In the rise of race beats, echoes of history

Reporters devoted to covering race and ethnicity find stories most others miss

Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran may owe the Congressional Black Caucus for helping him beat back a tea party challenger in his state’s primary last month, but journalists have the Associated Press’ Jesse Holland to thank for breaking the news last month in the first place.

As a race and ethnicity reporter at the AP, the tale of mostly Democratic black voters helping a Republican incumbent keep his job is just the kind of story Holland was hired to uncover. If the AP didn’t have someone specifically watching for these type of stories, then the Cochran affair might not have gotten covered, Holland said.

He broke the story not by relying on local reporters closely following the behavior of black voters in the GOP primary, because no other reporters were actually doing that. Several had noticed advertisements in two of the state’s black newspapers, but no one knew who was behind them. “I picked up the phone and called the black newspaper and asked who placed the ad,” Holland said. “I’m not sure why no one else thought to do that.”

Holland spoke with the publisher of one of the black newspapers, who not only gave him the name of the man who paid for the ad, but also the advertiser’s cellphone number. Holland went from there, calling one person after the next, including the advertiser. He passed along information to the statehouse reporter about the political action committee behind the ad, which was not registered in state or federal databases. AP’s statehouse reporter only reported the name of the political action committee, while Holland broke the larger story the next day.

“It’s not as if there aren’t local reporters who aren’t looking at these same things, but, once again, it’s in my job description,” Holland said. “There used to be a lot of race and ethnicity reporters around the nation—their numbers have decreased. Hopefully there is a resurgence. Hopefully those numbers are going up again. And hopefully, with the increase, stories like this won’t be missed.”

The race beat does indeed seem to be on the rise at mainstream news organizations. As the US becomes a majority minority nation, news executives are grappling with how to cover ethnic groups and the issues they face. For the AP, that meant hiring two race and ethnicity reporters. In February, Holland joined Jesse Washington, who was already on the race beat on the national features writing team; Holland is assigned to the political writing team. The Washington Post launched theRootDC, which was separate from its stand-alone website,, to focus on black communities in the nation’s capital, but later killed the initiative; NPR is currently advertising for a new digital editor for Race, Ethnicity and Social Issues; the role has not yet been filled. And The New York Times moved Tanzina Vega to what was billed as a “new” beat—race and ethnicity.

But the paper had a race beat back in the 1970s and ’80s, called the race and demographics beat at the time. In fact, this growth of race beats isn’t so much a new phenomenon as a resurgence of past practice at US newspapers. Lily-white newspapers first started hiring black reporters in the 1950s and 1960s to cover the civil rights movement in the wake of the 1968 Kerner report, a study of why race riots erupted in 1967, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson. For the black journalists who were hired, that meant reporting on riots, marches, the Black Panthers, segregation, integration, affirmative action, bus boycotts, church bombings, the fight for black voting rights, and more. Newspaper publishers formally started recognizing race beats around the late 1960s and early ’70s, although by different names. Some called them “minority affairs,” “urban affairs,” or “metropolitan” beats.

Newsday was early in establishing one of those beats when it got a bunch of reporters in 1969 under publisher Bill Moyers,” recalled Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who became the first “minority affairs specialist” there. “There were about nine of us, reporters who met with Moyers regularly. We wanted someone at Newsday whose sole job was to report black stories. But also to flag other stories for reporters on other beats—sports, for example. At the time there were so few reporters that we needed a dedicated beat, otherwise stories wouldn’t be written about. We needed a stop-gap measure to ensure black news would flow into the normal flow of news.” At the time, Payne said, the paper had trouble filling the beat; several of its black reporters didn’t just want to write “black” stories.

Newsday, like other newspapers, viewed black reporters as inferior reporters hired due to affirmative action,” Payne continued. “Assigning journalists to cover only black stories took them out of competition for more coveted roles. A lot of black reporters were already covering black stories, but they didn’t want to get pigeon-holed by taking that beat.” He added that he reluctantly accepted the job in 1973 after completing a series of stories on the heroin trade that won him the Pulitzer. He covered the beat for three years. His assignments included traveling to South Africa, where he covered the Soweto uprising, for which he was selected for a second Pulitzer Prize in 1976. (The Pulitzer’s advisory board overturned the decision without explanation— Payne speculates it had something to do with his role as a minority affairs reporter.) A week after the Pulitzer decision, Payne was named a national correspondent at Newsday.

The list of names of those who held similar beats is like reading a veritable Who’s Who among prominent black journalists: In addition to Payne, there was Chuck Stone, a former Tuskegee Airman, the first president of NABJ, and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News; Tom Johnson, the first black reporter to work at Newsday and the first black journalist to work as a foreign correspondent for a daily newspaper; Earl Caldwell, who covered the Black Panthers extensively, was the only reporter present when the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated and was the central figure of a US Supreme Court case that helped clarify reporter’s rights regarding confidential sources; Paul Delaney of The New York Times’ Chicago Bureau; Charlayne Hunter Gault, who helped integrate the University of Georgia and joined The New York Times in 1968 as a “metropolitan reporter” specializing in covering the urban African American community; John Blake, a civil rights reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who wrote “Children of the Movement,” where he profiled children of 24 powerful civil rights leaders; and Hollis Towns, a former civil rights reporter for the AJC, who is now executive editor and vice president for news for the Asbury Park Press.

Later, though they may not have been assigned to “race beats,” per se, the list included Steve Holmes, CNN’s current executive director for standards and practices who wrote and edited articles in the New York Times’ 15-part series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for national reporting; Darryl Fears, who currently writes about environmental issues for The Washington Post, Sonya Ross, a former White House reporter who is now the editor responsible for race and ethnicity coverage at the AP; Brenda Wilson, who contributed to a landmark NPR series on AIDS in black America; and Dorothy Gilliam, the first female African American reporter at The Washington Post.

By the 1990s, though, newspaper race beats began to be phased out as the industry entered a rough patch. The subject to which these reporters had dedicated their lives—civil rights for black folks—had also started to wane, Holmes said. And, he added, more black journalists had joined the ranks at mainstream newspapers, and their reporting on black communities had become part of the normal flow of news, just as some race beat pioneers, including Payne, had hoped.

Barry Yeoman, writing for CJR in 1998, reported on the elimination of race beats. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, editors questioned whether they were taking the right approach to covering race. He wrote:

Was it vesting too much responsibility in a single reporter, rather than inculcating a racial consciousness throughout the entire staff? Convinced there was a better way to cover Atlanta’s most ubiquitous issue, in 1997 the paper abolished the civil rights beat and reassigned Hollis Towns to cover housing. For a while, it maintained a more general race-relations beat, but it disbanded that too, deciding that every reporter should be required to cover the racial angles of their own stories.

With the decline in the number of journalists of color populating US newsrooms, coverage of communities of color has declined as well. “There’s still a need for these beats, though there should not be,” said Payne. He cited Ta-Nehisi Coates’ role as senior editor and writer at The Atlantic as one example of a race beat, which isn’t called by that name but would have been labeled as such in years past. Payne also called attention to websites, like Racialicious, that are wholly dedicated to covering issues that impact people of color. “I don’t know that [beats] disappeared,” he argued. “They just look a little different than what we initially created.”

Traditional race beats (or whatever name one chooses to call them) that focused on black people and black stories, may be getting overshadowed by other groups fighting for civil rights and coverage. News organizations tend not to cover more than a few oppressed groups at a time, Holmes said. First it was black communities, and then there was a move to women’s issues and later Latino issues. Now it’s gay rights, he said.

Which may be another reason why when the black Mississippi voters story cropped up last month, it was nearly missed. That, and perhaps the decline of statehouse reporters, stretched too thin to look for or write about ethnic groups and the issues that they face in their respective states, said Holland from his perch in Washington, DC.

“Part of my job as race and ethnicity reporter at AP is to watch for these stories, because it is easy to miss them if someone isn’t paying attention,” the AP’s Holland said. “Part of my job is to pay attention. Our statehouse reporters in Jackson and everywhere around the country do a fabulous job. But of course, everyone is overworked. Everyone has too many things they have to do in a span of 24 hours. That’s one of the reasons why we have reporters here in Washington whose job is to look for these type of stories that someone else may not know exist. Or maybe they know the stories exist, they just might not have time to write them.”

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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.