What Works? Burlington, North Carolina's Times-News and Colorado's Greeley Tribune Have Similar Circulations and Hometown Demographics. Yet While the Staff in Burlington's Newsroom Is Practically All White, Greeley's Is Diverse. What Does Greeley Do That Burlington Doesn't?

By Robertson, Lori | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview
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What Works? Burlington, North Carolina's Times-News and Colorado's Greeley Tribune Have Similar Circulations and Hometown Demographics. Yet While the Staff in Burlington's Newsroom Is Practically All White, Greeley's Is Diverse. What Does Greeley Do That Burlington Doesn't?


Robertson, Lori, American Journalism Review


In his two stints at the Times-News in Burlington, North Carolina, Editor Lee Barnes has hired two black journalists. It's a small number that makes up a large percentage of the African American journalists who have worked there in the past 25 years. One longtime employee can only remember three others who were full-time staffers in this, one of the country's many starkly white newsrooms.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Times-News narrowly avoided being listed in a Knight Foundation report among the 374 daily newspapers that lacked a single journalist of color. Last year, the paper hired an experienced hard-news cops reporter who was black. She left in mid-May. In June, Barnes brought in the paper's very first Latina reporter. But these few-and-far-between hires aren't considered progress.

Barnes openly discusses his difficulty, frustration and, ultimately, embarrassment in not being able to diversify his newsroom. The 28,000-circulation paper is in an area that's 20 percent black, 6 percent Latino--officially--and 2 percent Asian, Native American and multi-racial. Barnes and other staffers say with diversity, the newspaper would better cover its community, and they believe their current situation hampers their ability to do so. But Barnes says his recruiting efforts have failed. His recent minority hires either walked through the door or came to him via word-of-mouth. "I've gotten tired of beating my head against the wall," he says of trying to attract minority candidates. "It's been incredibly time consuming, and the results have been zero."

The editor is at the point of believing there is nothing he can do to attract journalists of color to his small paper in nobody-wants-to-live-there Burlington. "I believe you could call other papers my size and get the same sob story."

You could.

But not everyone is sobbing over their staff lists. In Greeley, Colorado, the 25,000-circulation Greeley Tribune doesn't want to be put on any kind of pedestal, the paper's leadership is quick to point out. They struggle with the issue of diversity, and with turnover, just like everyone else. But in an area that's 30.8 percent nonwhite, the newsroom, according to the 2004 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey, is 22.9 percent nonwhite. It's not parity, but it's a high mark for the paper.

All of the all-white newspapers listed in the Knight report by Bill Dedman and Stephen K. Doig have circulations of less than 50,000, papers that often have recruiting and retention problems regardless of race (see "Vacancies in Vacaville," March 2003). With the full cooperation of these two community newspapers, AJR set out to find what they were doing to diversify their staffs, and what works. Why such success on one side of the Mississippi, and such dismal numbers on the other?

Burlington, North Carolina, population 45,000, is in the north-central part of the state, 30 miles east of Greensboro. The historic downtown is charming--but with many empty storefronts, almost a ghost town. The Holiday Inn just off Interstate 85 provides a list of area restaurants for its guests. Not one is actually in Burlington. "Sleepy" may be the most apt description for this small, southern city.

And as a southern city, Burlington's history has seen its share of racial strife. While tensions between blacks and whites eased over the decades, a Latino community began to grow. According to Census numbers, in 1990, there were 736 Latinos in Alamance County, where Burlington is located; in 2000, there were 8,835. Managing Editor Jay Ashley, a Burlington native, uses the following anecdote to sum up the changes the city has gone through: In the 1960s, he says, there was a large billboard at a local fork in the road, picturing a Ku Klux Klansman on a horse and featuring the slogan, "Fight Communism and Integration." Today on that site there's a Mexican restaurant.

As the racial makeup of the community has changed, the paper's largely hasn't.

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What Works? Burlington, North Carolina's Times-News and Colorado's Greeley Tribune Have Similar Circulations and Hometown Demographics. Yet While the Staff in Burlington's Newsroom Is Practically All White, Greeley's Is Diverse. What Does Greeley Do That Burlington Doesn't?
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