As newspapers cut their opinion sections, African American voices take a disproportionate hit

Since 2008, newspapers have laid off, reassigned, or retired at least 21 black opinion writers

This week the city of Memphis, TN, lost its only female, African American metro columnist. The editor in chief of The Commercial Appeal reassigned Wendi C. Thomas to lead the newspaper’s cops and courts beat, a job she first had back in 1998. The move is part of the newspaper’s efforts to reorganize for the digital era, according to an editor’s note.

But being a columnist, Thomas said, was her “dream job,” one she had performed in her hometown for nearly 11 years.

“I was hired as a columnist. It was a miracle that I got paid to tell people what I thought,” said Thomas, who wrote primarily about social justice issues. “Now I’m back where I started.”

Columnist jobs are considered plum assignments for newspaper journalists, achieved only after years of honing the craft as a reporter and editor. Historically columnists were well paid and given plenty of freedom to write just about whatever they wanted. The digital era, however, has turned that on its head, with commentary littering the Web. The difference, newspaper columnists say, is that their writing is always informed by reporting and adheres to journalistic standards; much of the commentary online does not.

Newspapers, in general, have drastically cut the amount of staff they devote to commentary, according to a 2013 Pew Research Report. While no one officially keeps tally, Pew wrote that membership in the Association of Opinion Journalists, formerly The National Conference of Editorial Writers, had dropped from 549 in 2006 to just 245 in 2013.

And while there have never been that many op-ed or metro columnists in other minority groups (Latino, Asian American or Native American), black columnists had made significant headway in securing these jobs. Now, they are being hit hardest in losing them. Since 2008, newspapers have laid off, reassigned, or retired at least 21 black opinion writers, according to the Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince. In 2011, Prince called the exodus of black opinion writers “a depressing trend.”

Prince is also a member of The Trotter Group, founded in 1992 by three high-level black columnists not only to increase the number of black columnists at mainstream daily newspapers, but also to nurture and educate future black opinion writers. The group is still in existence but has seen its numbers plummet from a high of about 40 members to now anywhere from eight to 12, co-founder Les Payne said.

Two things drove the formation of The Trotter Group: the lack of African Americans on Sunday morning news shows—at the time, guests were predominantly (white) newspaper columnists.

“We were not at the table discussing the issues of the day,” said Payne, a Pulitzer winner, whose Newsday column eliminated in 2008. “And what would happen is that if there was a particularly, singularly black issue they may trot out an African American who they treated sort of tertiarily. I took exception to that.”

While Payne acknowledged African Americans are still not at the table on Sunday morning talk shows and are now in decline at daily newspapers, he expressed optimism that African Americans are finding other platforms where there voices can be heard, particularly online. He pointed to Mary C. Curtis, a former columnist for The Charlotte Observer who now writes regularly for The Washington Post’s “She The People” blog and offers commentary on a local Charlotte TV station. Others include sports website Deadspins’s Greg Howard who, this week, penned an epic takedown of another sports columnist and commentator, ESPN’s Jason Whitlock, and The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently produced a piece making the case for reparations that set site traffic records.

But daily newspapers still have larger audiences and are the vehicles for more local news commentary. That’s where columnists, particularly columnists of color, are missed the most.

When Louis Graham, the editor of The Commercial Appeal—which has a Monday thru Saturday circulation of 103,957 and Sunday circulation of 143,013, according to the Alliance for Audited Media—suddenly announced last week that Thomas’ twice-a-week column would end, reaction from the local community was swift: A Facebook page was created, initially named “Reinstate Wendi C. Thomas”; the name was changed to “Bring Back The Metro Column” and currently has nearly 500 likes; Mediaverse, a blog that covers local media in Memphis, praised Thomas for being “a good columnist. She was, and still is, an important figure in the Memphis narrative.” And Thomas said she has fielded many calls and emails from supporters and residents asking how issues are now going to get covered in their town.

Thomas wrote about people and events that don’t normally appear in the newspaper, she said. Though she did not know it at the time, her final column was about racial disparity in government contracting. The column raised so much awareness that a press conference was being held to discuss the issue on Tuesday, which Thomas would not attend due to her new editing duties. “I don’t know if anyone will go from the paper,” she said. “I would love to be there, but that’s not my job any more.”

“I’m trying to stay in my lane. I had a lot more autonomy in column writing where I was able to connect the dots and put things into context,” she added. “I feel that I filled that role very well.”

The oddest part of losing her column, Thomas said, is now having to go mute. “I still have stories to tell,” she said.

The post has been updated to correct the number of years that Thomas was a columnist.

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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil.