August 10, 2023 by Christal Cherry
Pictured above: 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up, a collaborative editorial project of YR Media and WNYC’s Radio Rookies.
One of the most rewarding and uplifting journalistic experiences in my career took place around 2005 in a very colorful Chicago-based newsroom — and I’m not just referring to the bright red paint splashed all over the walls.
The staff of the Tribune RedEye, a free print publication aimed at the then-emerging and highly coveted millennial audience, looked a lot different than the rest of the Chicago Tribune, aka “the blue side.”
Not only were some of the RedEye staffers visibly fresh out of college, demographically speaking we were a veritable rainbow coalition with significantly more Black and brown team members working diligently across editorial and design.
The level of racial representation was fitting for a city that, by the most recent Census count, is home to approximately 30% Latine, 29% Black and 7% Asian residents. I remember looking around the room during one of our storied headline huddles and thinking the makeup of the RedEye team could be a harbinger of progress within the industry at large.
Now, some 20 years later, that promise has not yet been fulfilled. Despite some improvements in terms of bringing on board more staffers of color and a righteous proliferation of BIPOC-led outlets, the media industry as a whole is nowhere near as rich with diverse perspectives as one would imagine, even during a time of robot dogs, private space travel and autonomous automobiles.
To quantify, people of color represented a measly 22% of the salaried workforce among newsrooms that responded to the News Leaders Association’s 2019 Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey. Making matters worse, the NLA acknowledges the numbers are of limited use because of a disturbing pattern of extremely low participation by outlets. For this year’s survey, for example, a mere 303 of 2,500 news organizations who were asked to participate did so.
Diversity data is slightly more encouraging among nonprofit newsrooms. According to the Institute for Nonprofit News’ 2021 Index, people of color made up 40% or more of total personnel at more than a third of outlets. Yet elsewhere in the report, it’s revealed that nearly two-thirds of the surveyed organizations still have all-white leadership.
Despite these disappointing data sets and a seeming reluctance to even help track progress, this is not a hopeless situation. It is possible to transform newsrooms across America at a rapid pace befitting this moment in our history. I know this for certain because, nearly two decades after my dalliance with a promisingly more diverse newsroom at RedEye, I am leading a nearly 30-year-old organization that over-indexes in diversity with approximately 80% BIPOC staff and an executive team that is also 80% BIPOC. This percentage mirrors the 14- to 24-year-old content creators we serve and center who are overwhelmingly African American, Asian American, Latine or of Indigenous heritage.
Any outlet can do what YR Media has done, and by incorporating the following five steps both start the work of reversing an unconscionable pattern of inequity and authentically attract the younger, more diverse audience all of us need to succeed.
The lack of transparency around the glaringly underrepresented BIPOC staffers in newsrooms is as disappointing as the lack of progress. In fact, industry leaders’ hypocritical refusal to release data prompted an open letter/petition signed by over a dozen news outlets across the country asking that the Pulitzer Prize require that newsrooms participate in the News Leaders Association’s annual diversity survey by the year 2024 to be considered for award recognition. It is sad that one of the industry’s most respected accolades has to be weaponized in this way. To fix a problem, you have to know its full scope and be willing to disrupt what I call “the pipeline of privilege.” More on that in Step 2.
“Exposure” and “experience” have been the currency of the past, but in 2022 it is clear that expecting free labor from young people of color is in direct opposition to our solemn oaths to do better. The unequal distribution of generational wealth feeds into the aforementioned pipeline of privilege. For instance, the median household wealth for white families is 12 times higher than for Black families, according to the Economic Policy Institute statistics cited by writer Trevor Smith in his aptly titled article “How Unpaid Internships Reinforce the Racial Wealth Gap.”
“This disparity makes it much harder for Black households to weather crises like unemployment or medical emergencies, or to invest in the future,” Smith writes. “And while there are many drivers of this gap, often neglected is the role of unpaid internships, which have grown steadily more pervasive in recent years.”
Because we’re aware of that gap and focus on serving BIPOC youth, YR Media pays all of our young people for their work in our Oakland-based newsroom or as part of our national coalition of contributors. Very recently we added a learning stipend to our arsenal for our media education students. Now, YR’s 14- to 18-year-old students receive stipends for completing our 10-week programming that leads into paid employment as production interns and Fellows. After all, they may be asked to contribute to their family household or forgo their dreams of a creative career. That is not only a loss for them as individuals, but for us as a collective that will not get to hear their voices or witness their talents.
No matter how much of an ally or progressive you think you are, a newsroom cannot satisfy the need for diversity by adding a handful of hires from BIPOC communities. It’s even more horrific when you fall into the trap of hiring “the one.” This individual inevitably (perhaps unintentionally) becomes the person who is expected to ably and autonomously cover or address all the nuances of communities of color (they can’t) and sit in as a proxy on racial discussions as judge and jury (they shouldn’t). I cannot, nor would I ever want to, speak authoritatively on behalf of all Black women. I wouldn’t dare to do that with my own sister, and we are both Black women who were raised in the same house under identical circumstances. It is not only misguided, it is flat-out wrong to place this burden on staffers who come from communities of color and are already likely dealing with some form of impostor syndrome combined with survivors’ guilt because of the rarity of this “seat at the table.” I have held, and absconded from, similar unenviable positions and suspect others with “the one” fatigue will do the same.
Being authentic and empowering in your interactions with younger staff from historically underrepresented backgrounds is critically important, and this is seconded (and thirded) by two YR Media alumni, former Adult ISH co-host Angela “Merk” Nguyen and former youth employee Billy Cruz. Both joined me at the Greater Public Audience Development summit April 26 and spoke on the perils of being POC in public media. One of their concerns: being managed with empathy and understanding, particularly around topics touching on racial identity and perspective. “Really listen, first and foremost,” Nguyen recommended to the audience of approximately 500 in virtual attendance. “All of us are in public media, right? So I would hope we would be good at that. Knowing that you can always improve on that is a good thing. Listening to what this person has to say and giving … equal amounts of constructive feedback with encouragement.”
Let’s assume you’ve taken Nguyen’s excellent advice and are managing your increasingly multicultural team with empathy and authenticity. How do you encourage your talented new teammates to stay? One approach I’ve seen to be successful is providing clear pathways through the organization, with detailed information about what it takes to move up in the (hopefully) increasingly diverse management ranks. Not everyone wants to lead teams or become supervisors, so make space to promote staffers to alternate positions of agency where they are compensated for their expertise or the additional labor they take on. These steps will ensure a more expansive and powerful perspective from your outlet.
This shift should be organic and intentional, and it will lead to changes in who supports your content, according to Cruz. Don’t expect an overnight groundswell in listeners/readers/viewers from communities of color, but do expect immediate improvement in your content. “
There’s a million things we could be doing to get a younger, more diverse audience, but the main thing … is actually wanting them and not just [filling] quotas or mandates,” Cruz said. “It’s about understanding the actual beauty and the abilities and what can be accomplished when you have way more diverse voices.”
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