Daily newspapers should follow The New Republic and examine own record on race

Jeet Heer‘s remarkable cover story dissecting The New Republic’s history of racism should get major daily newspaper editors thinking about commissioning an independent, critical look at their own publication’s legacy on race.

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The New York Times, for example, just eliminated a beat dedicated to the issue. Editor Dean Baquet says issues of race need to be tackled throughout the newsroom, not relegated to a single specialty reporter. It would seem to be the perfect time to examine the Times’ track record on race and how newsroom culture over the years has shaped it. Maybe Heer could write it.

For publications such as the New York Post, an honest, New Republic-style self-assessment of the past would be the only possible way to begin to think about changing their perception in huge segments of the community. If the Post was actually interested in that.

When I led the New Haven Register’s newsroom, it was a frank (but very limited) admission that we had allowed open racism to fester in our story comments that led us to seriously confront the bigger issue of newsroom diversity.

If we’d stepped back much further than that, we would have seen how decades-old, maybe centuries-old perceptions had shaped who we were and how we were seen by our own community.

In 1973, two years before I, the future Register editor, was born, a remarkable critique of every daily newspaper in New England was commissioned by the New England Daily Newspaper Association and the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Ben Bagdikian was among the veteran journalists sent out to examine each newsroom. It resulted in a book that I’m lucky to have in my position, called “Evaluating the Press: The New England Daily Newspaper Survey.”

From the critique of the Register:

“No particular emphasis is given locally to reporting concerning minorities, although New Haven has a large black population. (Then-editor, the late Robert J.) Leeney said the paper has a responsibility to serve the inner city, but doubts that the paper is important to the black community. The Register has two blacks on its staff; Leeney said the paper has been unable to hire more because (a) they get better offers from other papers and (b) he senses that they come under special pressure from the local black community, sometimes making their positions untenable.”

A few years before, but not addressed in the book, the late famed civil rights attorney Catherine Roraback, working with the NAACP, had threatened legal action against the Register. They claimed the paper had conspired with city officials and business leaders to manipulate perceptions about the black community through warped coverage of crime and other matters.

In hindsight, I wish that when we were confronting diversity and its impact on news coverage, I had hired a smart, independent outside journalist like Jeer Heet to examine the Register’s historical and present treatment of race.

The Register and other daily newspapers serious about covering and serving their entire community still could.

Published by mattderienzo

Matt DeRienzo has worked in journalism for more than 25 years as a reporter, editor, publisher, director of news and journalism nonprofit executive director. As vice president of news at Hearst Connecticut, he led a newsroom of more than 175 people, instilling a culture of investigative reporting, and growing audience while launching a paid digital subscription model at six daily newspapers. While there, he oversaw a national investigation into sex abuse at Boys & Girls Clubs that was recently recognized with an Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) national award, as well as the New England First Amendment Coalition’s Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award. As the first full-time executive director of LION, a nonprofit supporting local independent online news organizations across the country, he started with an annual budget of $30,000 and helped bring in more than $2 million over three years from funders including the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, Inasmuch Foundation (Ethics & Excellence in Journalism), and Facebook, while tripling the organization’s membership. As a publisher, he was an early leader in reader and community engagement, launching North America’s first “newsroom café,” which opened a Connecticut daily newspaper’s doors to the public, and which was recognized with the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Innovator of the Year Award. As editor of the New Haven Register, he led a team of more than 100 journalists borrowed from around the country and on his own staff in covering the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School and its aftermath. During his tenure in New Haven, the Register also received the Robert C. McGruder Award for Leadership in Newsroom Diversity from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Most recently, he has done consulting work for Local Media Association on fundraising from foundations and individual giving in support of local news organizations. He co-managed the Facebook Journalism Project’s recent COVID-19 Relief grant program, which received more than 2,000 applications and is part of $25 million in funding Facebook has earmarked to help local news organizations through this crisis. He was a Sulzberger fellow at Columbia University in 2018, and has taught reporting, editing and multimedia journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and Quinnipiac University. His column about the journalism industry has appeared in Editor & Publisher magazine since January 2016. He is a full-time single dad of two who has been active in Northwest Connecticut as a board member of the Susan B. Anthony Project, a domestic and sexual violence support and advocacy, and previously as a longtime United Way board member and two-time annual fund chairman.

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