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.