Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Biggest casualty in decline of newspapers has been diversity of staffs; 43% of Americans say civic life will not suffer if their local paper folded

The biggest casualty in the decline of newspapers has been the diversity of staffs, ironically as the nation elected an African-American president and Hispanic births in this nation surged during the first decade of the new millennium.

And by ignoring the need to make their staffs -- by numbers -- resemble the communities and nation they are supposed to serve, newspapers have just ensured a speedier demise.

Incredibly, almost half of Americans surveyed of all races say their local civic life will NOT suffer when newspapers disappear or are reduced in scope and number.

Certainly, a more diverse America will not be reading a product that does not even respect both the positive and negative presence of all its peoples.

For instance, here is one giant opportunity mainstream newspapers have ignored. Hispanic households are much more diverse by age, which means there is a presence of older folks who still read the newspaper and can impress that practice on the younger generation in the same house and neighborhoods.

Hispanics will comprise a third of this nation's population in just three decades.

The Mexican culture in particular is still geared to the newspaper, -- from reading it locally and subscribing to it from their hometowns back in their native country or in Texas. My grandfather lived in central Kansas, but he still subscribed to a weekly edition of the San Antonio Express-News.

And after reading it, the newspaper is used to wrap food for family members to take to work. And people of Mexican descent make up two-thirds of Hispanics in this nation.

But Hispanics are not going to read newspapers that only feature stories about them being deported or accused of raising crime rates.

Neither are African-Americans. They long ago gave up on mainstream newspapers to be objective or to reflect the realities of their lives.

For example, The Tennessean's Sunday Issues' section recently featured all white faces over its six pages. But Nashville has a 25% African-American population and two historically black universities.

Such gross disrespect, however, should not be unexpected. The top decisionmakers at The Tennessean are white. Their lives do not regularly intersect with African-Americans and neighborhoods where their households predominate.

So it should be no surprise that layoffs at The Tennessean and other newspapers across the country have forgotten about the need to maintain needed numbers of diverse staff members -- in keeping with communities served.

Layoffs that have destroyed any sense of balance when it comes to diversity show how out of step newspapers are with this nation's rapidly changing demographics. And I have to believe that advertisers would want their products and services marketed to these growing populations.

Dori J. Maynard, in writing for the Knight Foundation and PBS' website, put it bluntly about the industry's lack of concern for diversity:

In a few weeks the American Society of Newspaper Editors will release its annual census. The census, created to capture an accurate picture of the industry's diversity, will also tell us how many jobs were lost in this year of layoffs, buy-outs and shuttered newspapers.

As newspaper companies struggle with advertisers and audiences continuing to migrate to the web, the horrifying and at times mind-numbing rate at which the industry appeared to be imploding has taken the question of diversity virtually off the table.

As one newspaper CEO said to me a while back, "Diversity isn't only off the front-burner, it's not even in the kitchen."

Two reports posted on the same day serve to remind us that the news industry has ignored diversity at its own peril.

In a bit of irony, in one case the very technological innovation the newspaper turned to in order to better connect with its readers gave a graphic illustration of just how out of touch the paper was to some parts of its communities.

On March 12, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press released findings that showed that less than half the population would care if their local newspapers disappeared. That same day a post on the Neiman Journalism Lab site about The Baltimore Sun's decision to live-stream its weekday story conferences inadvertently gave us clue as to just why that might be.

"As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community 'a lot.' Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available," the Pew study says.

In his post for the Nieman Lab about the Sun's live-streaming experiment, Tim Windsor said about observing the story meeting, "...for those who do watch -- especially those who haven't been able to attend or participate in an actual news meeting -- the visit can be eye-opening."

Actually, the screenshot alone was eye-opening, though in a sadly predictable way. There we saw 13 people gathered around the table charged with putting together a newspaper in a city in which the majority of the population is African-American.

At that particular table, on that particular day all were white and most were male.

The wide-ranging effort by the Boston community to try and save The Globe from closure by the end of the month runs contrary to the feeling of the 43% in the above survey.

But the question in American households about whether a newspaper is an essential expenditure amid a recession makes Boston an exception instead of the rule in the newspaper industry. And this nation's increasing diversity just makes the answer to that question more certain.

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