Needs More Color
By Lee Nichols
DECEMBER 1, 1997: It was written in the bathroom stalls [at work] that I was a black activist plant," recalls journalist Peter Noel. Noel, who is African-American, wasn't writing for some Southern, conservative daily. He wasn't at some vaunted defender of the status quo like Time or Newsweek. Indeed, if he had been, he might have been in a newsroom that was more accustomed to integration by now.
Noel was -- and still is -- writing for New York's Village Voice, the king of that species of paper known as the alternative weekly. Anyone reading this article right now is familiar with the concept -- an independent tabloid paper which usually practices advocacy journalism, stirring up the public with stories that the mainstream papers won't touch, celebrating the culture of the enlightened and hip, and promoting open-minded left/liberal values.
And, most likely, written and edited by a whole bunch of white people.
It's an ugly stain on the image of the alternative -- or, if you prefer, "progressive" -- press, and it afflicts more than just the weeklies of the genre. The sad fact is, some of the least integrated newsrooms in the journalistic world are to be found among the publications that do the most vigorous clamoring for diversity.
"The alternative press has been horrible on this," says Tim Redmond, editor of the alternative weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian. "For most of its existence, most of it has been overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly young, and middle class. That's who started these publications. And also, they've served as training grounds, and it has been middle-class white kids who can afford to work at them."
The result, says Redmond, is a subtle, unintentional racism.
"These are people who have thought about every issue on the political spectrum, including civil rights, but the integration of their own newsrooms is something they didn't think about. They've had so many things to think about, mainly survivability, and it's only recently that they have been successful enough that people have begun to say, 'Wait a minute.'"
A report from the Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ) said just that earlier this year. Titled "Color, Culture, and Compromise: An Unabashed Look at Racial Diversity in Alternative Newsweeklies," the report queried the 106 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) about the racial composition of their staffs and the effects that it has on their news coverage. Forty-nine of the publications responded (The Austin Chronicle was not one of them), and the answers led IAJ researchers to open the report with: "Simply put, the range of diversity within the alternative press is pretty bleak. AAN publications are very white indeed."
The report limited the scope of its scolding to newsweeklies, but it could have easily expanded to other branches of the progressive press, as well. Just last month, Mother Jones magazine devoted an entire special section, "America's Changing Color," to exploring issues of race and the left's response to them; however, as pointed out by Counterspin, a radio show produced by the media activist group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), all of the section's authors were white. Similarly, at a recent anniversary celebration of The Texas Observer, a black reporter from the Dallas Morning News lamented the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd -- and this anecdote was used by the Observer itself in the process of criticizing populist radio commentator (and former Observer editor) Jim Hightower's failure to address race in his new book on all things liberal.
"AAN editors talk about this problem, because it's an embarrassment," says Black, using a word that comes up frequently. "We're alternative papers who claim that what we stand up for is the voices of the city, the voices that aren't represented, and yet minority writers are underrepresented in AAN and alternative papers, as they are in lots of areas of publication."
"With our smug self-righteousness, we like to point out every failing of the dailies, like we're doing a better job, and we're not," says Mike Lenehan, executive editor of the Chicago Reader. "We ought to have to pass a stricter test because of our supposed moral superiority."
But how could such cause-committed organizations have allowed such a thing to happen? That depends on to whom one talks.
"The only theory I have is that there are few qualified candidates," says Alison True, editor of the Reader, "and the dailies pay more. Quality [minority] writers can pick and choose."
"Talented minority journalists are in high demand," says Mark Zusman, editor of Portland's Willamette Week. "Often they are far more in demand than in supply. The problem is compensation. We are not paying wages that are competitive with dailies. And despite our growth, the opportunities for advancement in a paper like ours is completely different from other papers. We just have a layer of writers and a layer of editors. At the dailies, there are maybe seven steps to the top."
Many alt-weekly editors echo this comment, and even some outside the alternative world agree.
"The trouble is," says Arnold Garcia, the editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman, "Minority journalists are hard to find. Since the alternative press does not have deep pockets, it's on the short end of the stick. Why would a minority journalist go to a weekly?"
Hogwash, says Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a journalism professor at the University of Texas.
"My response to that is that minority journalists are not any more expensive," de Uriarte says. "We have minorities working in tiny border papers that aren't very wealthy. What attacts white journalists to the alternative media is a desire to make the world better. Minorities have that commitment, too.
"They [progressive publications] don't look for minority journalists. This will sound harsh, but if you make a real commitment, you can find them. There aren't as many as there should be, and blame for that can be laid at the feet of journalism schools. But the real problem is that these publications are basically invisible; they're not in the minority communities, they're not networking and looking for stories, so minorities don't know about them. They're not thought of as an option, which is the same problem the mainstream press had at the beginning of the struggle to diversify.
"The big problem is that they're not active around minority issues," de Uriarte continues. "There seems to be a gap between the causes that the alternative press rallies around and the people who suffer the effects of those causes. The progressive press might write about environmental racism, but they're not good buddies with the people. It's parachute journalism -- they don't form long-lasting ties with the communities."
The alternative press is hardly alone in such cliqueishness. Historically, liberalism has often been criticized for being a white people's club. The entire "environmental racism" movement, for example, began because of the failure of the larger body of environmental activists to deal with race-specific enviro issues.
The IAJ study cited "AAN culture" as one of the most common complaints of current or former staffers of color at alt-weeklies.
"They're not thinking about racism as much as pure taste," the study quotes one writer as saying (all of the study's quotes were anonymous to guarantee openness). "AAN papers have a stronger intellectual bent than most dailies, which means they attract more privileged whites.... More black people in the newsroom are going to cut down on the water cooler talk on, say, post-structuralism. Not that that's a bad thing to discuss, say, twice a month, but on a daily basis?"
When it comes to race, de Uriarte suggests, some white liberals are as reluctant to have their notions challenged as anyone else.
"At the first Media & Democracy Conference [sponsored by the IAJ] last year in San Francisco," she says, "a panel was held on this topic and people said that there was a real need for integration in the alternative press and in its supporting organizations. But many people took it personally and were offended by the criticism, so it wasn't very productive. But without discourse, you can't make a change."
Another reporter quoted in the IAJ report put it bluntly: "These guys don't want to deal with people who are not like them. People of color intimidate them and baffle them just like any self-declared racist." Noel refers to such people as "conservative liberals," and says his particular style of reporting offers "a black view that they don't buy into."
Almost everyone agrees that lack of diversity is a problem. Not everyone, however, agrees on how to fix it, or even the degree to which it is a problem.
Alternative Media, Inc. (AMI) didn't really have much choice but to address the concerns of African-Americans. Detroit's population is heavily black, and AMI's Detroit Metro Times would likely have been worthless if it failed to do so. So the paper started with management. Desiree Cooper, an African-American, was brought in as editor in 1994 despite not coming from a journalism background -- she was previously a lawyer.
AMI President Ron Williams told the IAJ that his attitude was, "Don't be rigid. You have to take risks. You look for the basic skills set: writing skills, managerial skills, community contacts... not if they're meeting some pre-set criteria."
When Cooper became an editor-at-large in May, she was replaced by another African-American, Larry Gabriel. And managing editor W. Kim Heron is also black.
Cooper says that what really challenges most alternative publications in recruiting minorities "is that they haven't done it before. If people feel it's a good place to work, then it doesn't matter what type of place it is. Once you've started, it's easier. It's an indication to people who might apply that it's a good place to work.
"I think the media [in general] is awfully white. A minority going into any media knows it's an issue unless it is minority-owned or -targeted. But they're often surprised that it's not any different at an alternative publication than a daily. Retention begins to be difficult because there's a sucker-punch effect. They assume that the publications are progressive, but then find out that the dynamics are the same," Cooper says. "Even in Detroit the perception exists that alternatives are not in touch with the minority community, because churches are central to the social and economic life of those communities. But the alternative press traditionally pooh-poos religion and doesn't treat it with respect. That makes it hard for any minority to embrace us. We like to say, 'We're down with the community,' but we're not, because it's insulting to certain aspects of the minority community."
UT's de Uriarte holds up the New Times Corporation as a leader in diversification attempts. New Times is an aggressive chain that owns seven alternative weeklies around the nation, including the Dallas Observer and the Houston Press, and will soon open an eighth in Fort Lauderdale.
"New Times has made a real effort," she says. "We do Tejas [a Latino-oriented publication produced by UT journalism students] and they're regularly in touch. They have hired or offered internships to some of our students."
Of course, New Times' publications may not be the most representative example of alternative weeklies -- being part of a chain, they have a lot more capital with which to work.
"Lots of alternative weeklies use freelancers," Voas says. "We use almost all paid staff. It makes it easier -- we're not a stepping stone [to more lucrative writing/editing gigs]. A lot of alternatives need to alter the way they pay all writers. I have a couple of writers in six figures.
"We budget $8,000 a year for each paper for minority recruiting. It's comparable with the Dallas Morning News. Chainwide, we've only hired five or six of writers [through this effort], because most of them are college interns. Many of them are promising journalists, but aren't ready for our quality of writing.
"It's a painstaking process, but there is a commitment from the owners.... We have a very sophisticated program by most standards, certainly for alternatives."
Most papers either lack those kind of resources or are just now reaching a point where they can consider them.
"The problem is that the Chronicle has never recruited," Black says. "Usually, just through the grapevine of who we know, especially in terms of writing, there's always people available. The way we've developed most of our writers and our editors has been they start freelancing, they do a few things, it turns out they're simpatico with our way of doing things, and we have them do more and more things. We've never looked for men or women or gay people or straight people or minorities or whites; we've basically looked for qualified people who are willing to do what it is we need done for what we're willing to pay them. It's always been a very organic evolution, so the notion of recruiting specific people is a learned notion.... Our problem is the traditional way we develop talent doesn't lend itself to recruitment."
According to Black and Publisher Barbaro, the Chronicle currently has no specific plan to change its racial situation. "We look at this situation as everything that has worked out works out organically," says Black. "The changing nature of a bunch of different things brings us a bunch more minority writers, and then we become even more representative of the community."
That's not gonna cut it, says the Guardian's Redmond, who says his paper has taken a more direct approach.
"Saying you're in favor of diversity isn't enough," Redmond says. "You have to be proactive. About a year ago, we said we need greater diversity. We were spurred by [then-writer for the Guardian] Martin Espinoza, who would get on my case about it and say we didn't look deep enough. We set up an editorial committee and said, 'Look: Your job is to go to [journalism] conferences and to the community and find a pool of minority journalists. Make sure that our interns are representative of the community, go out and get stacks of resumés, recruit even when an opening doesn't exist. The program is just getting off the ground, but I think it's been successful."
Redmond says that while the new system has only resulted in one hire so far (mostly due to slow turnover, he says), the many candidates he has found leads him to believe that it will pay off big in the future.
"I've said, of the next four openings, two will go to minorities. We just said 'no more excuses.' We did it in advertising [staff], too. We can't say anymore, 'We didn't get enough applicants.' We can't just throw up our hands and say, 'Well, this just happens.'"
Of course, a bigger question lurks underneath all of this -- just how important is diversity in a paper's ability to deliver news? Does a lack of diversity on the editorial staff really affect quality of content?
"To some extent, no," says Black. "I don't think it does.... The whole notion that we should have minorities on staff to cover minority stuff is silly, it's segregating.... I think there's something built into that assumption that's a little bit weird. You want a diversity of voices because you want a diversity of experiences. But we already have a diversity of voices.... But it's an individual thing, not a racial thing.
"I think the Chronicle's stand on social justice issues is constantly underplayed, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find an important issue on the Eastside of this town that we haven't covered."
The Baltimore CityPages Editor Andy Markowitz -- despite being dissatisfied with his paper's lack of diversity -- similarly says, "We do a better job of covering minority concerns than anybody. We don't cover the murder of the week or the outrage of the day, so we can cover the community more in-depth. That gets the attention of writers in those communities, and they'll gravitate towards the alternative media."
The Village Voice's Noel -- who, it should be noted, is an African-American who does cover racial issues -- tells a different story.
"When I came to the Voice in 1990, it was at a time that a big story had broken concerning some black kids who had raped a white woman in Central Park. By reading the Voice's coverage, it was obvious that they were not balancing their coverage, and they were reflecting a lot of whites' stereotypes and fears. I was invited to come on and present a black view.
"They -- and not just the Voice -- were covering us by telling us when to mourn, when to protest. Any time a black activist said something, it was deemed outrageous. Their solution to our pain was to tell us to listen to reason." Noel said that his role was "to make sure that black activists like Rev. Al Sharpton, Sonny Carson, Alton Maddox, or C. Vernon Mason had a voice, in a way even white liberals wouldn't understand."
Noel credits the leadership of editor Donald Forst with changing the Voice through tolerance and active pursuit of different views within the left spectrum. "He's an old-school newspaperman, but he knew what he wanted. I'm happy to work with him because he doesn't pull any punches. Yes, he's Jewish, I'm black, he has his baggage, I have mine, but he doesn't foist it on me."
The problem for alternative papers, says Noel, "Is that they still play too much to old assessments of what readers want. They are supposed to look for people who can cover things. In some cases, a black reporter might be the only one who has access [to a certain situation]. They rely on all these studies that are outdated. They can't get beyond their own feelings about whether a black reporter can do the job."
One telling quote from a writer in the IAJ report helps explain the differences that black and white writers' perspectives can have: "I will welcome the day that AAN papers embrace minorities rather than dissect them."
"Papers aren't going to survive without it," one African-American reporter quoted in the report said of racial diversity. "They'll survive in terms of ad revenues and having papers to distribute, but not as relevant vessels of information."
"The Institute for Alternative Journalism study, "Color, Culture, and Compromise," can be read in its entirity at http://www.alternet.org/diversity/
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