In Depth

Keeping His Eye on Diversity

By Deborah Kaufman

O. Ricardo Pimental, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, is editor of the editorial pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a position he has held since June 2004.

Before joining the Sentinel, Mr. Pimental held editorial positions with the Sacramento Bee, the Fresno Bee, the Stockton Record, the Tucson Citizen and the San Bernardino County Sun. He was a Washington, D.C., correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Arizona Republic, writing on public policy with a focus on Latino affairs. He also is the author of two books of fiction, "House With Two Doors" and "Voices From the River."

He recently spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Debra Kaufman about the effects of the economic crisis on Hispanic journalists, and how his organization is helping its members prepare for a future in which the profession will be very different than it is today.

TelevisionWeek: As we go into NAHJ 2009, how are the economy and, at the same time, the crisis in media impacting Hispanics in the newsroom? Are Hispanic journalists losing ground?

O. Ricardo Pimentel: Yes, they are, particularly when viewed within a certain context. Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of our population, and yet their numbers have gone down in the nation's newsrooms. This is borne out by the ASNE's (American Society of News Editors) most recent survey.

While the losses were not as pronounced for Hispanics as they were for African Americans and Asians, it did occur. And in the context of the Hispanic population growth, any loss is puzzling, given that newspapers and broadcast news have an obligation to cover the communities in their midst.

Part of this is a matter of last hired/first fired. Minorities tend to be on the lower rungs in the newsroom. They're often the younger folks. And in shops with union contracts, this could be a factor. We plan to explore that issue, among others, in a proposed Unity summit on diversity that we're trying to convene with various stakeholders in August.

It could also be a matter of folks seeing the writing on the wall and bailing for other jobs out of the news industry. Perhaps it's a combination of factors, but in any case, the industry is ill-served by not paying more attention to retention of minorities, even in this economic downturn.

TVWeek: What other events have been seminal over the last year for Hispanic journalists and readers/viewers?

Mr. Pimentel: The economic downturn is the shadow that casts a pall on all of us right now. It has caused newspapers and TV stations to cut staff. And they're doing it, in my view, without proper regard to what's lost when it comes to diversity and what's lost when diversity suffers. The ability to cover various communities suffers.

But that's not to say that when the economy gets better, our troubles go away. I think there's something more fundamental happening in media that the industry is going to have to pay attention to, meaning changes in how people consume news and how advertisers buy advertising. These things will not go away just because the economy gets better. The industry will need to pay more attention to this, and to their credit, a lot of folks are.

TVWeek: Do you believe that a paucity of Latino journalists will negatively impact coverage of issues relevant to the Hispanic community?

Mr. Pimentel: The whole immigration issue, while that's not the only issue affecting Hispanics, looms large. We worry about a news industry's ability to cover such a complex issue when you don't have the people on staff who understand all the nuances and sensibilities inherent to the issue. The election of President Obama heralds a potential for broad immigration reform to occur, which means that it will be in the news even more than it has been. And the announcement by the Department of Homeland Security to focus on employers rather than just workers also has implications for how people will cover this story. But it all comes down to if you're going to have the people in-house to cover the story.

TVWeek: What has the NAHJ been doing over the last year to improve the situation of Hispanic journalists?

Mr. Pimentel: We have looked at ways internally that we can help members who have lost jobs find jobs. It has become somewhat of a full-time task for one member of our staff. In addition, we are crafting training programs aside from the ones held at our convention. We'll take this training out on the road to the various regions, in keeping with what we've done before. The need has never been as dire as it is now. It's all about membership services for us these days. We've had to focus on helping our members stay afloat.

TVWeek: What about the next generation of Hispanic journalists? Are Hispanic youth gravitating toward careers in journalism or not?

Mr. Pimentel: We've not found any loss of appetite among the students to go to these programs. I think there is broad recognition, even in journalism schools, that journalism will survive in some form. What form that takes is a big question. But one thing everyone is fairly certain of is that it'll be a multimedia future. Reporters can't just be print reporters and TV reporters can't just be TV reporters.

TVWeek: Does new media offer more possibilities for Hispanic journalists?

Mr. Pimentel: One of the bright spots of the ASNE survey was the increase in diversity among online staff. I think new media does represent opportunity for entrepreneurial journalism, for creating your own Web sites. The barrier to entry has become much easier.

What we have to watch for is whether the kind of big journalism that TV and newspapers do now--the watchdog journalism--continues to survive. While new media holds a lot of promise, the fact is that new-media business model hasn't so far been able to support the kind of big watchdog journalism that requires large staff and a commitment of time. I know there's a sense that newspapers are broken, that TV news is broken, but it's not the news part that's broken.

TVWeek: Looking forward, are you optimistic at all?

Mr. Pimentel: Maybe I'm being naïve, but I think journalism will survive because it has to. Our democratic society demands it. It will be far different than it is today and I'm less confident that we're moving quickly enough on fixing the business model to make that happen. But it will survive in some form. Latino journalists will be integral because they have skills that are shared by journalists generally and have additional skills with being bicultural and, in many cases, bilingual. There's a continuing need for Latino journalists. And NAHJ will continue to help the industry understand that, to cover the stories it needs to, it needs Latino journalists and other journalists of color.