As diversity stagnates in mainstream press, ethnic news finds strong foothold in West Michigan

The growth of diversity in the mainstream media has stalled in recent years amid the chilly business climate for newspapers, but the editors at ethnic publications in West Michigan say there’s still reason to be optimistic about the future of media diversity and the range of viewpoints available.
This article is the second in a three-part series from Rapid Growth Media on journalism and media in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Part one focused on different perspectives on contemporary journalism and how business changes have impacted the practice; part two deals with diversity and the representation of different groups in the new media landscape; and part three will focus on how organizations in the community interact with the press amid staffing changes.

Speaking with The New Yorker in 2007, former Baltimore Sun reporter and TV writer David Simon detailed his frustration at the professional journalist’s constant corporate directive to do “more with less” in an era of staff and resource reductions.

“You don’t do more with less,” he told The New Yorker in a quote that would later appear in his acclaimed HBO show “The Wire.” “You do less with less; that’s why they call it less.”

Figures that document diversity in newsrooms over the recent years of widespread layoffs and staff reductions add another caveat to Simon’s straight-talk: You don’t make your newsrooms more diverse with less, either.

The American Society of News Editors, which releases an annual census tracking diversity in American newsrooms, reported in July of last year that the percentage of minority journalists in daily newspaper newsrooms across the country had “remained relatively stable,” which is becoming something of a holding pattern for the mainstream media. The percentage of minority journalists has settled into a range between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade now — a stability that seems admirable at first glance, based on the steady loss of journalism jobs across the industry.

However, journalist Riva Gold, writing for The Atlantic in 2013, pointed out that these figures are far from ideal in an era when non-whites make up about 37 percent of the American population. Gold interviewed veteran journalists and editors from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the minority journalist organization Unity and others to reach a distressing conclusion: in an era of buyouts and layoffs affecting newsrooms nationwide, diversity in journalism is no longer a priority that guides staffing and hiring decisions, and the effect has been a “stagnation,” as Gold puts it, of the growth of diversity in the media.

"It's not an enormous downward trend," wrote Gold. "But the point is, it's supposed to have gone up. When numbers don't move, it's either stagnation or regression relative to minorities in the U.S. population."

Wayne State University professor Alicia Nails has thought about this problem and how it impacts readers in Michigan more than most: she serves as the director of the school’s Journalism Institute for Media Diversity (JIM), an honors program that trains high-achieving students for careers in media. JIM, which was founded in 1984 as a collaboration between Wayne State’s Department of Communication and the editors of the Detroit Free Press, offers scholarships for students to study journalism, public relations or radio and television production at Wayne State, and has placed more than 150 graduates at a variety of media organizations nationwide.

According to JIM’s online program description, “members of racial, ethnic, and other underrepresented groups are particularly urged to apply, as are those interested in studying the importance of diversity in the nation's media to this country's future well-being.”

Nails says that ethnic newspapers and their reporters today face many of the same financial challenges and questions of profitability that continue to haunt the mainstream media. Unfortunately, she says, reverence and nostalgia for the important role many minority publications played in the Black community and the national conversation about equal rights has saved few jobs and informed few business decisions as ethnic publications look to trim their budgets and balance their books.

“You’re already looking at smaller operations, changes in budget — it definitely affects the ethnic media too,” she says. “Even national publications are struggling, like Ebony and Jet — their parent company [Johnson Publishing] finally sold their photo archives... That’s our history, but to them, it’s an asset. It’s not something that anyone ever expected to be sold, but then, we’re not the people trying to balance the books.”

Nails says that the challenge communities of color face in the media today isn’t just about reaching a certain level of representation in newsrooms — it’s also about maintaining the level of experience and institutional knowledge required to serve unique ethnic and geographic communities in the face of mass layoffs and the departure of veteran reporters of color.

“When you’re bringing in a new, green person — just because they’re African American, can they really replace Cassandra [Spratling] at the Detroit Free Press?” Nails says of the veteran Black reporter who recently accepted a buyout as the Free Press’s parent company, Gannett, continues to restructure its newspapers across the country. “Because it’s not just sitting there and being Black or Latino or Asian in the room. You also have to look at the strength of that voice and will it be respected; do they know how to be heard? And an entry level reporter won’t have that skillset compared to someone who’s been there 30 years.”

As one example, Nails points to the coverage surrounding the confirmation hearings of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, which sometimes expressed confusion about the prominent presence of people in red garb: Lynch’s sorority sisters from Delta Sigma Theta — an African-American Greek organization with a long history of social justice activism.

Nails, a Delta Sigma Theta member who serves as the state journalist for the sorority’s Michigan chapter, says that many younger reporters, African-American and otherwise, lack a historical understanding of Black sororities and their prominent leadership role in the African-American community during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond — which in turn leads to a lack of emphasis in news coverage, despite the leadership role and political influence these organizations still hold in the Black community.

“To a reporter who is not at all familiar, they think a sorority is something that happens on campus, and it’s not a big deal,” Nails says. “They don’t understand that Loretta Lynch is a Delta and so we had front page coverage: ‘Who are these women in red?’ And these were our national presidents sitting there, women who have been corporate leadership.”

“So an inexperienced kid doesn’t understand it,” she continues. “But to an experienced leader in the Black community, they know we’ve had two major leadership institutions: our churches and our Greek organizations. If you have young [reporters] who don’t have a frame of reference for that community, there’s no way they would know that.”

Nails says consumers could make a difference in the media’s diversity problem by seeking out new points of view and new sources of information — a revolution that should be primed to happen as old media monoliths give way to smaller outlets that serve niche readerships. Unfortunately, she says, she sees the opposite happening among media readership: Consumers are becoming even more enamored with, and dependent upon, their go-to sources, especially those they can read for free.

“People are going to outlets that speak specifically to their point of view,” she says, “For major events, people might go to CNN or NBC and the whole country looks at a major event, but the next day when the analysis and blame starts, people go to the outlets that speak to them. It’s very insular, and that’s the dynamic that’s at work.”

Andres Abreu, the founding editor of the Grand Rapids-based Latino newspaper El Vocero Hispano, says he has observed some of that same segmentation in both news audiences and outlets during his tenure running a prominent Spanish-language newspaper that serves the West Michigan community. Abreu, a former reporter and press director from the Dominican Republic who founded El Vocero in 1993, says that his paper used to have ongoing channels of communication with mainstream local outlets. The Grand Rapids Press hired a number of his writers who then kept in touch with El Vocero, and the news director at the Press often did the same, he says; meanwhile, WOOD TV8 allowed El Vocero to print their weather reports in exchange for help with occasional spot-news segments.

Since the major area news organizations have started to re-structure newsrooms over the last several years, though, those lines of communication have gone quiet, Abreu says.

“We try to [work together], but sometimes the mainstream media aren’t interested,” Abreu says. “They did work with us before — when the Grand Rapids Press was the go-to print media, every week they called me to ask for help with some issue or feature, or to help get in touch with someone for a story. And sometimes I called them to ask for permission for using pictures. But since about seven years ago — the communication is lost.”

Abreu says that El Vocero, which is a free paper that generates revenue through its advertising, has had to grapple with some of the business challenges that have plagued other newspapers in recent years, especially during the Great Recession years of 2007 to 2009, when demand for El Vocero’s classified ads plummeted along with manufacturing and agricultural job opportunities. The paper had to sell off its pre-printing press at that time and downsize to its new, smaller offices at 2818 Vineland Ave SE.

However, Abreu says that El Vocero has since managed to rebound, and its circulation and staff figures are impressive for a contemporary print newspaper: Abreu says that he still prints about 10 to 12 thousand copies of the paper each week and employs a paid, full-time staff of about eight employees — most local, but with one designer based in the Dominican Republic and one writer in Argentina — as well as a number of paid freelance writers and photographers.

El Vocero, along with other Hispanic media outlets like Univision, have managed to thrive in recent years in part because of brand loyalty from a rapidly-growing Latino population and corresponding interest from advertisers, Abreu says. That loyalty remains strong in part because of the language barrier for Latinos — Abreu points out that many American immigrants from Mexico don’t speak English, unlike those who migrate from countries like India or some Asian nations, where English is taught as part of a standard high school education.

Spanish-language publications therefore have a unique opportunity to act as a channel between Spanish-speaking consumers and advertisers who are hungry to tap into the market, Abreu says.

“If you want to reach the Hispanic community, you have to go where they go, which is the Hispanic media,” Abreu says. “That is the reason why the Univision network is so successful. It’s like [our] paper — Hispanic people want to know what is happening in Grand Rapids or West Michigan, they look to the paper.”

With Latino publications doing well in a tepid climate for journalism jobs, Abreu says that many Latino journalists are finding work in the Hispanic media; he says the former El Vocero writers who left to work at the Grand Rapids Press, for example, have now moved on to find employment at a variety of publications that serve the Hispanic community.

While the availability of journalism jobs for Latino reporters can only be considered a positive development, their ongoing migration to Hispanic newspapers comes with a troubling corollary: They are increasingly under-represented in mainstream media, according to a number of experts.

As one example, a 2014 report from the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, titled “The Latino Media Gap,” studied the participation of Latinos in mainstream English-language media and determined that their presence was “stunningly low.” The report, which studied both fiction-based film and television as well as broadcast news, found that as of 2013, there were no Latino anchors or executive producers in any of the nation’s top news programs, and that only 1.8 percent of news producers are Latinos.

This low representation of Latinos in the mainstream news industry translates to what is often heavily biased coverage — or no coverage at all. According to the same study, “stories about Latinos constitute less than 1 percent of [mainstream] news media coverage, and the majority of these stories feature Latinos as lawbreakers.”

Abreu agrees with this picture, saying that he has noticed fewer Latino reporters in mainstream news outlets, both in West Michigan and in the media at large. As one example of the way this has shaped coverage, he points to the relative lack of coverage given in mainstream media to the upcoming Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s 2014 executive action to widen the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which would allow as many as five million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to avoid deportation and receive work permits — a news event Abreu sees as monumental in the U.S. Hispanic community.

“Next month, that Supreme Court decision about [DACA] is coming,” Abreu says, “and it would be a big celebration for the Hispanic community if they win [and it’s upheld] — or a very big crying if they lose.”

Upholding the expansion of DACA is also key for the future of Latinos in the media, Abreu says, because the permits provided by DACA would also allow undocumented immigrants to attend college and apply for financial aid. In his view, the upcoming Supreme Court decision could be the biggest factor in media diversity as it relates to the Latino population for years to come.

“The most important thing [in ensuring Latino presence in the media] is that the young people can go to a university,” Abreu says. “If DACA is continued and the undocumented people can go to college, they can get a career and into the media and communications. It’s the only way we can do it.”

Levi RickertLevi Rickert, a Grand Rapids-born American Indian and tribal citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, also has experience in running a publication that serves his ethnic community. He works as the founding editor-in-chief of Native News Online, a Grand Rapids-based website that covers news concerning the American Indian community on a national scale.

Rickert took a particularly challenging path to business success for his publication: A former community leader in Grand Rapids who served as vice chair of the city’s Community Relations Commission, among other posts, he started Native News Online in 2011 — just after the height of the financial crisis, at a time when many news outlets were still reeling.

The idea for Native News Online came, Rickert says, after a focus group for the Lansing State Journal in which some of his colleagues criticized that paper, as well as the mainstream media in general, for perpetuating negative stereotypes of American Indians by only focusing on crime stories or inter-tribal conflicts — criticisms he thought were “very legit,” despite his reluctance to focus on negative issues with the mainstream media.

“On the way back, I was in the car — and this was around the time the Hard Rock Cafe was purchased by the Seminole tribe in Florida — and I thought: ‘If the Seminole tribe can buy the Hard Rock, why are we just sitting around complaining about the media? Why don’t we buy our own network?”

Rickert says he established Native News Online as a private business enterprise with a traditional, ad revenue-based funding model — there are no grants or loans from tribal organizations involved in its funding. Although he isn’t able to employ any full-time staffers, Native News Online — which publishes three to five news stories every day, including weekends and holidays — does pay freelance writers for some of its content, and Rickert says he now receives weekly press releases from the White House and Congress rather than having to dig up every story angle from scratch through his personal contacts, as he did in the early days of Native News Online.

Besides Native News Online, which today can claim 355,000 “likes” on Facebook and about 160,000 page views in a typical week, Rickert also recently accepted a position as the editor-in-chief of the Tribal Business Journal, a monthly print publication with a national focus, targeted to tribal and business leaders of Native American enterprises.

“I’m pretty proud of where we are, and when I make speeches and talk to Native youth about becoming journalists, I basically say: ‘We know how the other side has told our story,’” Rickert says. “American Indians have not been positively depicted by Hollywood film, American literature, or news media across the country, and I like to tell our people, ‘It’s our time to tell our stories.’ And to me, that’s what Native News Online is about and now what the Tribal Business Journal is about.”

Native News Online’s success has stemmed from a few factors, according to Rickert. He points to the publication’s low-overhead, online-only business model and its focus on hard news and positive editorial perspectives, as opposed to the “angry, anti-government” rhetoric that some readers associate with Native publications.

Much like at El Vocero, though, advertisers who are becoming increasingly aware of the marketing possibilities available if they can reach a Native audience have also played a part in the publication’s ability to keep growing, Rickert says.

“I think it’s partly because of gaming and other tribal enterprises — there are a lot of non-Natives who want to reach the American Indian crowd,” Rickert says. “It’s anyone from Pepsi and Coca-Cola to companies that supply casino uniforms. And [Native News Online] is working because of that.”

But even if Native News and many tribal publications are thriving for these reasons, Rickert agrees that the rest of the media has a long way to go in terms of giving balanced coverage to issues affecting the American Indian community. Recently, for example, the killing of a Navajo woman in Winslow, Arizona by police after she allegedly brandished a pair of scissors attracted little media attention, despite its similarity to some of the shootings that inspired the #BlackLivesMatter movement and sparked widespread coverage over the past two years.

As a local example, meanwhile, he points to the considerable media attention given to the protracted legal battle that led up to the opening of the Gun Lake Casino in 2011 — compared with relatively little mention of the more than $60 million in revenue it had shared with the local community as of late 2014.

“I would love to see the Grand Rapids Press and the Grand Rapids Business Journal focus more on some Native issues and hire more Native staff,” Rickert says. “But I think where it’s maybe working for Native journalists is they do get employed by tribes. It’s not to say some aren’t struggling — certainly I’ve struggled with Native News. There’s no two ways about it. It wasn’t pretty at the beginning. But in a sense it has allowed me to work my passion.”

Rickert also says that he remains optimistic that people are becoming more curious about new outlets and diverse perspectives as traditional media outlets scale back coverage, and social media relationships expose people to a wider range of opinions and shared content from their social networks. He points to the success of Native News Online as a consequence, in part, of the decline in circulation for the Grand Rapids Press and its effect of forcing people out of their media “comfort zones” in West Michigan.

To prevent readers from retreating into their niches, though, he says, it’s up to the editors and content directors at these newer publications to take an inclusive and broad perspective that will produce news that’s informative for people from any ethnic group or social background.

“Right now I think niche publications are doing okay, and in some cases even thriving because of the pullback in the mainstream media,” Rickert says. “But I also think that’s where it becomes incumbent on editors of niche publications like Native News to present [content] in such a way where it can be read by non-Natives too. I personally hear from non-Native readers all the time, and I know for a fact that they’re reading [what we do.]”

“It’s been very fulfilling for me because I really do feel the efforts are making a difference,” he adds. “I hope people can really come to an understand of why people feel the way they do. And you know, I’m not arrogant enough to say I speak for all Native people. But it’s one man’s Native perspective that I can bring, and to me that’s important.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a freelance features writer at Rapid Growth Media. He also contributes to the Los Angeles-based news site ATTN: and previously edited the Grand Rapids-based food quarterly Roadbelly. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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