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.
Some owners saw integrating their staffs as good for business; a few saw the morality of it. I sat in many meetings in the 1980s and 1990s where we discussed those owners and publishers who were more swayed by the business argument than by a moral obligation to make their staffs less white, and to devote more coverage to communities that they historically had neglected — debates we also engaged in during the 1960s.
When the minority journalists' organizations were formed, we were all so upbeat and optimistic (and naive) that at last media owners had come around, and the profession would never be the same. Newsrooms began to reflect their communities, somewhat (or gave it a good try), as more nonwhites were hired on as reporters, editors, anchors, news directors, columnists and a station manager and publisher or two, here and there. ASNE began keeping count and annually, eagerly and proudly, reported the good news of steadily increasing numbers.
Then came the 21st century, which dealt the news industry as we knew it a double blow: economic downturns and the advent of the Internet, both sending old-media revenues into a tailspin that today remains dizzying and from which they're continuing to search for ways to counter and recover. Job cuts have been among the responses, including the "last hired, first fired" practice to which we've become so accustomed. The impact on newsroom integration has been to effectively reverse the progress of the last century.
In his online Journal-isms column, Richard Prince embarrassed editors at Politico when he ran a picture, originally broadcast by CNN, of an all-white editorial meeting. But such gatherings are common nowadays. What is also typical is the line of defense after such exposures: You didn't get the whole picture, we do have some minorities somewhere in our organization, we're really working on it, etc., ad nauseam.
For its annual survey, ASNE officials said that less than 50 percent of online news sites bothered to return surveys about their minority numbers, about as responsive as editors were in the 1960s. Some major outfits did not reply at all — including Salon, Yahoo, Daily Beast, Politico, AOL and the Huffington Post.
I, too, would be ashamed to reply if my numbers were so pathetic. The new-media boom — if it can be called that, since it does not feed too many families, particularly nonwhite — seems to have passed blacks by.
John Hope Franklin, the late historian, noted in an interview that African Americans rather naively expected that whites would accept the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education against segregated public schools: "We didn't plan for the resistance that ensued." Similarly, we black journalists thought we would be safely ensconced in our chosen profession by the 21st century; that the numbers of reporters, editors, columnists, anchors and managers would no longer be such a cause for concern; that the departure of a Steven Gray would not leave an institution like Time magazine so exposed.
In other words, we anticipated a critical mass comparable to professional baseball or basketball: When a black player is fired, race is not given a second thought.
It did not happen that way, and we're nearly back to where we started. Many of us veterans feel that the youngsters, with allies in the wider community, have to pick up the fight now and decide how to continue the battle, using tools of the past — such as lawsuits, protest demonstrations, boycotts and community pressure, as well as whatever new tactics they develop and choose — as their own Occupy movements.
Ronnie Askew, executive editor of the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger and director of ASNE's diversity committee, vowed that the organization "will be a leader of keeping diversity at the forefront of this journalistic transformation." It will be up to him and his colleagues to find and nurture the next generations, just as we did in the past.
Paul Delaney is a former reporter and editor at the New York Times who covered the civil rights movement, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, and frequent contributor to The Root.