The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette got a little whiter Friday before last, and a departing black reporter had a few choice things to say about it before the door slammed behind him. His exit raises questions about diversity not only at the D-G, but in print media in general.
Michael Frazier, one of only two blacks on the D-G writing and reporting staff, left to take a job at Newsday in New York City. His final day at the paper was Friday, June 10.
In an e-mail circulated to the staff just before his departure, Frazier listed “The Top 10 Reasons Michael Frazier is Leaving for Newsday in New York.” Frazier listed the No. 1 reason as: “Frazier is no longer an oddity on the city desk. At Newsday, there are reporters who are black, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, and, yes, even shrewd funny-talking women from New Jersey.”
Though Deputy Editor Frank Fellone said that he wasn’t present for Frazier’s going-away speech, he did say that Frazier left the paper on good terms and that they were sorry to see him go. Fellone said that the paper welcomes diversity. “We make an effort to hire good, experienced reporters. Period.”
Helaine Freeman Williams, a 25-year D-G veteran who is now the sole African-American on the reporting staff, said that while the Democrat-Gazette has had other ethnic reporters “come and go” over the years, mostly they were young reporters who used the paper to gain experience before heading elsewhere. “Usually north,” she added.
Asked if the lack of diversity in the D-G newsroom is representative of a larger problem, Williams said that it’s hard to say, given that she’s not on the “recruiting end” of things.
“I personally would like to have some company, quote-unquote,” Freeman said. “But I’d have to be more in the recruiting seat to be able to identify exactly what the problem or the disparity is.”
n Of course, we’d be awful hypocrites if we failed to mention that the Arkansas Times editorial staff of seven is conspicuously white. We’re not alone. An April 2005 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that of 54,130 print journalists working for daily newspapers in America, around 13 percent were minorities — including only 1,567 black reporters nationwide. Forty percent of the papers that responded to the survey listed no minorities on their staff.
Given that — and how quickly this argument can dissolve into a scrap over pots and kettles — it’s easy to see why the issue of diversity in print media goes largely unreported. Bylines don’t come color-coded, and with the reading public often unsure just how many minority reporters are behind the stories they read, no reporter wants to point out the elephant in somebody else’s newsroom because there’s a good chance they’re boarding one of their own.
Dirty little secret or not, Shareese Kondo says there’s really no excuse for white newsrooms anymore. Though Kondo recently made the jump to broadcast media — taking a seat on KATV’s “Daybreak” — her 18 years as a print journalist included a stint as one of the few black reporters at the D-G. “You can’t say it’s because you can’t find qualified writers or reporters or journalists,” she said. “Sorry. That argument lost a long, long time ago. They’re definitely there.” She might have a point. Of the 5,200 graduates of journalism schools every year, around 750 are minorities. While not a staggering number, it does tend to shoot a rather large hole in the idea that minority applicants are so rare as to be unobtainable.
Jeanne Rollberg, UALR associate professor of mass communications, said that the reasons for majority-white newsrooms go deeper than racist hiring policies and papers that don’t want to make the effort. Like Williams, Rollberg points out that with a few years of experience under his belt at a paper like the D-G, a talented minority reporter can find himself wooed by larger and more prestigious organizations with deeper pockets. Many move on. Such a revolving door can be frustrating for recruiters and editors in mid-sized markets who often expend much time and energy seeking out minority J-school grads, only to see them head for greener pastures once they’ve cut their teeth.
While throwing money at the problem might seem like a solution, in addition to being financially impossible for some smaller papers, Rollberg said that can cause problems in the newsroom. “What do you do if you do hire somebody in, but you have to pay them a lot more money?” she said. “That causes disaffection among the ranks of those who’ve been there a long time, even if they’re very pro-diversity and even if they understand the need for it.”
Though Rollberg said increasing diversity in the newsroom is a genuinely perplexing problem, she adds that it’s important for newspapers to make a “good faith effort” to hire minorities. Even then, good faith usually isn’t enough.
“It sounds like it’d be a whole lot easier than it sometimes turns out to be,” Rollberg said. “We don’t do a good job in this community in that respect — when it comes to diversity. But I’m not really clear what the answer is.”
Tips? Hints? Recipes?