Tempers Flare: Minority Journalists Tell National Newspaper Association Officials That More Has to Be Done in Diversifying Newsrooms

Article excerpt

AT THE NEWSPAPER industry's second "summit" meeting on diversity, groups representing minority journalists were excluded from the program and expressed anger and frustration at the lack of progress since the first summit in January.

The meeting of captains of the newspaper industry--presidents and chief executive officers of the biggest newspaper corporations--at the Palace Hotel in New York City Dec. 3 highlighted some of the very problems it meant to solve and exposed how deeply issues of race, culture, and identity reach in newspapers.

As Seattle Times publisher and CEO Frank Blethen said, "If you don't think there's racism in newspapers today, you're kidding yourself."

For more than four hours, executives related how newspapers and other employers were dealing with diversity. The meeting of 75 executives and activists was nearly double the 38 who attended last January.

NAA chairman and Hearst Corp. president and CEO Frank Bennack Jr. said there has been "substantial progress" toward the goal of moving "beyond talk" on diversity, because the issue is both "the right thing to do" and "a business imperative."

When the floor opened to questions, however, representatives of black, Latino, Asian, and gay journalists all expressed dissatisfaction with the status of minority groups in newspapers and with the Newspaper Association of America's handling of it.

Sidmel Estes-Sumpter, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a producer at WAGA-TV in Atlanta, saw no improvement over the past last year.

"You just don't get it," she said in a 10-minute tongue-lashing of NAA's diversity committee, whose lack of progress left her "angry and very frustrated."

At the close of an afternoon of "talking heads," she called the meeting mostly a wasted effort because she saw little interest in "real solutions."

Few specific proposals emerged on how to take the number of minorities in the newsroom from a little over 9% now to 25%--or parity with the minority population--by the year 2000, she said, adding that her prediction made at the first diversity summit in january had come to pass: that little would be done.

Estes-Sumpter cited small gains in the number of minorities working and managing newspaper newsrooms and said that, despite the warnings of the Kerner Commission 25 years ago for the media to reflect the views of minorities, the nation this year has been torn by riots in Los Angeles.

White editors, with minorities largely absent, sent black reporters "as cannon fodder" to gather information on the riots and relay it to whites who wrote the stories, she said.

The resulting coverage misrepresented Korean businesses and ignored the role of Hispanics, she added.

Turning to the consolidated NAA--which has one black person, Toni Laws, in senior management and no Latinos or Asians--she urged the publishers to "get your own house in order" before leading newspapers on diversity.

NAA president and CEO Cathleen Black defended the association's record, saying that the merger of the former American Newspaper Publishers Association and Newspaper Advertising Bureau resulted in a 25% staff cut.

However, NAA has made "very substantial progress," Black said, including the hiring of seven minority staffers in the last few months.

Estes-Sumpter credited those who attended the summit with good intentions, but urged "concrete steps."

"We want to hear specifics about what is happening in the next step to put minorities on track to take over your jobs," she said. "We can't wait another year as we've done this year."

She called on newspapers to make their offices "nurturing" in order to retain minorities who are leaving in droves, and she warned that unless newspapers embrace diversity "you are writing your own death knell."

Elsewhere there was solid evidence that newspaper companies are changing, however slowly. …