July 2, 1999

Panel on diversity says more talent must be made available

By Christy Mumford Jerding

ARLINGTON, Va. — Increasing newsroom diversity "is not a numbers game, it's a talent game," Freedom Forum trustee and former Gannett news executive John C. Quinn said.

"The pipeline of diverse talent must be greatly increased. ... I don't know of any editor in the country that won't hire good talent."

Quinn, speaking on a panel with young minority journalists and diversity experts at the Newseum, said that when journalists demonstrate that they are "able to cover the community ... better because of the perspective they [bring], that success will carry the numbers."

But editors still say they can't find high-quality journalists of color, said Catalina Camia, president of Unity '99, a partnership of minority journalism associations. "There has been a tremendous drive over the past 20 years to get more qualified people of color into the pipeline," she said. "Now, we're seeing 'diversity fatigue' " — flagging efforts to increase minority representation.

Getting the proverbial foot in the door — an internship — was "murder," said Rowena Millado, a 1999 Chips Quinn scholar. She sent out countless resumes and applications, but "I never got a rejection letter or even a call. I sent [applications] to big newspapers, small newspapers, online organizations" without so much as a nibble.

Finally, through a personal contact, Millado got an unpaid internship at The Oakland Tribune. She worked another part-time job to pay the bills, so for about three months, she worked seven days a week.

Her hard work paid off, both for Millado and the newspaper. "When I came to the newspaper, it was around the time of the anniversary of Philippine independence. I knew there was a large population of Filipinos in the area, so I wrote that story and subsequent ones about other Asian-Americans."

Miranda Barnes-Walker, a 1996 Chips Quinn scholar who is a copy editor at The City Paper in Baltimore, said she had similar problems getting her first internship. When she couldn't get an interview at mainstream newspapers, she called The City Paper, which took her on for seven months as an unpaid intern.

At the end of her internship and her tenure as a Chips Quinn scholar, "I knew I had the experience, I knew I was a good writer and that I had something to bring to the table with diversity."

The Chips Quinn Memorial Scholarship Program for Minorities in Journalism provides intensive orientation programs for young journalists and places them in internships at newspapers across the country. It was established to honor John C. "Chips" Quinn Jr.'s commitment to greater newsroom diversity. He was editor of the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal when he died in a car accident in 1990.

Being black on a nearly all-white staff sometimes put Barnes-Walker in a unique position, she said. "You realize that if the editor doesn't have anyone interested in reviewing [a black writer], that (type of story) doesn't get covered."

She also occasionally pointed out questionable editing decisions.

"When I was an intern [another writer] had done a story ... that contained a racial joke quoted in the story. I went to the editor, who was Asian, and said that doesn't seem right. She said that she had hesitated but wasn't sure (if she should delete it). I asked her how she would feel if it was a joke about Asians ... and she took it out."

But being a diverse voice can sometimes put you into a reporting rut, Barnes-Walker said. "At one paper I kept getting all the stories on the black community." Editors should "not just look at you and say you can only cover the Hispanic community because you're Hispanic."

While Walker, Millado and their colleagues work to increase minority representation at newspapers, the next frontier is online journalism, said Adam Clayton Powell III, The Freedom Forum's vice president for technology and programs. The pioneers of online Web operations were overwhelmingly white and male, Powell said, and that pool is where online newsrooms are getting their talent. As newspaper editors said a quarter century ago, online editors are saying today that "it's hard to find minorities with online experience," Powell said.

With efforts like the "National Time Out for Diversity," a joint program by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors, in newsrooms across the country this week, there's hope that news executives will overcome their "diversity fatigue," Quinn said.

"When I hear the words 'diversity fatigue' it makes me sick," Quinn said. "Saying we tried (to hire a more diverse work force) and it didn't work is being irresponsible. I wish they had gotten fatigue over Monica and O.J. and focused more on their staffing."

The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. The foundation pursues its priorities through conferences, educational activities, publishing, broadcasting, online services, fellowships, partnerships, training, research and other programs.

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