Changing the complexion of news media calls for revolución

Zita Arocha

It’s time to shatter the myth that young Latino journalists won’t leave home for jobs in news media.
This thought and others flashed in neon across my mind as I sipped white wine recently in a San Antonio ballroom to celebrate 30 years of tilling the soil to transform newsrooms into diverse work places by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
As the speeches and awards played out on stage, I recalled the offensive words of a top news media recruiter not so many years ago.  The recruiter, in his early fifties, had come from Washington, DC to UT El Paso, where I teach journalism, to meet with our journalism students. We thought he was coming to talk about jobs and internships.
Instead he lambasted me and my journalism colleagues for producing journalism graduates who “aren’t aggressive enough, do not speak up and refuse to leave home for jobs elsewhere.”

Old stereotypes linger among recruiters

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Journalism educators from Hispanic-serving institutes train on multimedia reporting during a workshop at UT El Paso. Photo by Kate Gannon

While we were all too stunned to respond, his insensitive comments didn’t surprise me.  I’d heard them before. Throughout many decades of championing diversity in news media and attending “minority” journalism conferences, other media recruiters and trainers have expressed similar sentiments, although in private, about Latino journalism students like the ones I teach on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The trope goes like this: Because Hispanic students aren’t willing to leave home (be it El Paso, Miami, San Diego, Imperial Valley, you plug in any city) to take great news job elsewhere why bother recruiting them?

If the perception I have encountered about young Latino journalists were true, how come our modest journalism program at my Hispanic Serving Institution has placed over the last decade hundreds of young journalists and other media majors of color in internships and jobs in places like Mexico City, Connecticut, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington state, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Tampa, Dallas, and Phoenix? While some Latino students do stay close to home after graduation, so do graduates of all colors in all parts of the country.

Yes, my students are polite and family oriented.  Since when are these negative qualities?   I’d much rather turn out young journalists who listen politely and aren’t afraid to ask hard questions and get the story than tactless bulldog reporters. A bulldog journalist may get the incendiary quote or be the first on the scene but often misses the real story.

Few media companies investing in the future

In light of these stereotypical attitudes and the crisis facing legacy media, is it any wonder that the discussion about getting newsrooms to reflect our nation’s racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity has fizzled?  The talk now is about the desperate struggle to survive and how to find new models to pay for news content.

News managers should know that when news outlets don’t reflect their diverse communities they risk becoming irrelevant or worse.  Yet they still don’t get it.

Thus, the latest ASNE 2014 minority newsroom numbers didn’t at all shock me. Before the economic downtown slammed us seven years ago, the results of the annual report that counts women and people of color working in U.S. newspaper newsrooms elicited widespread public comment and much newsprint. This year, there was nary a whisper about the results that were released just before the NAHJ conference.

Take a look. Hispanic journalists make up little more than 4 percent of the nation’s print news workforce, about the same percentage as a decade ago. And, with newsrooms shedding jobs faster than rabbits can breed, the number of Hispanic news professionals declined 32 percent in the last six years. This year there are 1,637 Hispanics working in newspaper newsroom, this means there are 766 fewer Latinos in print newsroom today than there were 10 years ago.

More troubling to me as a journalism educator is the decline in news interns of color. News internships are a proven step through the front door and often lead to real job offers for young people.  The ASNE report says that in 2008 there were 706 interns of color in newspaper newsrooms, but last year they dropped to 382. Overall, less than a quarter of all interns last year were young people of color.

As champions of newsroom diversity, we have tried shaming, cajoling and even pleading for a place at the table. We give awards to news outlets that seem to be doing a good job at diversifying. We have even managed to convince a handful of major funders to spend their money on ambitious diversity initiatives. Unfortunately, when the economy tanked so did these programs.  A few foundations like Dow Jones News Fund and Scripps Howard Foundation have continued to fund training and internships for young journalists of color. But even these valiant efforts are tiny drops in an inky ocean.

Time to reboot diversity in media strategies

What we need now is a transformational initiative for diversity in media like the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education that has modernized journalism curriculum and turned classrooms into newsrooms at the major J schools to reflect the digital and technological skills needed for 21st century jobs in news.

Given that past piecemeal approaches have had limited success, let’s launch a bold diversity initiative that brings various stakeholders (the corporate, business and news side of media, the new giant online players, the journalism academy, public education innovators, futurists, technologists and media foundations) to one table to brainstorm collaborative strategies and tools to make it happen in my lifetime.

If we were able to transform journalism education in less than a decade, we can solve the diversity problem.  It will take a similar revolution and many more innovative efforts like borderzine.com, a teaching newsroom and online publishing network that provides student journalists training in writing, reporting, technology and multimedia, places them in internships across the land and helps with post graduation professional development.

In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to prepare the new generation of bright, talented bilingual, multimedia-savvy journalism students of color ready for emerging jobs with all types of media. And guess what?  They are ready for the revolución and eager to leave home to join it.

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4 Comments

  • Felix Gutierrez says:

    Zita: Thanks for reinforcing the important points in making the case for diversity. Hope this has an impact on the folks who can make things happen.
    Siempre Adelante,
    Felix

  • Manuel De La Rosa says:

    Very nicely stated. If the industry wants people of color, they first must open the doors. I don’t understand why those doors aren’t being opened. It’s disturbing to see the numbers go down and not up. Keep educating the kids and hopefully that trend will change. I hope this piece will educate mangers that they need to open the doors

  • Jonathan Higuera says:

    Well put, Zita. Thanks for expressing that perspective.

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