DFM's Steve Buttry talks diversity

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MIJE Staff
February 13, 2013

In 2012, Digital First announced that it was undertaking several companywide diversity initiatives, including working with the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education to create a program that allows all Digital First employees to go through Fault Lines, Maynard’s diversity program.

This comes as overall efforts at newsroom diversity are falling short. Diversity has taken a disproportionate hit as news organizations tried to find a foothold in a rapidly changing technological and business environment.

The 2006 American Society of News Editors census, in which 928 of 1,417 daily newspapers responded, counted 7,400 journalists of color in those newsrooms. By 2012, with 985 of 1,386 dailies responding, there were 5,000. This decline was greater than the decrease in overall newsroom staffing.

In the 2012 ASNE census, 12.32 percent of newsroom staff members were of color. Minorities are 37 percent of the U.S. population.

We talk to Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor, about the thinking behind Digital First’s efforts.

Q. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard about a major news organization committing to an ambitious program aimed at diversifying content and business practices. What prompted this investment of time and money?

Our CEO, John Paton, and president, Jeff Bairstow, believe that for us to succeed as a business, we need to present content that reflects our communities accurately and to have effective sales relationships with businesses throughout our communities. They believe a workforce that reflects our communities is essential in achieving this.
 
What are you hoping to achieve?

We want our workforce, our editorial content and our advertising content to reflect the diversity of our communities.
 
When Digital First unveiled its diversity efforts, it decided to work with two programs – the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute’s Chips Quinn Scholars Program and our Fault Lines framework. Can you tell us why Digital First opted for these two?

We don't have to invent the wheel here. The Maynard Institute and the Freedom Forum have long and distinguished records of working in diversity issues in journalism. We know that we can succeed more quickly by learning from their experience and partnering with these organizations that have long and strong track records.
 
Why is diversity a news priority when virtually everyone has a publishing platform?

Publishing tools are widely but not universally available. For instance, in Farmington, New Mexico, our Farmington Daily Times serves a large Navajo reservation. Connectivity is not as strong there as in most urban areas, and access to digital tools is also not as common. So our community newsroom project there is designed in part to make computers available to the community. It's next door to a bus station used heavily by reservation residents.

But even in communities where smartphones are ubiquitous and most people are using social media and many are blogging, an established news brand generally has the largest audience in the community and, through curation, we amplify the voices in the community. That position remains an important responsibility, and we should reflect the diversity of the community in the news we report and the voices we amplify.

We know this program is relatively new, but from your years in journalism, can you give examples of how focusing on diversity improved an organization’s coverage and business practices?

Journalists tend to be well-meaning people who think they are very egalitarian and even objective, so every journalist and every news organization probably thinks that they report without bias along all of the Fault Lines. I worked at a newsroom that used the Reality Checks Content Audit to measure our content along those Fault Lines, and the results were eye-opening. They increased our awareness. When we started making an effort to diversify our sources and topics of coverage, it was humbling to see that we hadn't been reflecting the community's diversity accurately.

How do you respond to people who say we’ve been working on this for four decades and have very little to show for it?

Discrimination against minorities and women is a problem that is centuries old. Anyone who thought it would be reversed overnight was naive.

Can you help the believers understand some of the skepticism and barriers that may have hindered previous diversity efforts?

The barriers are plentiful but not easy to see. Discrimination today is subtle. We don't have segregated lunch counters or buses that are obvious targets for protest and clear rallying points for support. If a newsroom staff is 10 percent nonwhite, you can see that hiring is mixed and that the newsroom has some diversity. It's accurate to see progress and understandable to think you've addressed the problem.

But if the community's population has 30 percent of those same groups, you're not going to reflect the community as well as you should. The barriers probably aren't conscious exclusion but more like a failure to be fully inclusive. They might not reject diverse applicants but might not take the extra step of listing openings with diversity-focused journalism groups. Editors might favor people referred to them by their networks of friends and former colleagues, without recognizing the lack of diversity in that network.

I recall at a former newspaper I wanted to promote a fairly young woman, who was 27 and probably looked younger, to a position supervising some pretty experienced reporters. I was discussing this promotion with two male bosses. No one resisted the promotion citing her gender, but they raised questions about her youth.

I asked each when they got their first supervisory job. I think one was 23, and one was 25. I was 24. I made my point and was able to promote her.

I think a suggested promotion for a male of her abilities would have been embraced because he was an up-and-comer. But this promotion was resisted, and when they agreed, it was because "it would be good to have a woman" in that position. So they praised themselves for diversifying the management ranks, when they actually diminished an excellent, qualified candidate.

Gender, racial and ethnic bias is subtle like this, which makes it a challenge to address.
 
Can you evaluate where the news industry is on diversity?

I think newsroom staff cuts have reversed some of the progress of recent decades. And we hadn't progressed as far or as fast as we should have before we started losing ground.

What are the barriers?

Economic disruption is a huge barrier now. When newsroom staffs are shrinking, it's hard to do the hiring you need to diversify a news staff.

Excuse-making is a huge barrier — we'd hire more African Americans, but we can't find any qualified candidates; we'd have more women in management roles, but our best candidates have taken time off for raising children, etc. We are more accepting of excuses in achieving diversity than we are in covering the news, where we excel at overcoming barriers.

Fatigue is a huge barrier — technology fatigue, downsizing fatigue, fatigue over learning new skills and strategies.
 
So much has changed — the economy, the business model, technology and a new generation of journalists. If all that has combined to give us a reset moment, what should we do differently?

I'm not sure this is a reset moment. Perhaps it is, and I'll see that in retrospect. But it feels more like a setback than a reset to me. Still, technology helps diversify voices in the community because traditional media outlets are not the only ones who can reach an audience. Digital First Media is committed to support this diversity of voices and viewpoints through our Community Media Labs and other engagement efforts. 
 
Can you cite examples of news operations making good use of technology to increase diversity?

I'm not aware of anyone doing this in a significant way. Technology certainly can be used to help journalists with family issues telecommute rather than lose their jobs, and women are probably in that situation more than men. But I'm speculating here. I don't know of a specific example.

Do you think that economy, technology and generational reset have shifted the industry’s perspective on diversity?

I'm not sure. It still appears that we have a lot of work to do. I think the fatigue I mentioned has pushed diversity down the list of priorities. When the newspaper business seemed healthy, it was easy to see that the diverse parts of our communities represented a growth opportunity, not to mention that pursuing diversity made us feel like we were doing the right thing.

In the current economic crisis, with the demands for multitasking and learning new skills and strategies, I think the industry regards diversity efforts as sort of a luxury we don't have the time or money for.

What would help the diversity efforts?

I hope that some Digital First success in generating a healthy revenue model and increasing diversity in our news staff and news content will demonstrate the value of diversity and provide a model for others to follow.

 
  

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