Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting

I’m delighted that the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting is going to move to Chapel Hill. The society “works to educate news organizations and journalists on how the inclusion of diverse voices can raise the caliber, impact and visibility of investigative journalism as a means of promoting transparency and good government.”

The profession is in dire need of diverse voices.

While I’m aware that diversity includes age and gender and ideas, I’m going to speak specifically about race here.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion in journalism are essential to a healthy democracy and a relevant industry. We’re proud to support an initiative of this caliber to help make newsrooms more reflective of the communities which they report on,” said Susan King, dean of the School of Media and Journalism at UNC. Full disclosure: I am an adjunct there and proud of it.

After years of saying that every reporter needed to find stories and sources outside of the white community, editors at my paper got frustrated. Consequently, more than 25 years ago, the News & Record created a reporting position that we called “minority affairs” and filled it with a smart, capable, tough-minded reporter, Robin Adams. The idea that stories involving minorities were as important as stories about health and politics and education. Robin did a crackerjack job, but one downside to the position is that some reporters began to funnel stories about minorities on their beats to her, rather than doing them themselves. That was the opposite of our intent — although it shouldn’t have surprised us.

We also set a goal of hiring a work force of journalists that reflected our circulation area, which was about two-thirds white and one-third minority, primarily African American. Our percentage of white-black journalists hovered in the mid-teens.

After years of saying that we strived to hire a diverse workforce, we hadn’t made much headway. Consequently, we instituted a policy in which at least one person of color would be interviewed for every job opening. We kept with that pretty well, but it didn’t result in moving our minority hires much.

After a while, I got frustrated with our lack of success. Consequently, I established a standard that we would hire at least one person of color in at least every three hires. (I came up with that because of the circulation area’s majority-minority percentage.)

I wrote about the effort and got immediate feedback from some in the community, saying that the paper was lowering its standards. This was an assumption based on racism, I believed then. And now. To hell with them, I thought.

That effort actually worked for a little while. It was tough, though. We had to broaden our pool of candidates. We had to find ways to attract candidates to the paper. In retrospect, we didn’t do enough. After a year or two of tracking the numbers of hires, the recession hit and we started holding jobs open, rather than filling them. I took my eye off the ball and began focusing on saving money.

That hiring standard fell by the wayside. I consider it one of my bigger mistakes.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m glad that the society is coming to UNC. News organizations need its help, expertise and inspiration. And I congratulate Susan King for leading the way to make it happen.

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