06/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American Journalism Must Embrace Diversity as Well as Digital Technology

To steal a line from Gloria Steinem, the truth about journalism will set you free. But first it will piss you off.

Earlier this week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors held its annual meeting in Washington, DC. On Sunday, the first day of the conference, ASNE just released its latest annual report on diversity. Under the soft-ball headline "Decline in newsroom jobs slows," the organization revealed that the number of minority newspaper journalists in America decreased by 0.15 percent in 2009. That may not sound like much, but it leaves minority newsroom participation at 13.26 percent. By contrast, one-third of the United States population is Latino, African-American, Asian-American or Native American. According to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the corresponding figures are 8.9 percent minority employment in radio newsrooms; and 21.8 percent in television. (Those are also both down from last year, and the ASNE diversity numbers are down two years in a row.)

Yes, we're fighting our way through the economic downturn, plus facing a massive business- and editorial-model restructuring of news. But these employment numbers beg the question whether the industry has taken the downturn as a sign it can become more segregated with impunity. If so, that's not just morally wrong. It's dumb. The majority of population growth in America will come from non-white and Latino families. The Census estimates that by the year 2042, the nation will be "majority-minority." While white Americans are more likely to go online using laptops and desktops, blacks and Latinos are most likely to use their mobile devices and phones to get information. The good news is that the digital divide has morphed into more of a digital crossroads, with people connecting different ways. We journalists can also find new ways to reach America, but we need a clear moral vision about why diversity matters as well as an exuberance about the promise of technology.

In this digitally connected world, we are relying more and more on the audience to help report news. Through initiatives from CNN's iReport to American Public Media's Public Insight Network, citizens are helping to produce journalism. We are still trying to define what lies in the space between passive audience and professional journalist, a space that will include many people with different skills playing different roles. The promise of truly reaching into all communities to deliver and solicit information is tremendously exciting. Yet one sure way to undermine the future of collaborative, ethically-sound journalism is to block newsroom diversity.

I use the word "block" as opposed to "omit," because in a time when so many journalists have been fired, there is more journalistic talent on the market than there has ever been. If you as an organization can't hire a diverse staff (particularly in a major market), you are not doing your job. (I can't help but think of heat that AOL deservedly took late last year for starting Sphere, a news site, with an all-white 17 person startup team.)

What should we in the business do? First, reassess our goals. In 2000, ASNE made this statement part of its mission:

To cover communities fully, to carry out their role in a democracy, and to succeed in the marketplace, the nation's newsrooms must reflect the racial diversity of American society by 2025 or sooner. At a minimum, all newspapers should employ journalists of color and every newspaper should reflect the diversity of its community.

We can articulate a more modest goal: for example, to grow newsroom diversity in each field by at least half a percent a year nationwide. Then, we hold news organization leaders accountable for improving the diversity "bottom line" as well as the fiscal one. UNITY, an umbrella group which represents journalists of color, has offered to help. The ethnic journalism associations can focus on training journalists of color in digital skills. (They also ought not get too cozy with corporations to criticize them when needed.)

I think back to the origins of the contemporary debates about newsroom diversity.... the assassinations and riots of the 1960s which required that black "copy boys" act as reporters. The subsequent Presidential Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) spoke about the need to create a unified journalism that bridged "two Americas." Now, we have many Americas, based on language, culture, geography, and ideology. We need a unified journalism that uses technology in the service of news, informing the many Americas in the digital age, for the good of all involved.