Refocusing on newsroom diversity

'When it comes to diversity, it's not only on the backburner--it's not even in the kitchen," Dori Maynard says

Robert C. Maynard—journalist, editor, newspaper publisher, and former owner of The Oakland Tribune—spent much of his career trying to improve diversity in journalism. His namesake organization, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, is devoted to that effort. Twenty years after his death, the organization is headed by his daughter, Dori Maynard, who is troubled by what she sees as a decrease in attention paid to diversity in newsrooms.

“The last 10 years has been somewhat of a challenge when it comes to the issue of diversity in journalism,” Maynard said in an interview. “As one industry leader said a few years ago, ‘When it comes to diversity, it’s not only on the backburner—it’s not even in the kitchen.”

About 90 percent of newsroom supervisors are white; only 12.37 percent of those in the newsroom are minorities, even though they make up 37 percent of the US population. The problem, Maynard said, is that when the journalism business model changed abruptly with the advent of the internet, people went into “freefall panic” and diversity, she said, became an afterthought.

This sentiment was reiterated in The Atlantic in response to the American Society of News Editors annual study of newsroom diversity released in July: “[T]he results only confirmed what many who had lived through the industry’s deep recession had already experienced: a steady decline in minority journalists and stagnation in prior progress.”

But diversity is important. Not just for minority journalists, but for journalism itself and for democracy.

Robert Maynard, in his last public address before he died, said that “The country cannot be the country we want it to be if its story is told only by one group of citizens. Our goal is to give all Americans front door access to the truth.”

“That’s part of his vision,” Dori Maynard said. “I think his vision is also that people should understand that diversity is a component of excellence. You can’t have excellence without it. Something is going to trip you up.”

So what’s to be done? Maynard said that the Institute is commemorating the anniversary of her father’s death by refocusing on increasing the number of minorities in the journalism industry pipeline and retaining them once they’re there. The Institute is planning a possible series of online conversations that looks not only at what has gone wrong, but also at what has gone right—at coverage that works and why. She said they want to gather examples of how having a diverse staff adds “nuance to story and subject.”

One good example, she said, was the Washington Post story by Lonnae O’Neal Parker this past January that examined Michelle Obama through the prisms of both feminism and race. White feminists are disappointed in the First Lady for being a stay-at-home mom and giving up her career, Parker said. But black women felt differently. “If she wanted to focus on motherhood, for black women that was more than fine,” Parker wrote. “It was arguably revolutionary, because black women were long denied the right—or lacked the means—to simply care for their own.”

That story and others like it, Maynard said, “remind(s) people of the value that diversity brings to staff, to readers. It’s about better coverage. It’s not just a conversation about [what the newsroom] lacks.”

Maynard said the Institute also hopes to connect editors and journalists of color around the country with an online question-and-answer forum that helps minorities strategize, and feel like they’re not alone. Journalists who do feel alone, who aren’t listened to, usually wind up leaving the field, Maynard said.

In the end, she said, diversity is “a survival tactic” for newsrooms struggling to stay afloat. It’s not just about fairness, though of course that’s part of it. It’s also about “creating a product in this new market that accurately reflects everyone’s reality.” That will lead to healthier journalism organizations, Maynard said—because if our mainstream news organizations don’t reflect the full population, readers will continue to abandon them.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , ,