Di­ver­sity dou­ble-speak

The Times-Tribune - - Op-ed - BY LIZ SPAYD LIZ SPAYD is the pub­lic edi­tor of The New York Times.

Only two of the 20-plus re­porters who cov­ered the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for The New York Times were black. None were Latino or Asian. That’s less di­ver­sity than you’ll find in Don­ald Trump’s Cabi­net thus far. Of The Times’ newly named White House team, all six are white, as is most ev­ery­one in the Wash­ing­ton bureau.

Metro has only three Lati­nos among its 42 re­porters. Sports has one Asian man, a His­panic woman and no African-Amer­i­cans among its 21 re­porters. In Styles, ev­ery writer is white.

The ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor, Dean Ba­quet, is African-Amer­i­can. The other ed­i­tors on his mast­head are white. The staff with the most di­ver­sity? The news as­sis­tants, who get paid the least. The Times can be re­lent­less in ques­tion­ing di­ver­sity at other in­sti­tu­tions. Fix­ing its own prob­lems comes less eas­ily.

The news­room’s blind­ing white­ness hit me when I walked in the door six months ago. It’s hardly a new prob­lem here, but it­per­sists even as the coun­try grows more di­verse and The Times grows more global. The head of that global ex­pan­sion, Ly­dia Pol­green, was one of The Times’ high­est-rank­ing African-Amer­i­can ed­i­tors un­til she left last week to lead The Huff­in­g­ton Post. Her de­par­ture was a blow to mi­nor­ity jour­nal­ists here. In the past three months, I have in­ter­viewed peo­ple across the news­room about race. It left me be­liev­ing there is frus­tra­tion bor­der­ing on anger that would be reck­less not to ad­dress.

Many jour­nal­ists hoped a new era was be­gin­ning 2½ years ago, when Ba­quet be­came the first African-Amer­i­can to over­see the news­room. But di­ver­sity is at 22 per­cent, be­low news­rooms in most big metro ar­eas. And of those who head de­part­ments, three are peo­ple of color.

I asked Ba­quet what he be­lieves mi­nori­ties in the news­room would say about his team’s di­ver­sity.

“I think they’d say we have a prob­lem,” he said. “We’re not di­verse enough. But I think they’d say I have a com­mit­ment to it and that it’s got­ten bet­ter in the past year. My ef­fort to di­ver­sify has been in­tense and per­sis­tent.”

Ba­quet particular­ly means the hand­ful of prom­i­nent black jour­nal­ists he’s helped at­tract, stars like Nikole Han­nah-Jones, Wes­ley Mor­ris and Jenna Wortham.

Many of those I spoke with, in­clud­ing Lati­nos and Asians, said the ar­rival of a few stars can take the fo­cus away from bring­ing in and re­tain­ing di­ver­sity across the room. While big names are cel­e­brated, they can give the ap­pear­ance of more di­ver­sity than there re­ally is.

When you ask man­agers about the is­sue, ev­ery­one seems to care. Col­lec­tively, how­ever, not much changes.

They be­gin by say­ing this is an in­dus­try­wide prob­lem. That is true. On the other hand, it’s also true that data from the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of News Ed­i­tors shows that The Times is less di­verse than large pa­pers like The Wash­ing­ton Post (31 per­cent), The Los Angeles Times (34 per­cent) and The Mi­ami Her­ald (41 per­cent). The Times is more di­verse than The Bos­ton Globe (17 per­cent) and The Philadel­phia In­quirer (14 per­cent).

Given The Times’ am­bi­tions across global cul­tures and lan­guages, it would seem that in­stead of be­ing a lag­ger, it would in­sist on be­ing a leader. I see no sign that this is hap­pen­ing.

“There’s al­ways a rea­son for such lit­tle di­ver­sity in news­rooms. Over the course of time, the rea­sons al­ways change, but the un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion never does,” said Han­nah-Jones, who writes for the Times Mag­a­zine.

Ernesto Lon­dono, who sits on The Times’ edi­to­rial board — and on an Opinion staff lack­ing di­ver­sity — be­lieves the prob­lem lies in a fail­ure of ed­i­tors to step out­side their white-knows-white cir­cles. “It takes a con­certed ef­fort to break out of that habit and tap talent pools that are more di­verse,” Lon­dono said.

Mark Thomp­son, The Times chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, told a group of top lead­ers last spring that man­agers could face dis­missal if they failed to di­ver­sify their staffs. Ba­quet didn’t sound that mil­i­tant, say­ing that his ed­i­tors feel the most pres­sure through a strin­gent ex­pec­ta­tion to bring forth a di­verse ap­pli­cant pool for ev­ery job open­ing. No one has been pun­ished, he says.

I can tell di­ver­sity isn’t a pri­or­ity here by look­ing at what is. Think dig­i­tal tran­si­tion or global ex­pan­sion or sub­scriber growth or vis­ual in­no­va­tion. Di­ver­sity is not at that level, at least yet.

This is­sue has chal­lenged most ev­ery news­room man­ager, my­self in­cluded. The news­room I came from, The Wash­ing­ton Post, is quite di­verse, but its lead­er­ship is heav­ily white and male. At The Times, peo­ple of color seem shut out of cov­eted jobs: the top dig­i­tal strate­gists, man­agers, the pre­cious ranks of cul­tural crit­ics, the White House press corps, the opinion colum­nists, na­tional pol­i­tics jobs.

It is pos­si­ble to change this. But The Times will need more hu­mil­ity, in­tro­spec­tion and open­ness than has been its habit in the past.

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