Newsroom diversity efforts have failed. It’s time to take a structural approach

Journalism / Article

On August 5, 2019, Knight Foundation made a $1.2 million investment in a new diversity, equity and inclusion transformation program at the Maynard Institute. LaSharah S. Bunting, director of journalism at Knight, explains how this is different from past approaches. 

Despite decades of warnings, diversity in newsrooms is still one of the most pressing challenges facing the journalism industry. For years, journalism organizations founded and led by people of color have worked tirelessly to advocate for more diversity in staffing and coverage, particularly through training and development opportunities. Still, institutional efforts to address the issue have historically ranged from ineffective to nonexistent. 

Many news organizations, now eager to build digital subscription or membership programs, have turned their focus to audience engagement, only to find a need to repair broken connections to underserved communities that no longer trust them — a particularly difficult task when newsroom leaders and staff don’t reflect the communities they serve. 

People of color made up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2018 Census Bureau figures. In comparison, only 16.55 percent of journalists in U.S. newsrooms in 2017 were people of color — down from 16.94 percent in 2016, according to the American Society of News Editors’ newsroom census. Of all newsroom leaders in 2017, only 13.4 percent were people of color.  (The most recent census in 2018 saw a historic low for participating news organizations, and, as a result, there is insufficient data to cite industry-wide statistics.) 

The common solutions to the failures in diversity follow a well-worn path: convene a diversity committee to provide a set of recommendations for its leadership to choose from; focus on hiring more journalists of color, but essentially disregard why others can’t be retained; or appoint a leader to address diversity and inclusion, but in a role that often lacks true power and resources. 

While these approaches can have some positive impact, they rarely address the institutional racism and unconscious biases that pervade many news organizations. Often these solutions put the burden on the people of color to solve the deep wounds of the institution. As a result, organizations at large rarely confront and address the systemic and cultural issues that have been allowed to persist. 

There is no easy solution. The same intentional, strategic approach many news outlets have embraced to transform themselves into digital-first operations must also be used to address issues of diversity. 

If news outlets are to survive, they must engage new and younger audiences who are increasingly more diverse. They need to be relevant to the people who live in their communities and attract and nurture a diverse workforce. They must commit to making comprehensive structural changes to their organizational cultures, putting the onus on all leadership and staff — not just the people of color.

Knight Foundation’s $1.2 million investment in  the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, announced today, is an attempt to help newsrooms rethink solutions to the diversity crisis. Maynard will use the new funding to launch its Equity and Inclusion Transformation Program, embedding specialists in newsrooms to help them better inform underserved communities and establish more equitable and inclusive workplaces.

Maynard’s embedded coaches will assess the organization’s internal processes, workplace culture, connection to community, hiring and retention rates, and its leadership’s management skills, among other elements. From there, Maynard will then work closely with the outlet to devise strategies, plans and benchmarks to become more equitable and inclusive, and provide the necessary training and oversight to accomplish this goal. 

This next phase of Maynard’s work builds off its decades-long legacy of diversity training in newsrooms across the country, and helps newsrooms shift their core values and priorities to include diversity, equity and inclusion. With this investment, Maynard will also work with newsroom leaders across the country participating in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as “Table Stakes.” The funding is part of a $300 million Knight initiative focused on strengthening local news and democracy.

This is a strong step forward in rethinking how we begin to address the failures in diversity. For those of us working hard to improve diversity in the industry — whether journalists or funders — we must demand organizations urgently address the systemic issues, prioritize long-lasting solutions and remake themselves in a way that is equitable, inclusive and equipped to serve all communities. 

A robust, diverse press leads to a more informed and engaged public, and communities ultimately lose out when certain voices and experiences are routinely absent. News organizations must make it a priority to look inward and commit to solving diversity through strategic efforts that lead to transformative change.

LaSharah S. Bunting is Director of Journalism at Knight Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaSharah.