Friday, December 5, 2008

Lack of black journalism legacy at Tennessean in need of investigation in wake of big layoffs

From my 10 years at The Tennessean, one of the most depressing things I noticed besides the incompetence of the top newsroom managers was the lack of a black journalism legacy at a newspaper located in a city with prominent African-American population and history.

And in a state that gave the nation the late great Ida B. Wells. God rest her courageous soul.

Too many black journalists came and left The Tennenssean in my time there, except new editorial page editor and long-time columnist Dwight Lewis who has mostly been the minority window dressing for the newspaper. I don't blame Lewis for serving in that damaging capacity. What could he really do against an establishment of liberals who really didn't act according to what they said they believed?

Now if Republicans and conservatives tried to get away with the same thing, The Tennessean would have blasted them on the front and editorial pages.

One of the people laid off this week has a long history of trying to advance in her position but was always unsuccessful, even though Nashville and the Freedom Forum boasted of a Diversity Institute to move minorities into reporting positions. She never got the opportunity despite repeatedly asking for it. At least that is what she told me as I counseled her on how to get around the entrenched Tennessean, newsroom establishment.

I also tried to get a young black journalist, a brilliant graduate of Notre Dame whose parents are both college professors, into the editorial page department where he could become a columnist. He was told by the then top editor he would first have to serve on the copy desk, leaving his reporting job. So he went to Springfield, Mo., to be a deputy editorial page editor. Nashville lost a good pro.

Another young black reporter wanted to get into column writing. So we wrote some proto-types together to submit to a managing editor. I like his style. It was refreshing, in the vernacular of Generation X. But the editor turned him down. He went on the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

There are more examples. A copy editor had to go to The Virginian Pilot. Another promising young editor fled back home to Memphis where she is a successful columnist. A solid reporter also returned to Memphis. A black sports editor, not allowed to hire his own NFL reporter, ultimately left for Denver.

The list is quite long.

Ultimately, the trouble for my friend who was laid off this week, and that of so many other black journalists who told me they felt the need to leave in order to advance, is worth considering following today's annnouncement by the National Asscoiation of Black Journalists in the wake of the Gannett layoffs.

As reported by

One of the most powerful minority journalism trade groups has just issued a high-profile challenge to the company as it cuts 2,000 jobs in this week's big layoff. Referring to Gannett's Task Force on Newsroom Recruiting, Retention and Diversity, the 3,300-member National Association of Black Journalists says in a statement today:

"NABJ asks that this committee and others like it review Gannett’s diversity numbers after the conclusion of the most recent cuts. NABJ is willing to do our part. This organization is available to aid the industry in any way we can to recruit and retain black journalists. We must all work to reverse this disturbing trend. The question is: Will Gannett and other industry leaders continue their commitment to diversity in difficult economic times?"

It's a safe bet that Gannett doesn't want NABJ -- or any other group -- to hold a news conference at the National Press Club to announce a you-know-what of GCI's advertisers and newspapers.

The Tennnessean would be a good place for NABJ to focus attention. And I can provide it the names of too many black journalists who felt the need to leave to advance. There also is the Cayce Homes disaster, in which two white Tennessean reporters went undercover into a predominantly black housing project to produce a purient reported that outraged people of all races.

Perhaps some good can come from The Tennessean layoffs, with light finally placed on a wrong too long unaddressed.

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