Meredith Clark on race, power and why the media have fallen short on diversity

Meredith Clark. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

On the brand new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Professor Meredith Clark, our colleague at Northeastern University. Dr. Clark is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern as well as founding director of the university’s new Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change.

Before arriving at Northeastern, she was a faculty fellow at Data & Society, an independent nonprofit research organization based in New York that examines some of the questions being raised by the massive increase in the use of data in all aspects of society.

Dr. Clark’s research is on the intersections of race, media and power, and she’s studied everything from newsroom hiring and reporting practices to social media communities. Her media diet is wide-ranging and eclectic. Our interview touches on many cultural icons, including poet Audre Lorde and Captain Olivia Benson, the fictional “Law & Order SVU” crime-solver.

Meredith is perhaps best known in news circles for her work in trying to revive an annual diversity census conducted by the News Leaders Association, an effort that fell short earlier this year after just 303 media outlets responded out of the 2,500 that were asked to provide data. Ellen and I asked Meredith why so few were willing to participate — and what can be done to encourage diversity at small start-up news organizations.

In Quick Takes, I discuss Gannett’s recent move to dismantle some of the chain’s regional editorial pages, which I see as not entirely a negative, and Ellen tips the hat to two of the 2022 recipients of the prestigious Freedom of the Press Award: Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and Mukhtar Ibrahim, founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

News organizations need to stop stonewalling on layoffs and diversity data

Photo (cc) 2009 by Richard Kendall

The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”

She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:

  • “Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
  • “A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
  • “Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”

Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:

The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”

Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend  meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?

Marty Baron on the rise of specialized communities

Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.
Marty Baron at The Washington Post. Click on image to watch interview.

Based on recent statements they’ve made, I’m wondering if Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron may have a more sophisticated view of what the Internet has done to newspapers than the Post’s incoming owner, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos, who visited the Post’s newsroom earlier this month, seemed to endorse a classic paywall model, arguing that he was convinced people were willing to pay for the “daily ritual bundle” that The Washington Post represents. That brought a retort from Post blogger Timothy B. Lee, who wrote:

That daily ritual got blown up for good reason. Trying to recreate the “bundle” experience in Web or tablet form means working against the grain of how readers, especially younger readers, consume the news today. In the long run, it’s a recipe for an aging readership and slow growth.

Indeed, many news observers have been arguing for years that one of the Internet’s most profound effects on journalism is “disaggregation” — that in a post-industrial environment, with news no longer tied to the enormous costs of printing and distribution, it makes no sense for international and local news, obituaries and comics, grocery store coupons and the crossword puzzle all to appear in the same place.

Baron, the editor of The Boston Globe until late last year, comes up with another metaphor, not original to him but nevertheless key to understanding what has happened — the decline of geographic communities and the rise of communities built around shared interests. In an interview with fellows from the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Baron talks about the difficulty of putting together (to cite one example) a newspaper sports section for Red Sox fans when there are speciality media devoted to nothing but sports.

This development, Baron says, was furthered by the rise of Twitter and other social media, which bring readers in to a news site to read just one article. How can news organizations make money from that? Baron puts it this way:

My sense is that people are going to their passions. Their passions aren’t always based on geography. Newspapers have traditionally been based on geography. We have a community here. We have a community in Miami, a community in Boston, a community in Los Angeles. The assumption was that people were members of that community actually would want to have a product that covered the full range of things in that community. What I observed over time was that, in fact, the sense of community wasn’t nearly as strong as the other passions that people had. In fact, community wasn’t necessarily such a strong passion. It was much more important to them that they were an aficionado of a particular type of music, or that they were a member of a particular religious denomination or that they were obsessed with a particular sports team, than the fact that they lived in Los Angeles.

Unlike some journalists, Baron thinks it was perfectly logical to give away news for free in the early years of the Internet, both because of the need to get big online in a hurry and because there was every reason to believe that advertising would pay the bills. It was only after ad revenues failed to materialize (and even began to drop because of the ubiquity of online ads), he says, that news organizations reluctantly moved to paywalls.

The transcript of Baron’s full interview is here, and it is well worth reading — or watching, as there is a video version of the interview as well.

Baron was one of 61 people interviewed for “Riptide,” a project carried out by Shorenstein fellows John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz and Paul Sagan. (The site was designed by the Nieman Journalism Lab, which also hosts it — but which played no role in the editorial content, as Lab director Joshua Benton explains.) “Riptide” is a comprehensive, valuable resource — but it has proved to be controversial since its release because it’s not comprehensive enough.

As Kira Goldenberg writes for the Columbia Journalism Review, all but five of the 61 interview subjects are men, and only two of the subjects are non-white. Goldenberg says that efforts have begun to produce a counter-report that will be more diverse. In offering a few nominations of her own, Northeastern University graduate student Meg Heckman adds:

It’s unfortunate that, in telling the latest chapter of journalism history in a fresh, narrative format, the authors of Riptide make an old mistake by continuing to devalue the contributions of women.

My own view is that “Riptide” represents a good start — but that there’s no reason for Huey, Nisenholtz and Sagan not to keep going so that it eventually grows into a truly comprehensive, diverse history of how the Internet disrupted journalism.

(Disclosures, of which there are several: I am an unpaid contributing writer for the Nieman Journalism Lab. I have long had a friendly relationship with folks at the Nieman Foundation and at the Shorenstein Center. Heckman is a student of mine, and I am a student of hers.)