Commentaries
10:33 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

Editor's Weekly: New Media, Old Diversity Challenges

A welcome debate has unfolded recently over lack of diversity among digital news organizations — welcome because it raises important questions about whether media in the future will serve the public better than media did in the past.

Credit fakhar | sxc.hu

Emily Bell of the Guardian kicked off the discussion by lamenting the predominance of white males in high profile, personal-brand startup operations: Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Glenn Greenwald of First Look Media and Ezra Klein of Vox, for example. Critics pointed out that Bell herself wasn't paying enough attention to the women involved in new operations. Bell acknowledged the oversight but stuck to her primary point — if new staffs look like old staffs, then new coverage may suffer from the same old blind spots.

Actually, traditional media have for years agreed that newsroom diversity is not only right but smart. When reporters and editors bring different perspectives, connections and life experiences to their work, that can enrich coverage and news judgment. Conversely, when news reports ignore or misrepresent women, racial minorities or other groups, all of us are deprived of insights we need to understand the world.

Yet most news organizations have failed to hire staffs that mirror the demographics of their areas. Women are both underrepresented and under-appreciated in new media, says Meg Heckman, who will present research from a two-year study this spring. Writing this week in Columbia Journalism Review, she noted: "Despite early prominence in digital journalism, female leaders are the minority in virtually all its corners today, and the women who do launch innovative publications aren’t getting the same attention as men. That has implications both practical and rhetorical, making journalism’s future seem as homogenous as its past."

When asked to explain the disproportionately low numbers of women and minorities on staff and in leadership positions, new media executives sound a lot like the old ones. Topping the list: We try but we can't seem to find qualified applicants. In a thoughtful rejoinder, BuzzFeed deputy editor Shani O. Hilton coached editors to try more effectively — by expanding their networks, looking beyond credentials and putting aside pride. She also coached potential job applicants to ignore their inner doubts and take a chance.

Yes, achieving diversity can be hard. All the more reason for media — new and old — to try harder.

At St. Louis Public Radio, diversity has been on our minds as we prepare to expand our staff. Last week, we were thrilled to post six job openings: Washington correspondent, arts reporter, three newscast positions and a one-year diversity reporting fellowship. At a time when many news organizations are still shrinking, the opportunity to fill openings and add two positions is remarkable. We're reaching out to ensure a diverse applicant pool — not only demographically but also in skills and experience. We want a staff that can report well on all parts of our community and one that can connect with people through many means, traditional and digital.

A lot has changed in newsrooms since I first walked into the Post-Dispatch in 1971. Then, the clack of typewriters and clouds of cigarette smoke filled the air. Spittoons still sat next to some of desks. Women and African Americans had only recently been allowed on to the City Desk, the main news operation. It was exciting to be part of the transformational changes of the next decades, but also difficult. Over the years, news organizations learned some truths about diversity, including these:

  • Staff diversity doesn't automatically assure content diversity. News organizations, like other institutions, can be prone to hire people for their new perspectives, then ignore suggestions that differ from existing thinking.
  • It's unfair and counterproductive to make diverse coverage the sole responsibility of minorities and women. They shouldn't be expected to cover all matters related to discrimination and disparities or to ensure that diverse sources show up in all coverage. Quality is everyone's responsibility.
  • Success breeds success. Each step that expands diversity of sources, ideas and staff tends to make the next step easier as networks grow and word spreads.

Six years ago, the founders of the St. Louis Beacon had the chance to build a newsroom from scratch. We tried to create a space where many different people would feel at home and to report stories that reflected the experience of many different people across the region. We tried to create an atmosphere where staff felt  comfortable sharing their perspectives freely and where they knew that they could speak as individuals, not as token representatives of a particular group.

From the beginning of merger talks, St. Louis Public Radio made clear that diversity was a priority as well, and that spirit animates our merged organization. As the current debate indicates, diversity can wither without cultivation. We intend for it to flourish here, not only because it's right but also because it's the best way we can provide news that matters for you.

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