further upstream to address the inequity.

    • mattderienzo November 30, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

      Great comment. Internships, for example, have very clearly been a pipeline into staff positions in our newsrooms.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Community engagement can reveal big gap in newsroom, audience perceptions « Connecticut Newsroom - November 5, 2011

    [...] #2: I wrote a separate post about the question of newsroom diversity. It’s here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

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