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 Issue 28 • April 30, 2019 • by Taylor Blatchford 

The steps one college newsroom took to diversify its staff

It’s not breaking news that newsrooms don’t usually reflect the communities they cover. Newsroom employees in the U.S. were 77% white and 61% male as of fall 2018, according to a Pew Research Center report. The long-running issue has sparked more recent discussions and reports on how journalism can improve, but those conversations don’t usually include student publications — the natural pipeline into larger news outlets.

Christina Morales wanted that to change at the Alligator, the University of Florida’s independent student newspaper. As the Alligator’s engagement managing editor, Morales oversees audience engagement, social media and payroll, along with editing stories. She’s also made it a personal mission to recruit a more diverse group of students for the publication’s staff of about 40.

Morales shared the tangible steps she and other editors have taken to work toward greater newsroom diversity, the results they’ve seen and where they still hope to improve. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What goals did you set related to the Alligator’s newsroom diversity?

I wanted to start establishing relationships with people and start at a smaller level. A lot of that has to do with my own experience as a Latina woman at the Alligator. When I started, I was one of two Latina staff members there, and it was kind of a culture shock for me.

We wanted to increase diversity in our staff’s race, ethnicity, major and year in school. We’ve met a lot of those goals. Now we have seven Latinx reporters and editors, a black editor and an Asian reporter. We’ve recruited a lot of freshmen, including one editor, so they can learn the trade a little earlier.

We also added a coder who’s a computer science major and a graphic designer who’s a graphic design major — we wanted to branch out more and fill in those gaps. It’s really helped us a lot. Journalism majors can do whatever they can to be the one-man band, but at the end of the day it only helps to have people who bring in a different perspective and expertise. It opens up the door for other people: They can find a niche and you can benefit from their expertise, which is really helpful.

Tell me about the steps you took to work toward those goals.

I sent the application for our staff positions to all the diversity liaisons I knew of in our college. I got in touch with professors and told them about my wish to increase diversity on our staff, and I asked if they knew of candidates I should talk with.

When they recommended I speak to certain students, I met with them for coffee. We talked about potential opportunities at the Alligator, where they were in school and what they’d done. I made myself available to these people as a person rather than just a recruiter. That’s something somebody did for me: My previous editor-in-chief, Melissa Gomez, sat me down and said, here’s what you should do, you can be an editor, apply for this internship, etc.

I also personally went to classrooms where I knew there’d be new journalists I just normally don’t see. I told them about how the applications were open and how we wanted to increase diversity, encouraged everybody to apply and gave them my contact information. That really worked, too, and bumped up our applications. Last spring we had about 30 applications for the newsroom positions, and this year we had 82 applicants. That made the pool of applications more diverse and better quality.

It’s an effort that people have to make to be there, talk with people and be a leader in making those connections. There’s still a long way for us to go, but we’re getting somewhere.

You mentioned working on a diversity report for the Alligator. What does that include?

That’s still in the process, and we’re doing an exit survey that would be a way to keep track of where diversity is in the newsroom. We asked, “what makes you a diverse candidate?” in every interview this spring, and the survey asks the same thing.

We’re putting together a spreadsheet of that information to see if people can keep track of where the gaps are and how we can close them. Lots of our opinion columnists are white women and men. Lots of the sports desk is men; there’s only one woman right now. The copy and news desks all skew women. We’re figuring out how to close those gaps and where we can keep improving.

Why is it important for student newsrooms to make staff diversity a priority?

College newsrooms filter into regular newsrooms, and people should care about their diversity because that’s what’s going to help newsrooms like the New York Times, Miami Herald and Seattle Times increase diversity. We need to train minority journalists and let them know that this is something they can do, too.

There are obviously barriers that hinder minorities in pursuing journalism: There’s the cost to go to college, and journalism doesn’t transcend well to paying off loans. It’s a really difficult major to find minority people in, and we have to put in the effort to search for them. It’s about understanding the different situations that minorities might be in and working with someone and saying if you have to have a part-time job, we’ll make it work.

One tool we love

The American Society of News Editors’ Newspaper Diversity Survey measures the gender and racial balance of U.S. newsrooms’ staffs compared to the cities they cover (and here’s more detailed data). Most schools have data available about the student body’s gender and ethnic breakdown. It’s worth looking at that and reflecting: How does your publication’s staff reflect your school? What areas can you improve in, and how can you take steps to improve?

(Screenshot via ASNE)

Reading list

ProPublica has been a leader in transparency for its newsroom diversity, publishing annual reports and actively working to broaden journalism’s pipeline. Here’s its 2019 report that details the steps the organization is taking to keep improving, some of which can apply to student newsrooms, too.

After threats to fire its adviser, a high school newspaper in Stockton, California, is fighting to publish a story about a student who works in the porn industry, the Sacramento Bee reports. And in Lexington, Kentucky, high school journalists were turned away from a public roundtable with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Governor Matt Bevin, the PLD Lamplighter reports.

“The threat of an active shooter on campus confronts student journalists with a perfect storm,” Maitreyi Anantharaman writes for CJR after talking with student journalists at Northwestern, Central Michigan and Texas Tech. Rumors spread quickly on social media, young audiences have grown up in the shadow of mass shootings, and student journalists are covering a community they’re also part of.

Opportunities and trainings

  • Apply to cover this fall’s Society of Professional Journalists conference in San Antonio and attend the conference for free. Applications are due May 17.

  • Enter the New York Times’ student podcast contest by May 21.

  • College and graduate students, apply for the Online News Association’s Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab for hands-on experience covering this fall’s conference in New Orleans. Applications are due May 23.

  • Washington state students, apply for The Seattle Times’ Student Voices program to write about your experiences in the public school system. Applications are due May 24.

  • The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education created a toolkit with the goal of improving restrictive campus free speech policies. Make a plan and tell FIRE about your efforts by May 30.

  • Apply for the College Media Association’s Pinnacle Awards by June 3.
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Edited by the wonderful Nancy Coleman.
This week's issue is brought to you thanks to a batch of spice cake cupcakes.

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