Nearly 18 years ago, as an intern in the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Sports Journalism Institute, I wrote a story about the lack of diversity in sports departments. I quoted Justice B. Hill, then sports editor at the News-Sentinel (Indiana), who challenged then-APSE President Dale Bye on the lack of black sports editors at daily newspapers.
At the time there were only two, the other was Garry D. Howard of the Milwaukee Journal – who started the job about a month before I wrote my story in 1994.
In the years since, there have been a few to run sports departments at mainstream dailies. In 2012, only one – Lisa Bell Wilson of the Buffalo News – carries the baton.
“I know things have changed since 18 years ago,” said Hill, a longtime NABJ member who has held various sports editing positions over his 30-year career. “I never thought … today it would be as bad as it is. Sports editors leave, but there is no one of color in the pipeline to fill those jobs. There is no pretense by editors when it comes to diversity.”
Who is responsible for the dearth of diversity in this segment of the industry? The sports editors? Their bosses? Accountability on the issue has jumped around like a hot potato.
Sports journalism can hardly be singled out. A look at the journalism industry as a whole reveals a similar and troubling pattern.
Just last month, NABJ member Steven Gray announced his departure from TIME Magazine, leaving the publication with no black correspondents. In the latest edition of Forbes Magazine, the publication released a list of 30 media members under 30 who were “changing the game.” It was alarming to see no blacks.
Recently, two respected journalists, CBS’ Russ Mitchell and CNN’s T.J. Holmes, left their jobs for new opportunities. Though both of these talented journalists worked for major news networks regarded as destinations for many of their colleagues, these men had long toiled on weekend shifts. Their situation became so out-of-sync with their abilities that they made a decision unheard of just a decade ago: Mitchell returned to the local network level and Holmes left to go to BET.
The moves were personal ones to advance their careers. I salute Mitchell and Holmes for taking a stand for their professional futures and refusing to be marginalized as “weekend warriors” in their respective newsroom.
Since becoming elected as president of the National Association of Black Journalists, I have also heard from many of you about the state of our industry. You have kept me informed on the state of black journalists in mainstream newsrooms. From members being banished to working weekends to filling nearly ten consecutive job openings with white men, NABJ will take a stand against these practices.
Many of you say you have been passed over as those less qualified received opportunities. You’ve also talked about seeing your newsrooms become less reflective of the readers and viewers they seek to attract. This is the trend on cable news networks, which seem to be experiencing a virtual journalism black-out.
Erin Burnett, a show booker for CNN just 10 years ago, has a primetime show on the network. Her story rings familiar for Hill, who over his career has seen qualified black journalists passed over for jobs by less experienced people.
“It seems unfair,” Hill said. “There is no ‘Rooney Rule.’ Diversity used to be a good word. It doesn’t mean anything today.”
NABJ has repeatedly called upon cable news networks to improve their lack of diversity in prime-time programming. Groups like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have echoed the organization’s urgings.
Our concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears, but NABJ will continue to hold the industry accountable.
To that end, NABJ has issued its 2011 Thumbs Down Award collectively to all cable news networks – given for the absence of black journalists working on air, in prime time.
In 2011, NABJ executive board members offered solutions to CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, who seemed receptive. Notably, NBC has made recent progress in further diversifying its non-primetime on-air and management staff.
In September, NABJ released its diversity census of management-level positions at the local and network level during the Congressional Black Caucus‘ annual meeting. The report highlighted some abysmal statistics, putting the spotlight on one of the industry’s under-the-rug secrets: that diversity in the newsroom was not a priority. This report continues to gather momentum, and we aim to hold the networks accountable at the highest levels.
We also have our sights trained on the lack of diversity in the emerging and fast-developing field of new media. As 2010 NABJ Lifetime Achievement Winner Paul Delaney said in his acceptance speech: “We find ourselves fighting for our professional lives. New media resemble old media.”
Indeed, digital sites are popping out in fast numbers, yet black journalists are barely part of the explosion.
In the coming weeks, I am planning a series of advocacy visits to major media outlets, reintroducing them to NABJ and putting them on notice that they cannot afford to dismiss a diverse newsroom, not even in a poor economy that is forcing many newsrooms into survival mode.
When the economy was doing well, diversity failed to reach its full potential. Media companies who think diversity is something they cannot afford must understand that it is something they cannot afford to sacrifice. Diversity is a mindset, and it is NABJ’s job to change the mentalities of these executives.
For those who suggest that they are unable to find talented black journalists, NABJ will offer its own job portal, where our organization will filter and categorize our members’ resumes for companies seeking diverse talent. Their excuses will soon become extinct.
And we continue to challenge all of our media partners to join us in New Orleans at our annual convention and career fair – still the largest of its kind in the country – to not only find talented journalists to hire, but to sit, listen and learn about the challenges facing black journalists in mainstream newsrooms.
NABJ is here to help the industry reach its full potential, but it won’t be easy. Nearly two decades after our first interview, Hill reminds me we are travelling a long road.
“We have taken giant steps back,” he said. “We need to hold people accountable. The industry needs somebody to shape the industry to help it reflect America.”
Amen, Brother Hill. The industry needs NABJ.
Greg Lee is the President of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Sr. Assistant Sports Editor at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at [email protected].