Broadsheetless in Seattle?

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Seattle, city of iconoclasts and wired pioneers, is embarking on a new frontier in journalism, as the home of the first major metropolitan daily, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, switches from print to an entirely online format—a bold, economically driven departure in publishing, and one that is already being closely watched by media companies and analysts.

Other newspapers are considering Web-only publications. But even if these papers successfully morph into online news organizations, it’s an open question for black and minority journalists as to whether diversity, in staffing and story coverage, will remain an editorial priority for the phoenix that rises from the ashes of the print version.

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With necessarily bare-bones staffs and more reliance on external content partners, it’s possible that newsroom diversity could be among the early sacrifices on the altar of bottom-line efficiencies.

The Seattle P-I joined Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, which closed Feb. 27, as a victim of the imperfect storm of declining advertising, the onslaught of the Internet and the current economic crisis. The future of the Seattle Times, the surviving city daily saddled with $91 million in debt and falling ad sales, has been debated for months.

The San Francisco Chronicle, like the P-I a Hearst paper, dodged a bullet this month only after its editors and reporters agreed to deep cuts in benefits, including vacation and preference by seniority. Staffs at the Raleigh News & Observer, the Miami Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Sacramento Bee and the Tacoma News-Tribune have been warned of impending staff cuts and the need for the rank and file to make broad concessions in pay and benefits.

Workers at the Denver Post, which survived a newspaper war with Rocky, voted March 10 for a new three-year contract that calls for nearly $2 million in annual wage and benefit reductions. The contract calls for wage cuts up to 9 percent, as well as more health-insurance costs passed on to employees, unpaid furloughs and a suspension of company contributions to 401(k) accounts.

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“In 2009 and 2010, all the two-newspaper markets will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets,” Mike Simonton of industry analyst Fitch Ratings, told the New York Times on March 12.

Last April, a newsroom census report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found that the percentage of minority journalists was growing at its customary snail pace, to 13.52 percent of all journalists, up from 13.43 percent the year before. Only 11.4 percent of all supervisors in newsrooms are minorities. ASNE found that 423 of the 924 newspapers that responded to the survey had no minorities on their full-time staffs at all.

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Now, with the bell tolling for metropolitan papers across the country, minority journalists face not just the usual challenge of finding employment; there’s the question of their internal opportunities when the papers they already work for go into survival mode.

For Tahirih Brown, an editor at the Seattle P-I for more than five years, newspapers have reduced their opportunities for non-white journalists.

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““When I started in journalism in the early '90s, the big change was diversity—making the newsroom look more like the community they were covering," she said Tuesday night, at the raucous P-I farewell at Buckley’s, the paper’s unofficial watering hole. "And I feel that in the past couple of years, that’s kind of gone by the wayside. There are some stories that just aren’t going to ever get told because of a lack of diversity in newsrooms in general.”

And while it’s not clear what lies ahead of her, Brown knows she cannot afford to look back. The newspaper she worked for previously, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is also, she said, “being decimated.”

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Gary Washburn, a P-I sports reporter for three and a half years and similarly not invited to the changeover, thinks navigating the media free-for-all is a matter of connections. “Generally, the difference for an African American in this business is, we don’t get the hookup. We don’t get ‘I went to college with your uncle,’ … You just have to deal with the climate. You can’t complain … because it ain’t gonna change any time soon.”

For better or worse, the future of newspapers has less to do with paper and everything to do with news. The broader news media cannot do its job without journalists of color bringing the stories of their communities to the fore. For black and minority journalists hammered by the economy in general and their industry’s changes in particular, survival requires viewing the crisis as an opportunity in disguise. In an online-promotion graphic on its Web site, the National Association of Black Journalists is already calling its planned August gathering in Tampa “the Reinvention Convention.”

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As newspapers downsize or transform themselves online, it’s crucial for minority journalists to elevate the issue of wider coverage of their communities before the process of change runs its course. And it’s just as important for those journos to be the multitasking chameleons they’ll need to be to have a place in the new order, thriving not because of the turbulence but in spite of it.

For them, getting through today’s rapacious media Darwinism comes down to making sure they don’t lose their hard-won seat at the table—even as the table changes right in front of them.

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Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.

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