The Disappearing Black News Professional

Slowly but surely, America's newsrooms are becoming whiter again, notes news veteran Paul Delaney.

Posted:
 
reporter400
Thinkstock

I was deeply saddened by the recent departure of Steven Gray from Time magazine. He is an extremely sharp young journalist with great promise in the profession, qualities that ensure a bright future for him.

My lament is not over Gray but about the fact that he leaves a deep void at the popular newsweekly magazine: At the moment, it does not have a single black correspondent in its vast newsroom, as media columnist Richard Prince reports. That is not only regrettable but a pox on any major media outlet without a black staffer -- or only a token one or two, in too many cases.

And that void is not a surprise. For the past few years, the number of nonwhites in newsrooms has steadily and creepily declined. In April the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that in 2007, there were 5,600 nonwhites in the nation's newsrooms in 2007. The next year, the number had dropped to 5,300.

Since then, it has been all but impossible to collect such data, with many companies steadfastly refusing to publicly discuss the issue other than to say they remain committed to diversity. I would bet $10,000 (if I had it) that the decrease has actually continued. Also, I do believe that many media executives are chagrined by the situation.  

In effect, the media landscape is now similar to the way it was in the mid-20th century, and that is not only an embarrassment but also scary. Worse, nobody seems to know exactly what to do to turn things around. Or, if they do, they're not bothering to act, especially those at online media outlets. However, ASNE officials were so alarmed that they sponsored seminars on the issue in Orlando, Fla., San Diego and New York in 2011, and others are planned for 2012.

The relationship between American media and black journalists has historically resembled a bad marriage. It was a shotgun wedding in the first place, the result of a long struggle by African Americans that culminated with our forcing our way into newsrooms. It has never been a stable union, and today we are fighting for our jobs as furiously as we did back then.  

The severity of the current problem was chronicled recently by Pamela Newkirk, journalism professor at New York University, in what she termed "reverse migration," when she noted that many black journalists are ending up in black media, both online and in print. She attributed much of the migration to disillusionment with mainstream media or a desire to delve more deeply into black issues.

I question her premise but agree with the fact that a migration away from mainstream media, indeed, is taking place. In conversations with many of my friends and colleagues who are participating in the migration, I found very few who said it was for the cause; it seemed more of a temporary "pause for the cause" as jobs in mainstream outlets disappear.

Prior to 1960, American newsrooms were overwhelmingly white, with few owners of publications or radio and television stations looking to alter that landscape. The number of black professionals on mainstream daily newspapers -- and at television stations -- could be counted on one hand. The two most prominent were Ted Poston of the New York Post and Carl T. Rowan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It took the civil rights movement, outside pressure (minority journalists) and urban riots to prod, cajole and induce change.

The first big wave of black journalist hirings came during the 1960s and 1970s. To push the companies a little harder, the National Association of Black Journalists, of which I am a founder, was formed in 1975, followed by organizations of Hispanic, Asian and Native American journalists. Many, if not most, companies became partners in the efforts at integration, joined by such groups as ASNE and the Newspaper Association of America.