If you ask a Web journalist what the newest, important tool a news organization needs to embrace today, they’d probably say Social Media. They’re right, it’s not a fad.
If you were to ask them to make a prediction or guess where the future of technology is headed, chances are they’d say mobile. Smart phones are getting smarter, smaller and cheaper. (And, one day Verizon will carry the iPhone – I believe!)
If you were to ask me what one element newsrooms need to embrace, outside of technology, my answer is a simple one: diversity. Can we make that a New Year’s resolution?
I’m not talking about being politically correct. I’m talking about having diverse experiences and points of view that shape and literally define what is news.
I believe that the lack of diversity — gender, age, religion, sexual-orientation, socioeconomic background, politics, bus riders, cyclists, video game addicts, etc. as well as ethnicity — in our newsrooms in all roles, especially leadership ones, is one of the main causes of lower circulation and loss of general reader/viewer engagement.
Again, I’m not talking about being politically correct. I’m just saying if we are not a mixture of all our communities, how are we expected to relate and be relevant to all those communities?
Let me give you an example:
One of the early Web specials I did as a journalist was the 20th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. I was representing SFGate.com as I sat around the table with print reporters and editors. You have to understand, the San Francisco Chronicle was crucial in the news coverage of AIDS 20 years before with the incredible work by Randy Shilts.
These people were professionals and I was still the relatively new kid working with a new medium.
But as they spoke, all of their stories were about gay, white males. No one talked about the fact that the fastest growing HIV/AIDS demographic was straight, black females.
They were the pros. I was just a punk kid.
Staying quiet is one of my biggest regrets in my career. I swore no matter how awkward or uncomfortable, I had to always speak up.
That chair I occupied was for all the communities I was a part of… and all the others that weren’t at the table. I have to rep everyone. You know, that voiceless thing.
Here’s another example:
Do you remember when someone tried to reinstate the draft back in 2003? I was sitting at the morning news meeting as the draft talks began to heat up and we started brainstorming on how to cover the story.
In a room of incredibly talented and experienced journalists, the angles included talking to teachers, parents, Vietnam vets, recruiters … but I was shocked that well into the discussion I had to raise my hand and mention, how about talking to high schoolers?
The room forgot to include the demographic that was going to be most affected by the draft.
But the lack of diversity in newsrooms isn’t new. Women have been battling the glass ceiling for decades and studies, like the one from ASNE, have shown a depressing lack of ethnic diversity for years.
So, why am I bringing it up?
Let me give you another example:
In a recent PEW study, it found that African-Americans and Latinos “are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are white Internet users.”
In several not-so-recent studies [PDF], they found that Latinos are ahead of the curve in embracing mobile devices. They are more likely to text message, download music, play games and access social networking.
Yet, how come there isn’t a reflection of that diversity in those Web journalism jobs? While there is a lack of diversity in newsrooms, why is there even more so on the Web side?
The digital divide? Sure, but not the one you are thinking. Those studies show “minorities” are on the advanced side of the divide and others are behind.
At last year’s SXSWi panel about the future of news it was all white men.
Look, I’m not saying that your ethnicity or gender or whatever is a requirement to do a better job for any of these tasks.
What I am saying is that if we don’t reflect our communities – both on- and off-line – we’re doomed. If we don’t listen to others outside of our own, individual communities we’ve missed the point of journalism.
This isn’t about hiring “us” over “them”… this is about how all off us strengthen journalism by reflecting our diverse communities through relevant coverage… and that the coverage is shaped by those that make up the newsroom.
That’s the premise of hyperlocal journalism, isn’t it? That a local or insider would know what is more relevant to their community rather than an outsider.
So, why can’t we overcome this challenge? It’s 2011.
Thankfully, it’s on people’s minds again.
I routinely get asked for names of diverse candidates to apply for Web journo jobs… but here’s the thing, while I know plenty of reporters, editors photographers, etc., my network of diverse Web journos isn’t as strong as it should.
Y’all, I’m a lifetime member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, board member of Online News Association, been to nearly every alphabet soup of conferences and I’m still struggling to diversify my Web journo network.
So what do we do about it? We need more solutions outside of forming another damn diversity committee.
The fact is, these diverse communities are already on the advance side of the tech divide… but they are not on the journalism side. Perhaps they aren’t aware of a journalism career as an option? Perhaps they don’t see themselves in our coverage? Perhaps they feel like there is no place at the table for them to help shape news?
Whatever it is, we need to do something. And I need some help in figuring this out.
In addition to being on the ONA board, I’m overseeing the all day workshops at the next conference, I’m co-program chair for UNITY 2012, I’m the New Media track coordinator for the NAHJ annual conference and I run #wjchat, a weekly Web journalism chat.
If we don’t invest in recruiting and training members of diverse groups to help us do and advanced journalism … we are royally screwed.
My New Year’s resolution is to harness my access and network to improve diversity across the board for Web journalism. But I need your help. I need your ideas.
More importantly, in your newsrooms, your communities (and those you are not a part of) need your help. Reach out, connect, participate, preach and downright fight to ensure your news org’s journalism reflects the diverse community it covers. Help it stay relevant.
Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.