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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Staffers Press Washington Post Editor on Diversity

A staff meeting at the Washington Post was called Thursday for "important discussions about Washington Post readership" and to talk about "our plans for the newspaper." But it quickly turned into a session at which African American and other journalists at the paper questioned the Post's commitment to diversity in light of Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.'s selection of a white male editor to the number 2 newsroom job.

Well into the 90-minute meeting, during which the diversity issue was raised repeatedly, Darryl Fears, a national reporter, told Downie that black reporters had met among themselves (twice, it turns out) since the Nov. 5 announcement and that, "we're crushed by this decision."

It affected those journalists' perception of their ability "to rise to the highest level," Fears said.

Downie announced Nov. 5 that he had chosen Phil Bennett, the assistant managing editor for foreign news, to become the paper's managing editor effective Jan. 1, succeeding Steve Coll. "Phil emerged from a field of outstanding candidates, all from our newsroom," Downie wrote to the staff, citing Bennett-led coverage of the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among those candidates reportedly was Eugene Robinson, assistant managing editor for the Style section, an African American who had been portrayed as the newsroom favorite, and Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, who would have been the first woman to hold the post. ?I?m now 62, and we have to think beyond me,? Downie had said in the Washingtonian magazine. ?The candidate for this job is a candidate for my job.?

In the first staff meeting since the announcement, Downie told the more than 300 assembled that he was well aware that two white men would again lead the newsroom. But he said that the next level of 30 or 40 editors was diverse, and reiterated that the paper has "set annual goals for hiring women and minorities." He acknowledged that more diversity was needed in several areas of the paper, particularly at the level of assignment editor and in key beats. Bennett said flatly that the paper's pages don't "reflect by any measure the community."

After Downie began the session by saying that one of the charges coming out of the annual editors' meeting was to get rid of "bad habits," he was asked by Marcia Davis, an African American editor in the Style section, how he planned to address the "bad habits" that related to diversity.

Downie said the editors wanted to "identify more opportunities for talent in this room." He said at another point that he "did feel the responsibility" for diversity when he chose Bennett for the job. "In addition to weighing the candidates and their abilities, I weighed very seriously the perceptions that would result from the selection one way or the other. It's difficult to talk in more detail than that," he answered, given that it was a personnel decision.

And although such topics as redesigning the paper were raised, staff members continued to press on the diversity issue.

Lynne Duke, a Style section writer, noted that she was the last African American woman [reporter] hired for the national news desk, and said that was 14 years ago.

Another reporter said he was used to news sources who "say one thing and do another," and that the issue was "not what Len is saying but what Len is doing."

National reporter Ceci Connolly, who is white, said "a lot of the smaller things count," such as who gets assigned the breaking story and "which desks you hang out at."

"I want you guys to think about diversity constantly," another woman said.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a 23-year-old Style reporter whose father is Spanish and mother Japanese and Filipina, recalled that a diverse group of 100 high school journalists came to the Post recently as part of the paper's Young Journalists Development Program.

Vargas said one girl asked if he was an editor. He said he had never wanted to be one. But then, Vargas said, he began to think about why that didn't occur to him, and concluded that it could be because "I never saw people in that position" that he could relate to. "That's what people are trying to say," he told Downie.

In response to a question from business reporter Keith Alexander, who is also president of the Washington Association of Black Journalists, Downie said "sure," he would be willing to have a separate meeting with those concerned about diversity issues. "We're willing to work with you," said another, Metro reporter David Nakamura.

In the latest census of newspapers by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Post reported 22.6 percent of its newsroom professionals were black, Latino, Asian American and Native American.

But the high-profile national staff had far lower numbers. In a report on Washington bureaus this summer by Unity: Journalists of Color, the Post national staff's ethnic diversity was "in the middle of the pack of large newspapers in the survey, about 9 percent, far lower than the 29 percent posted by Knight-Ridder Newspapers, the 28 percent at Gannett News Service and the 18 percent at the Boston Globe," a Post story by Fears reported at the time.

At the end of the meeting, a black reporter told Downie not to "beat up on yourself," and another said she wanted to tell him she loved him.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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