Fewer minority graduates land jobs in small media markets

by Marquita Smith, Ed.D., CSM Vice Chairwoman, John Brown University

Minority students searching for a solid entry-level experience at newspapers, television stations or magazines may find it difficult, and this should be a major concern for journalism and mass communication educators.

Marquita Smith, CSM vice chairwoman

According to the Pew Research Center, minorities continue to be underrepresented at U.S. news organizations, especially in markets where young journalists often enter the business. Last year, Michael Barthel wrote a report that highlighted statistics from two major media organizations: The Radio Television Digital News Association and American Society of News Editors. Both organizations reported low numbers of minority journalists in media.

In the Pew Research Center report, the author referenced Alex T. Williams’ work. His analysis emphasized “data showing that minorities who received undergraduate journalism or communications degrees and specialized in print journalism were 17 percentage points less likely than non-minorities to find a full-time position within a year of graduating; the same held true for graduates specializing in broadcasting.”

My peers and I started our journalism careers in smallish markets. More than 20 years ago, that’s just how it worked. But now, students likely need to break into larger markets if they want to have careers at newspapers or television stations. According to the Pew report (2015) local TV and newspapers are least likely to have minority employees. What few employees they have are promoted less frequently to management positions. With this understanding, what exactly are we preparing our students to do, particularly, if fewer and fewer opportunities exist?

Despite the nation’s increasingly diverse population, fewer minorities (including African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American and multiracial populations) are working in the media industry. Currently, minorities make up 35 percent of the U.S. adult population. However, minority employees make up only 22 percent of the local television news workforce, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reported in an annual survey of newsroom employment that only 13 percent of workers are minorities. Not much has changed in 20 years, said Neil Foote, a former ASNE director and professor at the University of North Texas in Denton. Foote stated that media organizations may be focused on sustaining the business vs. recruiting and retaining employees of color.

According to the Pew Research, while numbers are better at larger daily newspapers, they continue to decline at smaller organizations. At larger papers with higher circulation, minorities make up about one in five newsroom workers. But that number drops to fewer than one in 10 at lower-circulation dailies. Moreover, budget cuts at daily newspapers also seem to be hitting minority employees disproportionately. Nearly one-in-four minority employees at dailies left or lost their jobs in 2014, ASNE’s largest reported minority job decrease in three decades. Meanwhile, fewer white employees, 14 percent, left their organizations.

Glenn Proctor, author, business and career coach and retired executive editor-vice president of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said the news industry will continue to use budget cuts as an excuse for lack of diversity. “But the keys are – I have said this for 30 years at least – twofold,” he said. “Hiring people of color and different backgrounds is the first part. But most important is having people of color and different backgrounds in the news meetings, on the assignment desks and behind the cameras as executive producers and in our high school and college journalism classrooms.”

Currently, there are very few journalists in the pipeline to take these top positions. “Even more of a key component is having these folks as top decision-makers – general managers, publishers, executive editors, managing editors and website content directors,” Proctor added.

Part of that gap is the lack of diverse hiring and promotions, but also few people of color are stepping up “as we did” to seek out these positions, he said. He mentioned that one major disruption caused by budget cuts was the elimination of corporate/company recruiters, who, he believes, did a good job of hiring for skill as well as diversity.

“I know that because I was one of those national recruiters for several decades as well as pushing diversity agendas in the many newsrooms where I served as an editor,” Proctor said.

As print dissolves, budget cuts, buyout and layoffs continue to push seasoned journalists of color not only to find new opportunities in digital media but also outside the industry. That is most unfortunate because journalism is losing institutional knowledge, management expertise and some of those equipped to take senior-level positions. Also, news executives are most focused on generating and maintaining revenue, which has put diversity on the back burner or outside the conversation all together, Proctor said.

“When hiring is left to today’s news executives – or put in the hands of their middle managers – diverse hiring does not happen, because many of the executives and their middle managers have not had business, educational or social experiences with people of color or those with diverse backgrounds,” he explained. “Just as tragic, though, is some of the older executives have opted to push women as their primary minority, believing that option satisfies their objective for diversity.”

According to Pew research, local TV stations have similar hiring patterns as newsrooms. However, television minority employment is higher than that in newspapers. Minorities make up 29 percent of the workforce in the top 25 TV markets, but just 14 percent in the smallest ones.

What these data do not address are the reasons why this disparity exists. Smaller news organizations may differ from large organizations in a number of ways: audience demographics, available resources for hiring and recruitment, and human resources at the media organization. Still, the disparity in minority employment exists at both daily newspapers and local TV stations.

Michael L. Mercer, senior instructor at the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, discussed why smaller markets continue to struggle with diversity. “Smaller markets are generally comprised of more conservative people. Demographics tend to not lend themselves to promoting people of color,” Mercer explained. “People go where the jobs are.”

But generally, the color tends to follow the market. Mercer discussed earlier trends and highlighted that blacks tended to migrate to big cities, like Detroit, Washington and Los Angeles.

“While graduates don’t want to go to smaller markets, it’s a good opportunity of them to develop the necessary skills to go to a larger market,” he said. But with fewer opportunities there, academics are going to have to become more engaged and connected to help students find employment, Mercer reflected.

The media industry was a little more diverse before the economy went south. So, the job loss “was about seniority,” Mercer said. The lack of diversity at media organization was already a problem during good economic times. While the minority numbers were greater, they were always an issue for newspapers, and those teaching students of color must be aware of the latest hiring trends.

In conclusion, as educators, who are advocating for more minority representation in the industry, we must be more diligent about networking with local media leaders. We must understand that fewer recruiting opportunities exist for students of color. We also must prepare students to be more tenacious when looking for entry-level opportunities at newspapers or local TV stations. Additionally, we have to go beyond preparing students to be good media employees and help them to become great media organization leaders and entrepreneurs.