“Promoting women of color has always been important to me. But promotion also has a retention challenge,” Abramson said last week at the Journalism & Women Symposium (JAWS) conference in Palm Springs, California. “I brought in some fantastic women of color to the Times. One of them is Lynette Clemetson who’s still a great friend of mine. But she left the Times to start theRoot. The competition for the talent is keen.”
After being fired and replaced by her deputy, Dean Baquet, in May, Abramson has continuously expressed pride in the number of women she hired and promoted at the Times during her tenure. She repeated the refrain at the JAWS conference, but ducked a question asked by The Washington Post’s She The People blogger Mary Curtis: In a nutshell, Curtis wanted to know whether Abramson really meant that she was proud of hiring and promoting white women.
It is a question women journalists of color have been asking for months, one Abramson declined to answer last month when Philadelphia freelancer Denise Clay asked it during a 10-minute interview at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. But it’s a question that deserves an answer.
Abramson touted advancing Baquet and hiring Clemetson, who was a correspondent when she left the Times to become managing editor of theRoot.com in 2008. Now part of the Slate Group, theRoot focuses on black news and entertainment, but Clemetson is no longer there. She’s now director of editorial initiatives at NPR where she works closely with Code Switch, NPR’s initiative to improve its coverage of race, ethnicity and culture issues.
Clemetson, who did not attend the JAWS conference and had no idea her name had been brought up in the conversation, said she initially told theRoot no when they first offered her the managing editor job. Clemetson changed her mind, she said, because theRoot represented an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding about the business side of digital journalism.
“The Times is one of those places that, when you arrive there, you don’t actually anticipate leaving,” said Clemetson, adding that it was hard to leave Abramson, someone who had helped shape her career. “It wasn’t about leaving The New York Times, I had a very good career at the Times. It was about taking a different opportunity, one that I thought I needed in order to grow in a different direction.”
Clemetson said when she left the Times, there were other women journalists of color at the newspaper, women with whom she remains friends and who are still at the newspaper. None of them, however, are currently listed at the top of the paper’s masthead.
So what’s really the problem when it comes to news organizations hiring and keeping women journalists of color?
Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said Thursday that we don’t do enough to track the reasons why women of color leave news organizations, or the profession. “There was a study done 12 to 13 years ago that looked at retention and recruitment of journalists of color. I have a feeling that the findings will hold true for women of color. The studies found that people left for a couple of reasons: Lack of job opportunities, but mostly because they felt their voices and stories weren’t valued,” Maynard said. “When you’re constantly being told a story isn’t a story and you’re constantly being shown that your perspectives aren’t valued, why would you stay?”
As newsroom staffing levels declined 6.4 percent from 2011 to 2012, the overall number of women staffers continued to hover around 36 percent, a figure that really hasn’t changed much since 1999, according to a report released by the Women’s Media Center this summer. But the percent of women of color inside newsrooms has fluctuated dramatically, the report states.
Of the women of color who remained in newsrooms in 2013:
- Women of Asian descent represented 52 percent of all Asian newsroom employees, down from a high of 55 percent in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
- Black women represented 47 percent of all black newsroom employees, down from a high of 50 percent in 2010.
- Hispanic women represented 40 percent of all Hispanic newsroom employees, down from a peak of 42 percent in 2007.
- Native American women accounted for 38 percent of all Native American newsroom employees, down from a peak of 51 percent in 2000.
- Multiracial women accounted for 47 percent of all multiracial newsroom employees. That figure was 53 percent in the center’s 2012 report, the first to include multiracial people.
Abramson’s comments at the JAWS Conference fail to paint a complete picture of what’s happening in U.S. newsrooms when it comes to women of color. What she didn’t say is that women of color are losing ground in the news media. It’s not that we choose to leave, oftentimes we can’t even get a foot in the door. And if we do, as Maynard said, we’re often made to feel as if our voices aren’t valued and our stories aren’t stories. Abramson proved that, once again, at the JAWS conference when she defended Alessandra Stanley who was roundly criticized in September for an insulting piece she wrote about television executive Shonda Rhimes. “Okay, one review she wrote might have a regrettable or ‘tone deaf’ phrase in it, but you try doing that job! It is tough to be a culture critic at the New York Times, and it’s tough to be a woman in that job…and over time I think Alessandra has become one of the most engaging critics in journalism today,” Abramson said in response to Curtis’ question about diversity at the Times.
Abramson wasn’t at the Times when Stanley’s error-plagued critique was published, but it is apparent that had Abramson been there, she wouldn’t have found anything wrong with Stanley’s piece and it still would have gotten published. The fact that Abramson insists only one line in that critique was problematic demonstrates precisely why women of color need to be at the table, not only as reporters and writers, but as editors who can call the shots and perhaps stop a piece like Stanley’s from being published in the first place.
Shortly before the Stanley critique, the Times had already demonstrated its need for diverse perspectives when it published a story that characterized Ferguson, Missouri shooting victim Michael Brown as “no angel,” as well as a more humanizing piece about his killer, police officer Darren Wilson, Maynard said.
“By not having that diversity of perspectives, at least two stories were published in a relatively short time span where the focus was not on the story, but rather the racial casting of the story,” Maynard said about the Times, though other news organizations are just as guilty.
“I’m sure that’s not what the reporters and editors at the Times wanted. When you publish a story, you don’t want people talking about your blunders along racial fault lines; you want them talking about the story,” Maynard added. “The way to avoid doing this is to make sure you have a staff that’s culturally competent to write and edit these kinds of stories. Even in a perfect newsroom not everybody would get what was wrong with the Stanley story. But you’d have enough people to balance the perspective, and you would have an atmosphere, and a culture, that would allow them to talk honestly about the problems before the story hits print so that they can be fixed.”
Clemetson, who has now been a manager for seven years, said both recruiting and retention are problems when it comes to women journalists of color and U.S. newsrooms. “I’m on the other side now, I am the person doing the recruiting and the retaining; I think they are different issues,” she said. “One of the points I think Jill was trying to make is we put a lot of focus on recruiting, but once you get people in the door, you have to keep them. You have to be mindful of a person’s goals and whether there is a track for that person to advance on.”
The larger conversation for Clemetson, she said, is that places like The New York Times, and others, used to represent the pinnacle of journalism career success. “But the digital expansion has changed all that, and the field for competition has changed dramatically in the last 10 years,” she said. “For many people, success on a career track is not about a major institution conferring success upon them. It’s more and more something they can make for themselves.”
Clemetson is right: Journalists can strike out on their own, and express themselves, free of the constraints of corporate media. But that doesn’t always pay the bills. Until it does, many women journalists of color stay inside newsrooms to fight the good fight, which is also a lonely fight.
For those who remain in newsrooms, race and gender help shape their perspectives. That’s just fact, and it should be valued. And if corporate newsrooms don’t allow us to bring these perspectives to the table, then there is very little incentive to stay. But these women have to be there in the first place in order for such a decision to be made; and there can’t just be one of them. Even if a Lynette Clemetson leaves, the bench of women journalists of color at news organizations ought to be deep enough so that if one woman leaves, there are still several others left in the room.
Abramson said she tried very hard to hire and promote women of color, “now it’s up to others to make the change.”
The thing is, we can always try harder. Abramson announced at the JAWS conference that she’s launching a startup that will pay journalists up to $100,000 to produce high-quality stories. So it’s not just left up to others. She too has another opportunity to pick up where she left off. And make change.
This post was updated with comments from NPR’s Lynette Clemetson.