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Jerry Lanson Headshot

Like the GOP, Newspapers Seem Oblivious to America's Changing Face

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If newspapers are a dying industry, they -- like the increasingly irrelevant Republican Party -- have themselves in part to blame.

No, I'm not talking about all those bad early decisions to give news away for free online. I'm not talking about the elitism that kept print newsrooms from integrating new media and multimedia faster and more fully. And I'm not talking about the greed and failure of publishers to reinvest profits in the days when they routinely were in the fat double-digits.

What I'm talking about is newsrooms' failure to respond to -- and reflect -- the changing demographics of America. It is no longer becoming a multicultural and multiracial country. It is one. But newspapers, like the Republican Party, seem unable to grasp this.

The latest example rolled off the presses a few weeks ago. ASNE, the American Society of News Editors, reported that the percentage of minority employees in U.S. newsrooms in 2012 remained stuck at 12.3 percent. The numbers were even worse among newsroom supervisors, the people who assign and edit news stories, the Atlantic reports.

Why is that a big deal, you ask? Well, last year was the first ever in which fewer than half of newborn U.S. babies were non-Hispanic white. That's right. The majority of babies born were "minority."

In just 29 years, in 2042, this "minority" population will outnumber the non-Hispanic white population, the Census Bureau estimates. Among young adults, the next generation of this country's leaders, that change is taking place much more rapidly.

Notes, "Racial and ethnic diversity has grown dramatically in the United States in the last three decades."

None of this comes as a surprise. Yet both the Republican Party and the American newspaper publishers seem content to write off the most rapidly growing parts of the American population. They do so at their own peril.

Republican actions speak for themselves. Just look at the shenanigans as the House leadership tries to stop the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill. It led to a plea -- "Pass the Bill!" -- from conservative columnist David Brooks. And his liberal counterpart,
Paul Krugman, notes that the party's strategy of appealing to blue-collar whites is delusional.

If Republicans belong to a party hell-bent on committing suicide, one would think that newspapers, as part of a business supposedly committed to serving the public, might be a little smarter. Yet their static minority hiring data, year after year, shows no signs of that.

Newsrooms are very white and largely led by males. The makeup of newsrooms is glaringly obvious when they are slow to recognize the importance of big news stories such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But it's even more significant perhaps when they fail to communicate with and cover large swaths of their potential readers.

Wrote Riva Gold in the Atlantic piece, "This means that ... news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and -- especially in cases where language ability is crucial -- even to report on minority populations in their communities."

Handwringing about the lack of newsroom diversity has become a predictable part each year of the ASNE employment census report. In this year's release, Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president/news at the Democrat and Chronicle Media Group, Rochester, and co-chair of the ASNE Diversity Committee, is quoted as saying: "It's terribly disappointing to learn that diversity in newsrooms remains stagnant despite the rapidly changing landscape of America,"

Yes, it is -- particularly given that a decade ago, in 2003, minorities made up 12.53 percent of American newsrooms, slightly more than today. The Atlantic piece notes that union contracts and layoff policies have led newsrooms to fire minorities hired more recently than their white counterparts. But that seems a lame excuse given how many newsrooms have cut salaries and furloughed employees despite unions.

Years ago, when I did some consulting for the Maynard Institute in Oakland, Calif., it defined good storytelling as "showing your community whole." The first step is seeing that community, understanding what goes on there. That doesn't require that the newsroom hire people of the same mix of races and cultures. But it helps. Reporters are human. They, like most of us, tend to turn to those with whom they feel most comfortable. Like it or not, these people often are of similar backgrounds. Diversity of experience, background and exposure in newsrooms breeds richer, subtler and more far-reaching coverage.

There are significant, perhaps even profound, moral arguments to be made for great newsroom diversity. But for brevity, let's forget these.

Let's just think business. No business year after year can ignore its potential customers and survive.

That goes especially for a dying business. Like newspapers.