In 1968, a report issued by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—better known as the Kerner Commission—excoriated the national press for its role in the racial unrest that rocked America in the summer of 1967.
“The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” the commission wrote. “The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.” Instead, the commission found, American coverage was rife with “the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”
Especially appalling, the commission found, was the dearth of Black journalists in U.S. newsrooms. Fewer than 5 percent of newsroom staff were Black; fewer than 1 percent were editors. “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes,” the commission concluded.
More than 50 years later, after another summer of protest and racial reckoning, too much of what the commission wrote is still true. While there’s no definitive data on the percentage of U.S. newsroom staff today who are Black, research suggests that it’s less than 8 percent—still far too low. Overall, newsrooms are only about half as diverse as the U.S. workforce as a whole.
Controversies over insensitive and racist coverage have embroiled major legacy and digital outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Refinery29, and the Ringer. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, a story about the impacts of unrest on city infrastructure headlined “Buildings Matter Too” led to a staff walkout, a public apology, and the resignation of a top editor. At The New York Times, an op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton calling for military intervention to quell protests led to another high-level editor’s ouster. Many of the paper’s own reporters took to Twitter to declare that the op-ed “puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”
At the same time, energy and interest in a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive media has never been more intense. Nor has the need for it been greater. What has changed is who is leading the way. Champions of media diversity have stopped waiting for the establishment to fix itself. Instead, a new crop of reformers is staging its own insurgency, working outside traditional media and often in spite of it. “I don’t know that we can integrate fairly at this point,” Angela Ford, founder of the Black media start-up Obsidian Collection, says. “It’s time for the world to hear the Black voice from a Black filter.”
The result is a small but already flourishing ecosystem of nonprofits, philanthropic efforts, and media start-ups led largely by people of color. New outlets are serving overlooked communities, experimenting with ways to engage audiences and giving journalists of color a platform for their voice. Media upstart PushBlack, for instance, covers topics like voting rights and criminal justice reform and Black history. Sahan Journal, launched in 2019 by a Somali American reporter, focuses exclusively on the concerns of Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities. Both of these outlets have the financial backing of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund (REJ Fund), an ambitious project recently launched by the Ford Foundation and other partners to grow and sustain an emerging sector in equitable media.
These outlets are critical sources of information for minority communities. But minorities are not the only audience. Billboard magazine, for instance, reported that the singer Mariah Carey urged all of her listeners to follow PushBlack. Sahan Journal won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for a piece on drug overdoses among Minnesota’s East African community. “White audiences are seeing our content and learning,” says Tracie Powell, a former journalist and independent publisher who is now a program officer at Borealis Philanthropy, which works on racial justice in media. “They’re plugged into Black Twitter; they’re seeing content on Facebook and Instagram. They are being exposed and being educated.”
Emerging outlets like these, Powell told me, are not just powerful advocates for communities too long ignored by white-led press, but also catalysts for broader reform. Their goal is to challenge traditional media, to compete against it, and, ultimately, to transform an industry that has been far too reluctant to change.
Journalists of color are justifiably frustrated by traditional media’s lackluster attempts at diversity. There have been umpteen minority fellowships, internships, and splashy awards created by big-city newsrooms. (I got my first clips via a minority high school journalism workshop sponsored by my hometown paper, The Kansas City Star.) But the pace of change has been glacial; diversity efforts have been inauthentic; and journalists of color must still contend with tokenism, stigma, and bias, as well as systemic barriers to entry and promotion. Paul Delaney, who cofounded the National Association of Black Journalists in 1975, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2017 that when he started the NABJ, “we felt empowered, on a righteous mission to lead America in the right direction, to egg it on to finally live up to its promise and principles. We were so naively optimistic back then.”
Here’s one basic problem with the industry: We don’t actually know the share of journalists in U.S. newsrooms who are people of color. According to the News Leaders Association’s 2019 Diversity Survey, people of color make up 21.9 percent of the salaried newsroom workforce and 18.8 percent of newsroom managers. (The U.S. population, by contrast, is 40 percent minority.) However, just 23 percent of U.S. newsrooms participated in the survey, up from only 17 percent the year before.
“As journalists, we put pressure on every industry there is to show us the numbers, give us the information,” Dorothy Tucker, the NABJ’s current president, told me. “Yet we won’t do it. It makes you question whether there is a problem with the numbers.”
Certainly, other white-collar professions face equal or greater problems with diversity. Just 10 percent of lawyers are Black or Hispanic, according to the American Bar Association. Big Tech is also notoriously monolithic. The press, however, has a particular obligation to the public because of its power to shape opinions and events. It has an obligation to employ a workforce that reflects the communities it purports to serve, which makes its failure to do so all the more galling.
Why is it failing so badly? For aspiring journalists of color, perhaps the biggest obstacles are the lack of connections and capital. Minority journalists often have a harder time plugging into the clubby networks of (typically white, typically male) editors looking for talent. “The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA,” Shani Hilton, now deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, wrote in a 2014 Medium piece. “Call it the Twice as Hard Half as Good Paradox: Many of us are so busy working twice as hard and hoping to get noticed that we don’t do the networking that seems like bullshit but is actually a key part of career advancement,” she wrote.
Many young people of color also can’t afford the luxury of an unpaid internship or the underpaid life of a freelancer, often prerequisites for scraping together enough bylines to land a full-time job. In a 2015 analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review, Alex Williams found that while 66 percent of white journalism graduates found jobs in print or broadcasting in 2013, the placement rate for minority graduates was only 49 percent. Part of the problem, Williams surmised, was that minority students were less likely to have worked for their campus newspapers or to have had unpaid internships.
“If you’re Black or brown and you grew up in a low-income working-class community, you’re starting from behind compared to a middle-class white person who can rely on generational wealth while they pursue their passion career,” says Manny Ramos, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who described his own start in journalism as “extremely difficult.” “At one point, I had an internship at a local paper, I worked full-time, and I went to school full-time,” he told me. “I had no life and was barely sleeping. A lot of people can’t do that.”
For journalists of color who do make it through the door, the challenges continue. Minority journalists are often seen, not heard, their advice ignored. The result is another frustration: missed stories and unbalanced coverage that too often depends on stereotypes and assumptions—and leads to the kinds of controversies that beset big newsrooms over this past summer.
Promotion and influence are the next big hurdles. Diversity efforts often end at the entry level, with little thought to retention and advancement. “They bring this person in and give them the ‘Black spot.’ Unfortunately, too often, they don’t do much more than that,” the NABJ’s Tucker said. This is one reason why upper management in media is even less diverse than the rank and file. For instance, just 8.2 percent of radio news directors are people of color, according to a 2019 survey by the Radio Television Digital News Association. Just 5.5 percent of TV news directors are Black—down from 6.4 percent in 2018.
Sadly, things aren’t likely to get better. Many newsrooms, financially strapped even before the pandemic, now see diversity as an unaffordable luxury. The NABJ said that as many as half of its members surveyed have been furloughed or laid off. “If it was hard to get diversity, inclusion, and representation before, it’s that much harder now because people are getting laid off, the industry is shrinking, and there’s a panicked focus on profit,” says Jessica Clark, founder of the media strategy firm Dot Connector Studio and a consultant to the Ford Foundation.
This bleak landscape in traditional media is why a growing number of journalists, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropists are embracing a different vision of diversity in media, and a different means to achieve it. They’re tired of fighting for a place at the table, and then fighting for the kind of coverage they’d like to see. For these reformers, diversity goes beyond the integration of big-city newsrooms. Rather, it’s about multiplying the number of voices so that disparate communities are better equipped with news and information relevant to them. Instead of writing about their communities for primarily white audiences, they’re writing for these communities as active members.
“Let’s be honest,” Borealis Philanthropy’s Powell said. “We have been begging, pleading, crying, yelling at the top of our lungs for news organizations to reflect the communities they say they serve. And those organizations made it very, very clear that they are not serving the Black and brown people in their communities . . . At what point do you say, let’s stop? At what point do you try something different?”
Among the journalists who broke from the establishment to blaze their own trail is Sahan Journal founder Mukhtar Ibrahim, whose editors at Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune discouraged him from pursuing stories about the area’s immigrants. “I worked hard to open pathways to communities that were invisible to mainstream reporters,” he wrote in The Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal. “I realized, however, that editors and reporters were not committed to forging new relationships with these communities.” Ibrahim launched Sahan Journal in August 2019.
The journal is part of a larger boom in nonprofit publishing, much of it driven by journalists and social entrepreneurs who put diversity, equity, and inclusion at the heart of their mission. The Institute for Nonprofit News reports that its membership is approaching 300, double what it was three years ago. Many of these new outlets are aimed at serving diverse populations, which is why the universe of nonprofit news is decidedly more inclusive than traditional, for-profit media. According to the INN’s 2020 Diversity Index, roughly one in three nonprofit news employees is a person of color, as is one in five executives. “These younger organizations are diverse from the get-go,” the INN’s executive director, Sue Cross, told me.
These outlets’ strategies are also as diverse as their staffs. PushBlack, which reaches nine million readers exclusively through text messages and social media, runs campaigns on voter education and criminal justice reform in addition to its stories on Black news and history. MLK50 is a Tennessee-based investigative news organization founded in 2017 by the veteran reporter Wendi Thomas. In 2019, Thomas partnered with ProPublica on a series that led to the forgiveness of $11.9 million in hospital debts owed by low-income patients of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.
Nonprofits are also still working to desegregate traditional newsrooms. The NABJ, for instance, hopes to turn up the pressure on pipelines for retention and promotion so that more journalists of color populate the ranks of top management, as well as the highest echelons of investigative and political reporters. At the entry level, Report for America trains and places emerging journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues and communities. This year, it placed 226 reporters in 47 states, in a variety of outlets ranging from big-city newsrooms to digital-only start-ups. The organization also pays half of reporters’ salaries, enabling outlets to get coverage they otherwise couldn’t afford. “I like to think that I’m good enough to get hired,” says Obed Manuel, a Report for America corps member placed with The Dallas Morning News. “But I do believe that without the funding, I’m not sure the newspaper was looking to bring in another Hispanic issues reporter.” Manuel has since been hired full-time.
The emerging diversity ecosystem also has its share of for-profit outlets experimenting with new models for generating revenue. The Chicago-based Obsidian Collection, for instance, aims to launch a stock photo service composed exclusively of images licensed from Black legacy newspapers and photographers. The founder, Angela Ford, is currently working to digitize nine million images from the archives of Black newspapers across the country, including such storied outlets as her hometown’s Chicago Defender. She’s also working on a separate portal for Black photojournalists to upload and sell their work. “When we protest, when we celebrate, we want those images through the eyes of Black photo-journalists available to Black media,” she said. “This gives photojournalists a revenue stream and the Black media access to images in a timely manner they can afford.”
Despite the flurry of innovation, however, many new outlets are still financially fragile. A Borealis survey of 114 outlets led by and for people of color found that nearly four in five organizations have staffs of five or fewer and that one-third have experienced layoffs. Just 39 percent of outlets reported revenues of more than $100,000 (though one-fifth also declined to answer).
To preserve the progress made so far, the Ford Foundation, along with the Democracy Fund, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and other partners, launched the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund in September 2019 with $6.1 million in initial commitments. Administered by Borealis, the fund distributed $2.3 million to 16 outlets in April 2020 led by and serving communities of color. It hopes to grow to $30 million over the next three years, according to cofounder Farai Chideya, a program officer at the Ford Foundation. The grantees include PushBlack, Sahan Journal, and MLK50; Black legacy outlets such as The New York Amsterdam News and The Atlanta Voice; organizations such as Buffalo’s Fire, which serves tribal communities in the Northern Great Plains; La Noticia, a Spanish-language outlet based in North Carolina; and WURD Radio, Pennsylvania’s only Black-owned commercial talk radio station. Many of these are helping keep local news alive in places where regional newspapers have collapsed.
One purpose of the REJ Fund is to help fix an imbalance in philanthropic funding for media initiatives led by people of color. According to a report by Chideya for the Ford Foundation, media outlets serving diverse communities received just 8 percent of journalism philanthropy funding granted between 2013 and 2017.
Given how much has already been achieved by outlets operating on a shoestring, the potential impact at scale could be transformative. “What I believe in this moment is that the field is being remade,” said the INN’s Sue Cross. “It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t dissipate.”
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded its report with a call to action, urging that “the painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.” What’s demanded, the commission continued, is “fair and courageous journalism—commitment and coverage that are worthy of one of the crucial domestic stories in America’s history.” Traditional media outlets have so far failed to live up to that charge, but the new wave of media reformers—led by and for people of color—could be the ones who make a truly equitable media a reality.