In Depth

NABJ: Economy's Cuts Felt Deeply by Minorities

By Allison J. Waldman

The main objective of the 2009 National Association of Black Journalists conference, being held this month in Tampa, Fla., is to help members reinvent themselves professionally, either by expanding their skills to encompass new forms of media or guiding them onto other career paths.

Widespread unemployment, little or no job security and the need to evolve to keep up with a rapidly transforming profession are challenges currently faced by all journalists. But some observers contend that journalists of color have been more vulnerable than others in this troubled economic environment.

According to Hub Brown, chair of the communications department and professor of broadcast journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, N.Y., journalists of color make up a much smaller share of newsroom populations than they do of the population of the country as a whole.

“The organization Unity: Journalists of Color has noted the decline in employment among minorities in journalism, and according to them and others, that decline is steeper than it is for non-minorities in the business,” he said, adding, “The economic downturn is rolling back progress already made, and will in the short term result in newsrooms that look less like the country than they do now.”

Corroborating Unity’s assertion is a report released early this year by the American Society of News Editors that found that 13.5 percent of black newspaper journalists lost their jobs in 2008.
“The ASNE 2008 newsroom census confirmed what many in journalism already knew to be true on an anecdotal level: Journalists of color are leaving the industry in disproportionate numbers, whether because of layoffs, buyouts or resignations,” said Angie Chuang, assistant professor at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C.

“There was an overall 11.3 percent decrease in newsroom employment, but for black journalists that was 13.5 percent, and for Asians that was 13.4 percent. The percentage of minorities in supervisory positions went down as well, from 11.4 to 11.2 percent, which seemed significant given that recruitment and retention efforts for managers of color had been growing that number in past years,” she said.

“It may be a first-hired, last-fired layoff policy—or that younger journalists may feel more free to start second careers,” said Chuang. “But since many buyouts target older journalists, there may be a counterbalancing effect.”

According to Deborah Potter, a veteran journalism trainer, reporter and writer, who has been executive director of NewsLab, a nonprofit journalism resource in Washington, D.C., since 1998, it’s members of the upper echelon, whatever their color, who have taken the brunt of the economic crisis in journalism, not necessarily most recently hired—the latter category one that often includes minority journalists, many of whom are among a news organization’s younger staffers.

“Certainly the high-profile departures we’ve seen wouldn’t necessarily indicate that people who came in last are going out first,” Potter said.

“I don’t want to sound like a Pollyana, because I know it’s tough out there economically—it’s especially tough if you’re someone whose job is in jeopardy—but in the long term, if newsrooms survive, they may well be hiring younger, less expensive people to do some of the work,” she said.
Potter said that’s particularly the case at TV stations. “People who have been there a long time are getting axed, not necessarily last-hired, first-fired,” Potter said. “A lot of stations have decided to shed their largest salaries in order to save money, and those typically go to longtime, on-air people.”

Hiring younger, less experienced—and less expensive—talent may well be the trend for the foreseeable future. And with that, Potter believes, could come more opportunities for journalists of color.

“It’s entirely possible that there are opportunities out there. In fact there were some data that I think came out recently from the newspaper industry talking about journalism students being able to get jobs in their field—journalism—which, frankly, was a surprise since everything we’ve read is that newsrooms are shrinking,” Potter said. “A former colleague of mine talks about a forest fire burning through the newsroom and getting rid of a lot of old, dead wood. Any time that happens, young sprouts spring up.”

Those new faces, fortunately, will continue to reflect the diversity in American media. And just because there are now virtual newsrooms where reporters don’t interact, does not mean that diversity doesn’t matter, Potter noted.

“Diversity doesn’t just have to do with the face behind the camera or somewhere in the newsroom. It has to do with the kinds of stories that you’re going to report,” Potter said.

“By the way, diversity is a pretty big umbrella. It encompasses not just racial and gender and sexual orientation, but income and background and all kinds of things,” she added. “The more diverse your newsroom, no matter where people are physically located, the better the reporting. I don’t think [online journalism] in any way downgrades the need for diversity.”