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Alt-Weeklies: Dancing Around Diversity?

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Alternative Press Concedes Its Readers Are "So White"

. . . "Find the Will, the Focus. Some Won't Try Hard Enough"

...We Report on Communities of Color With Courage, Passion

George Ramos, Pulitzer Winner and Mentor, Dies at 63

Maid in DSK Case Gives Interviews to Newsweek, ABC

Muslims Initially Blamed in Norway Killings

Justice Dept. Declines to Reopen Malcolm X Case

Athena Jones, NBC Producer, Named CNN Correspondent

Whitaker Sees Anderson Cooper as Model for Future Anchors

Juan Williams' Account of Firing Greeted With Skepticism

Short Takes 

Some alternative papers can be as bold as this burlesque dancer, who performed Friday at the opening party of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies at its New Orleans convention. But the newsweeklies are not so bold on diversity. (Credit: Kristin Brenemen/Flickr)

Alternative Press Concedes Its Readers Are "So White"

If the sight of the Tyronne Foster & The Arc Singers gospel choir performing in a bar did not signal that this was not your ordinary journalism convention, then maybe the burlesque dancers, not to be called strippers, the magic act and the swinging New Orleans brass band would.

"Saints and Sinners" was the theme of the New Orleans convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which concluded on Saturday. The opening party, arranged by Margo DuBos, publisher of the host alt-weekly, the Gambit, was in keeping with the theme.

Most cities have alt-weeklies. They are often brash, muckraking and edge-pushing; they tell you where to find the best entertainment for the weekend — and they are usually very white. The association has no figures, but their staffs seem to be whiter than their mainstream counterparts, the dailies.

In 2010, five had circulations over 100,000: the Village Voice in New York; the L.A. Weekly; the San Diego Reader; the Boston Phoenix and Atlanta's Creative Loafing. All told, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, which voted to change its name during the convention, has 130 member publications. Yet, despite the layoffs and buyouts in the mainstream newspapers over the last few years, rarely does a journalist of color mention one of them as a place where he or she hungers to work.

"Why Are Your Readers So White?" was the title of a Saturday panel that brought the Journal-isms columnist to New Orleans. Joining him at the session were Doris Truong, president of the Asian American Journalists Association, and Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, online devotee and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Some of the ideas put on the table: partnering with black, Latino, Asian or Native publications in the same market; hiring for diversity, starting at the top, attending job fairs at the journalist of color conventions; and posting job listings widely and setting collective diversity goals for the member publications, as the American Society of News Editors has done since 1978.

"Any of AAJA's 20 U.S. chapters would be happy to partner with local alt-weeklies on Media Access workshops to help underserved communities learn how to get their news into the news," Truong said. "Harness social media to share and recruit for job postings," Hernandez said. "Create an AAN jobs hashtag, perhaps. A few of us created to offer a list of tech journos."

Did the ideas have any effect?

"On a small level, I think the panel did a lot of good relaying some good 'little things' to the attendees and even the organizers," Jimmy Boegle of the Tucson Weekly, chair of the Diversity Committee, told Journal-isms by email on Monday. "For example, I think the Twitter hash tags for job openings at AAN papers is an amazing idea, and that's something we'll institute and publicize soon.

"On a bigger level . . . well, things aren't going to change overnight as the result of one one-hour panel. But these panels get very busy, very overworked newspaper folk — and what newspaper folk these days aren't very busy and very overworked? — to stop for an hour to think about diversity, or the lack thereof, in their newsrooms and their coverage. These folks are now going home with diversity far more forward in their minds. And that's a great thing that will lead to great things over time, as we keep touting the diversity message."

Two other association members had differing reactions.

Donna Ladd, editor-in-chief of the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press. (Credit: Kate Medley, Next American City)

. . . "Find the Will, the Focus. Some Won't Try Hard Enough"

Donna Ladd, editor-in-chief of the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press and past AAN diversity chair, answered these questions by email:

What do you think was accomplished after our diversity messages?

"I hope that attendees will go back home and really think about your call to diversify their staffs and content. Like any group, there are people in the AAN community who worry a lot about our industry's whiteness, and there are others who would care not to think about it and get defensive at any mention that we might have a huge, white blind spot. But when the audience is as non-diverse as was apparent from the turnout in New Orleans, and at every national AAN convention I've attended, there is a problem that needs to be addressed deliberately at many of our papers, especially those in cities with large populations of color, and in some cases, where whites are the minority. Our papers need to reflect our communities, pure and simple, and if we don't, we have serious work to do.

"I loved your point . . . that diversity is a business issue as well as good journalism. At a time when newspaper readership is shrinking and aging, editors and publishers need to look at every avenue to increase appeal and readership, and thus diversify staffing. Not to mention, younger readers simply expect more diversity in their media and when we don't provide it, we seem stodgy and irrelevant, and they'll stop picking us up."

Do you foresee any changes among your colleagues?

St. Louis' Riverfront Times won for best cover design for papers over 50,000 circulation."I really hope that AAN editors and publishers find the will and focus to take on our diversity challenges. You were right on when you said that it needs to start at the top: with more people of color in management and prominent positions. And it takes top editors and publishers talking and thinking about diversity to be leaders and set a tone that lack of diversity is unacceptable. Unfortunately, most of the AAN attendees I talked to who are not as worried about it are younger staff members who are also underrepresented in the leadership ranks.

"Likewise, the organization itself can lead better on this issue, a point I've tried to hammer for years. For one, the board should take immediate steps to diversify the (now all-white) board itself, as well as all committees. They should seek out people of color and people under 30 to serve and be an innovation corps, of sorts, for the group, as I suggested to a board member this weekend. And their voices must be encouraged and welcomed to the table. I issued this challenge to the incoming board president after the business meeting Saturday, and he assured me and others that this was a top goal for him. Time will tell.

"Also, the new AAN executive director, Tiffany Shackelford, seems to get that diversity is a vital priority for our group, and I believe she will diligently work to raise awareness. (She, after all, allowed this panel to happen, which stated right in its name that our papers are too white. After my tenure as diversity chair, I am confident that this would not have happened before she was hired.)

"I and others have encouraged the group to reach out to good ethnic media outlets and invite them to apply for membership, which would immediately help change the dynamic. I hope this will happen soon.

Are there obstacles that I need to be aware of?

". . . Too many people in AAN, as in other groups, do not prioritize diversity in content and staffing, or they just look at staffing, but not content when it is apparent that diverse content is key to attracting more diverse staff members. As the panel very effectively pointed out, people want to work for media that represent them. I wish this point were more obvious than it seems to be.

"Another obstacle is that some people won't try hard enough. I've been told repeatedly by well-meaning people that they hired a person of color once or twice and he or she left, as if that is an excuse for not trying it again. The diversity of a whole segment of journalism cannot ride on the shoulders of whether a few people of color decide to change jobs or not. Here in Jackson, we find that people of color routinely show up to intern, apply for jobs, attend events and otherwise get involved precisely because they see themselves on the cover and throughout the publication. And those stories aren't always written by a person of color. Our white reporters, editors, designers and sales reps all know that we must cover the entire community and not try to put that responsibility on just the non-white staff members. But it is a serious obstacle for those papers that don't think they can diversify until they hire more people of color. That becomes an ineffective procrastination cycle.

"Robert made an excellent point when he said that diverse coverage can't be 'one-off,' which is another obstacle for some alt-weeklies. That is, it doesn't work when the only diverse cover stories are about problems, such as gangs or drug dealing, or about stereotypical coverage such as music or sports. I always say that we earned the right to be the most critical media in the state about our (former) black mayor, Frank Melton, because we do not only do negative or predictable coverage of African Americans. That is, the fact that we've done positive stories about young black men on a routine basis ensured that it didn't look like we would only show up for the negative story. Of course, only running a handful of positive (or non-race-related) stories a year about non-whites is also 'one-off,' and diverse communities know it.

"Another obstacle is that some alt-weeklies are very white-male-focused in their newsrooms and aren't as concerned with creating a more collaborative, open-minded culture that allows questioning of their assumptions. I've had a number of journalists of color tell me that they got a great job at an alt, only to feel isolated and even ridiculed when they tried to bring up a concern. That is a primary reason that many change jobs, and is probably one of our most challenging elephants in the room.

"The final obstacle is the typical one on race. White people, in general, can fear being made feel uncomfortable on race issues, even in conversations that are about improving media diversity. In AAN, that can mean a strange paranoia about how it will look to suddenly become more interested in diversity, as if it doesn't already look bad to not be diverse. I always tell people to just start covering your whole community and then if someone criticizes you for 'cultural anthropology,' then deal with it. You can't please everybody, but you sure can simply start reporting on diverse groups in your community, and then let the chips fall where they may."

...We Report on Communities of Color With Courage, Passion

Tony Ortega, editor of the Village Voice, is of Mexican-American heritage and has worked at Phoenix New Times, New Times Los Angeles, the Kansas City Pitch and New Times Broward-Palm Beach in Florida.

Tony Ortega, editor of the Village Voice. (Credit: noted that the association ran a summer-long Academy of Alternative Journalism, designed to train young journalists of color, from 2000 to 2009.

Jimmy Boegle of the Tucson Weekly, chair of the Diversity Committee, added that the academy was a joint project of AAN and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "Due to budget issues and a few other things, the academy ended after 2009," Boegle said. "We're working to revive AAJ — perhaps under a different name — in 2012 as a week-long 'institute'-style program."

Village Voice Media, meanwhile, this year began "an intensive, 10-week-paid summer fellowship for minority students concentrating on Web and digital media" at Arizona State University. Six fellows are participating, Ortega said.

"I think you tended to sell alt-weeklies short in your comments during the panel," Ortega said by email.

". . . In general, alt-weeklies not only work to increase the diversity of our staffs, but we also report on communities of color with more courage and passion than the dailies. We're fearless about taking on controversial stories that we know might upset our readers of color because we respect them as readers and don't feel they need to be patronized.

"I'll give you an excellent example. Another panelist Saturday ridiculed 'Cinco de Mayo' stories that pander to readers of color. Do you know what the Village Voice did for that holiday this year? We reported in a cover story that in New York, the Mexican community leader who organizes the city's annual Cinco de Mayo parade would be doing so from Rikers Island, where he's serving time for repeatedly raping his daughter. Even more shocking, the community leader's supporters had been demonizing the victimized teenage girl as a way to excuse his behavior. That's a story that the New York Times still hasn't touched.

"It's that fearless approach to the news of all communities around New York that has won us a large non-white readership, and something I work hard at, especially with competition like the Observer, New York magazine, and the Times, which all seem like they couldn't be any whiter or more wealth-obsessed.

"Of course we editors of alt-weekly newspapers need to hear that we should all be doing more to hire journalists of color and engage our nonwhite readers, but I was disappointed that the panelists chosen to speak to us this year seemed to know so little about the alt-weeklies they were addressing."

George Ramos, Pulitzer Winner and Mentor, Dies at 63

"George Ramos, a longtime reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times who played a key role in a groundbreaking series on Latinos in Southern California that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1984, has died. He was 63," Keith Thursby and Ruben Vives reported Monday for the Los Angeles Times.

George Ramos"Ramos was found Saturday inside his Morro Bay home, said Det. Dale Cullum of the Morro Bay Police Department. Cullum said an officer was alerted by Karen Velie, a reporter at Cal Coast News, a local website where Ramos had been working as editor. Velie said the website's staff had been unable to reach Ramos for several days.

"Cullum said Ramos had diabetes, and there was nothing suspicious about his death. The cause and when Ramos died will be determined by the San Luis Obispo County coroner, Cullum said.

" 'He was a very strong street reporter, he knew Los Angeles very well,' said Frank Sotomayor, a former Times editor who is an adjunct faculty member at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. 'He was able to talk to people and get their stories.'

"Sotomayor and Ramos were co-editors of the Latino project, which received the Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service. Seventeen Latino journalists worked on the 27-part series."

Maid in DSK Case Gives Interviews to Newsweek, ABC

"The housekeeper at the Sofitel hotel who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault has given a long and tearful interview, with her full name and picture attached, that provides her detailed account of the May encounter — including that Mr. Strauss-Kahn told her 'You’re beautiful' as he attacked her," Joseph Goldstein reported Sunday for the New York Times.

" . . .  'Oh, my God,' [Nafissatou] Diallo recounted saying as she caught sight of a naked man — Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund — in the 28th-floor suite she had entered intending to clean. 'I’m so sorry.'

"Mr. Strauss-Kahn responded, 'You don’t have to be sorry,' and reached for her breasts, she told Newsweek."

Aaron Katersky added for ABC News: " 'I want justice. I want him to go to jail,' Nafissatou Diallo told ABC's Robin Roberts in an interview to air Monday on 'Good Morning America' and 'World News with Diane Sawyer' and Tuesday on 'Nightline.' 'I want him to know that there is some places you cannot use your money, you cannot use your power when you do something like this.' "

Muslims Initially Blamed in Norway Killings

"When word first broke of the deadly bombing and mass shooting in Norway, there was little information available to suggest what party or parties were responsible," Simon Maloy reported Sunday for Media Matters.

"Much of the right-wing commentariat filled that information vacuum with their own prejudices, declaring that this was clearly an act of Islamic terrorism. It was later reported that the suspect in custody, Anders Behring Breivik, is a native Norwegian with extreme right-wing politics and ties to fundamentalist Christianity.

"Among the conservative to rush to judgment were Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, CNN contributor Erick Erickson, and Andrew Breitbart's The Breitbart website surmised that the attacks could have meant that Norway's 'big Muslim problem' had 'just blown up in its face.' Erickson wrote via Twitter: 'Terrorist bombing in Oslo. I bet you it was not Lutherans who did it.' "

According to the Associated Press, "Breivik has confessed to last week's bombing in the capital and a rampage at a Labor Party retreat for young people, but he has pleaded not guilty to the terrorism charges he faces, claiming he acted to save Europe from what he says is Muslim colonization.

". . . authorities dramatically lowered the death toll Monday, apparently because they counted 18 bodies twice in the confusion following the massacre. They initially said 86 people died on the island, but now say the figure is 68."

Justice Dept. Declines to Reopen Malcolm X Case

"The Justice Department has declined a request to reinvestigate the Malcolm X assassination, saying that the statute of limitations has expired on any federal laws that might apply, like the National Firearms Act of 1934, according to a statement released Saturday," Shaila Dewan wrote Saturday for the New York Times.

"Historians have long viewed the assassination as unsolved, as The Times reported Saturday. Several experts have argued that the Justice Department could take up the case under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, but the department, without elaborating, said the crime did not fit the parameters of that act.

"Alvin Sykes, an advocate for justice in civil rights-era cold cases, has suggested that the department has the discretion to investigate even if no prosecution is possible, an authority that has been used in the past to examine the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But Malcolm X, the department said, does not rate similar treatment."

Athena Jones, NBC Producer, Named CNN Correspondent

"Athena Jones will join CNN as a general assignment correspondent, it was Athena Jonesannounced today by Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president," CNN announced on Monday. "Jones will report on a wide range of general news stories and will appear on programs across the network. Jones will be based in the Washington D.C. bureau and will begin her position with the network immediately.

". . . Previously, Jones was a White House producer with NBC, where she wrote packages, produced story segments and reported on air for MSNBC and NBC News. Jones covered the Clinton and Obama presidential campaigns during the 2008 election cycle for NBC and the National Journal."

Whitaker Sees Anderson Cooper as Model for Anchors

Mark Whitaker, CNN’s new managing editor who has been assigned to deal with complaints by the National Association of Black Journalists about the lack of black journalists hosting prime-time shows, says Anderson Cooper "is the model that we increasingly are going to."

Whitaker said in an interview with Brian Braiker of AdWeek:

"I think we’re in a day and age when you can have all the qualities of a great journalist but have a human side as well, and even a sense of humor. In many ways Anderson Cooper is the model that we increasingly are going to, not that everyone has to be Anderson Cooper. But he has qualities that I think we want to see in our anchors and reporters. Anderson is not ideological, but he is demanding accountability; he’s asking tough questions; he’s not histrionic. He manages to relay the importance of events without being theatrical or over-the-top in any way."

Juan Williams' Account of Firing Greeted With Skepticism

A new book by Fox News analyst Juan Williams, detailing his side of his October firing by NPR after he said on Fox News that he got nervous when he saw people in "Muslim garb" on airplanes, is being greeted with skepticism.

" 'Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate,' gives Williams’s version of events, which, not surprisingly, conflicts with NPR’s," Alicia Shepard, NPR's ombudsman at the time, wrote Sunday in the Washington Post.

". . . The truth, as I discovered through looking into many complaints about Williams, is that he had long been on thin ice for making opinionated comments on Fox, where he was a contributor, that he would not have been allowed to make on air for NPR. And NPR editors had been unhappy with the quality and preparation of his on-air work. It didn’t help that in 2007 the Pentagon wanted to pull NPR’s credentials in Iraq after Williams said incorrectly on Fox that Gen. David Petraeus had asked the White House for permission to go into Iran.

". . . Williams brought a valuable perspective to NPR, that of an African American with centrist-liberal credentials whose opinion was not always predictable. I liked him. But he is being disingenuous in calling his contract termination a free-speech issue. It was not because, as Williams writes, he 'did not fit their view of how a black person thinks.'

"It was a case of management snapping after years of warning him to be more careful."

Short Takes

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Alt weeklies and diversity

Many years ago at an AAN meeting, I asked why they did not invite the 200 plus members of the NNPA (Black press) to join their movement. Their pitiful excuse of an answer was that the NNPA papers were not free or had advertising on the front page. Bottom line, there was no interest. They had so many resources, sponsors, goodie bags — they weren't eager to share their good fortune with anyone. Ironic that the "alternative" press should be so narrow-minded and self-centered then and now.

It's a double-edged sword

It's a double-edged sword with altweeklies. I agree with Tony Ortega that 
alts do the best reporting on communities of color in the country. It's one 
of the reasons I loved my hometown alt and went to work in the alternative 
press. However, I've longed sensed a pervasive attitude among many alternative 
publications that winning a couple NABJ awards makes up for not having any 
actual black folks on staff.

On the staffing side, losing the Academy for Alternative Journalism was a pretty big blow so I'm very pleased to hear that AAN is attempting to revive it.

I also wonder -- and it's my hope -- that with the AAN's name change we'll see more cooperation between altweeklies and other non-mainstream media outlets, including the ethnic press and emerging online/nonprofit/investigative news organizations.

Alternative Weeklies "are so White."

This is very interesting to me.

I got my start writing for alternative weeklies. After reading an article in my local alternative paper that was a little racially tone-deaf, I walked into their office and asked if I might speak to the editor. Turns out I got to speak to the editor AND the publisher. I asked them how many Black contributors they had and they replied "none."

I ended up as their first Black contributor and my debut piece was a column on the riots in Los Angeles after the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial.

A few years later, the Columbus Association of Black Journalists held a forum on diversity in the local press and one of the alternatives sent a reporter to represent them. When the moderators asked him the same question I had asked previously, he leaned back in his chair, relaxed and said, "We don't have any. We feel we do a good job covering the Black community regardless."

Rarely do you run into that kind of smugness and arrogance. To this day, I don't believe this paper has had a regular African-American contributor or staffer.

I don't know how many journalists look at alternatives weeklies as viable options, but I believe they are great places to freelance and contribute to. Many actually pay their contributors which is never a bad thing.

That already makes the alternatives better than The Huffington Post.

Alt-Weeklies: Dancing around diversity (from Eric Deggans)

The Tampa chapter [of NABJ] often held public forums on diversity in media where the big alt weekly in town had to admit it had no people of color then working on staff.

I do think that, even though some alt weeklies do a good job of covering diversity issues, many don't. And often that coverage boils down to cool feature stories about black performers and investigative pieces about black people as victims.

But I also wonder if some journalists of color who might work at alt weeklies are instead enduring the low pay and crushing workload at black, or Latino-focused news outlets. Alt weeklies are focused like a laser on young, white culture, so perhaps its a case of the subject helping choose the staff.

Eric Deggans

TV/Media Critic

St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times

jonathan capehart

don't the hand ful of black commentators who'v e been given enormous power by the jim crow media have a responsibility to get their facts

right. yesterday, on msnbc, jonathan capehart fell for the tea party line that econ. crisis

occured because blacks and hispanics took out mortagages they couldn't

afford. even the f-ing wall street journal says that 60& of those who got

toxic loans were eligible for conventional loans. won't the msnbc producers

allow black commentators to mention that racism has something to do with anything? read a report from the center for responsible lending jon.

capehart. it's only a google click away.

Blacks and alternative weeklies

I wrote for alternative weeklies back in the 1980s; I had a couple of front
cover stories in the Village Voice, wrote for The Progressive, and some
Chicago and SF weeklies. The problem was like many mainstream magazines or
online sites today -- stories about or involving black folks were not a
priority and they are even less of interest today to the young white editors
who run these publications unless they fit a narrow band - debauchery,
pathology, corruption. Of course, you can write about nonracial subjects but
you have to establish your credentials or expertise in those areas.

The second issue is economics. The Voice made me a job offer back then that
made me laugh out loud - and drove me right to my next job at Black
Enterprise. I understood then that many of the writers at alt weeklies were
living off trust fund or their families. While the few staff positions may
be competitive, pay for freelance has declined as the Web has become a more
dominant force. I wouldn't look to those weeklies for a living.

The benefit is exposure. Alt weeklies give writers trained in the straightjacket of objective" journalism an opportunity to develop a voice; they tend to want articles with strong opinions and clear conclusions. Literary agents read alt weeklies. So do magazine editors.

And by the way, when you think of alt weeklies, think on line as well.

Joel Dreyfuss | Managing Editor| TheRoot||

ALternative Weeklies like NPR not interested In Black Issues

We have a Alternative Weekly here in Detroit with a Black editor that services and appeases his white yuppie readership. Black issues are always  themes of negativity crisis, trainwreck and crime carnage features with the usual Black musicians beat. The few Black contributors always appear to be seeking the vaidation of thier white readership by playing the good negro or the angry Black apologist mad at the woefulness of the Black community. Alternative weekies have no interest in Black issues, they like it that way. These publications are vehicles for white networking for white contributors, that much is obvious. These publications are no warm and fuzzy venues for Black writers.


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