Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity Thirty years ago, the National Association of Black Journalists was created. Then, African Americans held few jobs in the new business. A visit to two newsrooms shows what has changed... and what hasn't.
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Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity

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Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity

Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity

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Thirty years ago today, a group of reporters met here in Washington to announce the creation of a new organization, the National Association of Black Journalists. At the time, African-Americans held few jobs in newsrooms, and the news organizations involved provided spotty coverage of many issues important to blacks. NPR's David Folkenflik recently visited two newspapers to see how much has changed.


Glenn Proctor strolls briskly through the newsroom of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Mr. GLENN PROCTOR (Richmond Times-Dispatch): This is a newsroom of slightly less than 200.

FOLKENFLIK: He became the executive editor here just last month, and the 59-year-old ex-Marine quickly made clear who's in charge.

Mr. PROCTOR: I said, `This is my newsroom,' and I repeated that several times. For the first part of this experience here, I need to know everything that's going on in this newsroom, and I need to see how it works, how it doesn't work. Am I micromanaging? Yes, yes. So in that context, yes, it's my newsroom.

FOLKENFLIK: Proctor faces the same problems that confront editors elsewhere. He says his greatest priority is to reverse slides in circulation.

Mr. PROCTOR: Too often we're giving readers our choices, you know, because we think it's a big-deal story. You know, Iraq is big just because it's a big national, international story, but is that really what the Times-Dispatch readers really want to see?

FOLKENFLIK: He says the best way to attract readers is to break news. Two weeks' worth of front pages are pinned to a newsroom wall. Proctor points to one page dominated by a story about the trial of a white Richmond police officer who killed a black youth.

Mr. PROCTOR: A lot of the black leadership went to the police department and, you know, wanted to talk about the way certain police officers act in minority neighborhoods, and so, yeah, it was a case that drew a lot of--a lot of interest.

FOLKENFLIK: Sales of the paper spiked up that day. Glenn Proctor's appointment also sparked a lot of interest in town. He's the first black editor ever to lead the paper. Black editors hold the top jobs at newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit and Denver, but that's about it for the nation's biggest dailies.

Richmond's a city with a complicated racial history. Its current mayor was once the first black politician to be elected governor of an American state. But Richmond also served as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and many people say the Times-Dispatch and its sister paper, the defunct News-Leader, propelled hostility toward racial integration in Virginia. Raymond Boone is the founder of the black alternative weekly, the Richmond Free Press.

Mr. RAYMOND BOONE (Richmond Free Press): We are on deadline now, and...

FOLKENFLIK: He's nearly a decade older than Proctor, and his career took him to several African-American newspapers. Sometimes his paper covers controversies at the Times-Dispatch.

Mr. BOONE: It is also referred to as the Richmond Times-Disgrace, because this paper has been the source of much racial divisiveness in this community and, indeed, this state.

FOLKENFLIK: Despite Proctor's appointment, Boone is skeptical that much has changed. But Times-Dispatch publisher Thomas Silvestri says the paper should be judged by its current performance, not its past, and Andy Lewis, a civil rights historian at the University of Richmond, cites Proctor's arrival as fresh evidence of a new South.

Mr. ANDY LEWIS (University of Richmond): To have an African-American editor of a paper that represented the segregationist position with such strength is surprising, and I took it as a real sign of change.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times-Dispatch hired its first full-time black reporter in 1979, four years after the founding of the National Association of Black Journalists. Since then, the combined percentage of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans at daily newspapers has more than tripled. The numbers are higher for television news, but the figures still lag behind those for minorities in the work force.

At his last job at the Newark Star-Ledger, Glenn Proctor recruited journalists with widely varying backgrounds, focusing not just on race but on religion, political outlook, financial status and work experience. He says he once hired an aspiring reporter because he had managed a rock band. Proctor also had an unconventional introduction to journalism. He was 23, back from the Marines, when he got caught up in a confrontation in a small town west of Philadelphia.

Mr. PROCTOR: There was a shootout amongst a motorcycle gang and a bunch of black men. I was there with a bunch of friends. It was a hot August day and things just unfortunately escalated.

FOLKENFLIK: The sight of reporters covering the scene stuck with him.

Mr. PROCTOR: You know, I saw them kind of from afar. It was just fascinating to me.

FOLKENFLIK: Proctor called up one reporter and ultimately got a job nearby, at the local paper. He says he's also sought to be the best journalist he could, not the best black journalist, even as he breaks new ground at the Richmond paper.

Mr. PROCTOR: I don't profess to know all the history of the newspaper. I'm here to do a good job as the editor and not to wear race or any other thing on my sleeve.

FOLKENFLIK: American newsrooms are far more embracing of the push for diversity than they were 30 years ago. About 100 miles north of Richmond at The Washington Post cafeteria, you'll find prominent white and black journalists, the kind of folks who pop up on the Sunday television talk shows. It's a place where people gather to hash over issues of the day and issues involving the paper itself. Richard Prince is a copy editor on The Post's foreign desk. He's active in the Black Journalism Association and writes a blog on diversity. He says there was a lot of talk a year ago when The Post passed over a black senior editor for the second highest editing job.

Mr. RICHARD PRINCE (The Washington Post): Gene Robinson, who's African-American and was very popular in the newsroom, was not chosen, and people felt that there was a glass ceiling.

FOLKENFLIK: Some employees challenged the selection of Philip Bennett, who is white. Prince says The Post leadership heard the message.

Mr. PRINCE: Surprisingly, The Post has since that time last November made remarkable strides in promotions of people of color to key positions of the newspaper.

FOLKENFLIK: The Post now has the highest levels of black and minority journalists ever, but new managing editor Phil Bennett says that's not enough. He looks to The Post's falling circulation and says it needs to capture a region with a strong black population and a booming Latino presence. Bennett says readers make snap decisions about papers, even on such fleeting things as photographs on the front page.

Mr. PHILIP BENNETT (The Washington Post): And if all of those are, you know, white guys in ties, they don't feel connected to the paper in the way that they should.

FOLKENFLIK: Thirty years ago, similar concerns helped to drive the creation of the National Association of Black Journalists. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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