By Craig Ladwig
Walking into a metropolitan newsroom in the early 1970s, you were struck by the size of the place — a full city block, or so it seemed. You could look up from the copy desk and see a hundred people at a hundred desks. It was a sociological Petri dish.
In that expanse of faces, you could find fewer than a half dozen African-Americans. It was typical — they made up less than 5 percent of newspaper staffs nationwide at the time.
Among them was the religion editor a few desks over. One Sunday morning in August, she was stabbed by a woman who asked her for a ride. The attack put a 5-inch gash in her neck. More on that later.
It was about that time that management decided to get serious about diversity. That 5 percent would not do. Ambitious programs were put into place to quantify the new openness to all races, religions and creeds. Faces in photos were counted for ethnicity.
And now we read, just last week, after 40 years of organizational contortion and posing, that African-Americans represent only 4.78 percent of newsroom staff, virtually the same as when I walked into that newsroom long ago.
So what was it all about?
The industry rightly boasts of Pulitzers won fighting prejudice and promoting better race relations. That low percentage, though, begs some sort of explanation. Perhaps the quality if not the quantity of African-American journalists has improved.
That is subjective, of course, but there is a study showing that if you raise entry-level salaries for teachers, say, you don’t necessarily get more good teachers. What you get is more applicants who, although attracted by the higher pay, really wanted to be doctors or lawyers but find it to be too much work.
Perhaps journalism, like teaching, is a calling independent of recruitment campaigns or even salary level — independent of preferred racial proportions.
Surely, though, there is more opportunity today at the executive level. Or maybe not. April Ryan of The American Urban Radio Network reports that African-Americans make up only 10 percent of staff in even the politically correct Washington bureaus, traditional doorways to senior management. Consider that 24 percent of journalism-school graduates are Afrrican-American.
As the diversity drive got into full swing at my particular paper, a friend, a son of the rural South, found himself in contention for one of the most coveted slots: covering the local professional football team. He got the job and did well despite inexperience. A few years later, before he had had time to really settle in, he was tapped to fill a new minority seat on the editorial board. He did a good job there, too.
It was widely thought that this fellow had the intelligence and leadership qualities to be a managing editor and eventually a publisher. Indeed, some of us felt the newspaper needed him at the top if it were going to make the transition into the 21st century.
But sports reporter and editorial writer are the fun jobs. They are not the jobs that prepare you for an executive suite, the ones that offer the chance to learn and demonstrate people-management skills, mastery of budgets or a grasp of strategic goals.
So my friend went parallel, as they say, taking one convenient but unchallenging position after another. He ended up in middle-age teaching in a journalism school; that is, doing what journalists do when they are sick to death of journalism.
The religion editor, hired long before management counted African-American faces, was back at her desk within a few weeks. She forgave her attacker in person and in her column, filing a report of the incident on deadline exactly as it was scheduled in the weekly news budget.
Nobody was surprised. She was a working journalist, after all, and of a stature far above that which any policy directive could confer. She had made a habit of exceeding expectations. The place couldn’t run without her.
Somewhere in there is why we work for equality of opportunity and not equality of results.
Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.