Today I would like to applaud USA Today and Gannett for their initiative to make their newsrooms more diverse and reflective of the communities they serve.
I’ve read with great interest the columns of Detroit Free Press editor and vice president Peter Bhatia who writes about the importance of inclusion. But I also come with a warning and my own life experiences and disappointments with inclusion in my former field. I come with advice to help you along the way.
Sadly, Bhatia will be writing about the importance of inclusion 20 or 30 years from now. Gannett will eventually fail in its efforts to diversify. News organizations, who demand so much from other fields and corporations, only see the need for diversity when their numbers become critically low with minorities. Or if they get called out.
Short term Gannett will meet its goals, grow weary of the project, and watch its numbers decline.
I benefitted two years out of college when the numbers of black and women journalists became critically low at the Free Press. In addition to my hire, the Free Press also added Drew Sharp, Clifton Brown and Johnette Howard. We ignore bigots who shouted affirmative action at us and did our jobs. We all did pretty well in our profession. Clifton wrote for the New York Times, Drew became a sports columnist at the Free Press and Johnette a columnist at the Washington Post and New York News Day among many other accomplishments.
I left the Free Press for the rival Detroit News where I became a sports columnist and beat writer for the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons. I never wanted to leave the Free Press. But I got a Godfather offer I could not refuse from the News and Free Press refused to match.
After The News offer I bounced around the Free Press newsroom looking for a way to stay. Free Press editors promised to look into new challenges for me. But none of them promised a raise. One editor asked “what do you want besides the money?”
I had no answer.
My point is not only is it important to attract diverse voices. But you must keep them. I understand that these are challenging times for the newspaper industry. However, the Free Press is weaker without the powerful voices of Rochelle Riley, Kat Stafford and Stephen Henderson.
It is not enough to build up percentages in new rooms. But you must allow those voices to mature and become difference makers. You must fight to keep those numbers relevant even when you don’t have a preacher, mayor or watch dog demanding you to do better.
When I was hired by the Free Press I believed that editors were trying to get me to think like a 45 year old white guy from Grosse Pointe. I refused and my upbringing in the hood came in handy.
The Free Press allowed me to sit on morning planning meetings. The issue of black children being murdered in Detroit came up. The editors wanted to put up a billboard that recorded every black child murdered in Detroit to bring attention to the issue.
The entire room applauded the idea. I believed this could be distructive. I was young, scared and may have went along because of my fear of challenging more experienced journalists. But I was one of those young kids who had a gun pointed at his head. I was one of those young kids that could have been a number on a billboard.
I spoke up and said “blacks kids are not numbers and stats. They are real people. I think that is a terrible ideal. The city would not like that.”
The room grew silent and I figured my Free Press career was moments from ending. No one in the room had my prospective. The chatter began again and the editors decided to table the motion.
A few days later a Detroit radio station put up a billboard that recorded every black child death in the city. It took down the billboard three days later because of community outrage.
My frustration as a sports journalist is when sports publications start up, they often have few to no black voices. The National Sports Daily began that way in 1991. How can you have a sports daily covering the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and college sports with dozens of white sports writers and no black or Hispanic?
Rob Parker investigated and was told: “Well we called Mike Wilbon and he said no. We could not find any black sports writers.”
Many of us were covering the NCAA tournament. We asked black sports writers who were covering the tournament if they got a phone call from The National. The list included Curtis Bunn (New York Daily News), Kevin Blackistone (Atlanta Journal Constitution), Bryan Burwell (Detroit News), Drew Sharp (Free Press), Parker (Free Press) and myself. None of us got a call from The National.
We asked about 20 random white sports writers the same question. Four got calls from The National to interview.
Locally, 97.1 FM had no full time black talk show hosts. Rob Parker wrote a column about the issue and a few weeks later the station hired Rico Beard. Coincidence? No.
Diversity has never been a priority for 97.1. Yes, I worked there for 13 years with Mike Valenti. However, the station did not want to hire me. I only came aboard because Valenti is a stubborn bull dog and pushed for me to be hired just as he pushed for Rico to be hired.
Maybe the station should make Mike vice president of diversity and inclusion.
In 2016 Bill Simmons began The Ringer with no black editors or sports writers.
“I wish it had been a bigger priority for us to really make a bigger commitment to diversity than we did,” Simmons said following a New York Times story that called him out. “I think, in the moment, we’re looking at stuff, you pursue certain people, it doesn’t work out. You feel like you’re trying. And I think the moment that the country is having, in general, these last four weeks, is if you feel like you’re trying, that’s actually not good enough. We’re going to do better.”
The news media still does not understand the importance of diversity. It’s not enough to increase percentages. These journalists must be put in decision making positions. They must be allowed to bring diverse views and opinions even if you think the idea to be silly or unimportant.
I view newsroom diversity as a good bowl of soup. It has a variety of vegetables and flavors that mingle and make the soup taste great.Find Terry Foster Podcast here: