Setting the record straight about diversity at Politico

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery said “black people don’t work for Politico.” He wasn’t wrong.

Between dodging rubber bullets, tear gas and arrests in Ferguson, Missouri, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery also made time to take MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough to task and later called out Politico for its lack of diversity.

Politico’s Dylan Byers — a media reporter who has spoken inarticulately about racial and ethnic newsroom diversity — and Kenneth P. Vogel — who covers the confluence of money, politics and influence — were quick to condemn the tweet:

Rather than engage in a Twitter fight, Vogel and Byers should stop acting like there isn’t a diversity problem inside their newsroom.  In fact, it’s worse than it was two years ago in that the number of black journalists working at Politico has dropped by half.

Politico isn’t the only digital news operation lacking in terms of diversity. But the others aren’t as publicly offended by the truth as Byers and Vogel appeared to be on Friday.

Politico has long struggled with newsroom diversity, particularly where black journalists are concerned. So much so that I interviewed the publication’s editor-in-chief, John Harris, in 2012 and asked him whether Politico was a good place for black journalists to work. Here’s what he said then:

“Politico is not a great newsroom for any and all journalists. There’s a particular type of journalist who seems to thrive at our publication, someone with a high metabolism and very high in these core topics,” Harris said in 2012. “We’re a great publication for any journalist, particularly and especially journalists of color, to come work. Politico journalists have more fun and more impact than they did in their previous jobs. It’s a damn good place for journalists who are interested in politics and share our kind of competitive feel for being the best in politics.”

When Harris and I talked in 2012, six black journalists worked in his newsroom. Now, that number is down to three in a staff of nearly 200. They include: copy editor Robin Turner as well as Darius Dixon and LaRonda Peterson, who both work for Politico Pro, the organization’s premium policy news service. This means there are no black reporters working for the country’s paywall-free premier news service covering Beltway policy and politics.

Some former insiders say Politico’s newsroom operates a star system that many journalists find difficult to penetrate, black or otherwise. Most of those within the star system, however, are white and male. 

Nothing but white, male editors at Politico editorial meeting.

Nothing but white, male editors at Politico editorial meeting.

I don’t believe that Harris believes black journalists don’t possess the “high metabolism” he talked about two years ago. But clearly something is wrong, like maybe Politico’s newsroom culture does not have the metabolism for black journalists. This isn’t the first time Politico has been called out about it either.

In April, Politico participated in a Washington, D.C.-based journalism jobs fair hosted jointly by journalism associations of color. Here’s how one journalist described her experience with company representatives at that event:

Three months later Politico held its first summer journalism institute, an initiative designed to train the next generation of Washington reporters and to support diversity. Nolan D. McCaskill, a senior broadcast journalism major at Florida A&M University said 10 of the institute’s 12 participants were students of color; seven of them were black, he said.

Nolan D. McCaskill, a senior at Florida A&M University, was one of 12 students chosen to participate in Politico's inaugural summer journalism training institute.

Nolan D. McCaskill, a senior at Florida A&M University, was one of 12 students chosen to participate in Politico’s inaugural summer journalism training institute.

I could tell a lot of money was invested into the program,” added McCaskill, who said he doesn’t know that he’d want to ultimately work for the company. He said Politico Pro’s Dixon served as his mentor, but that he did not meet any of the company’s black newsroom executives (he can’t meet people who, save for one, don’t exist). Instead, Politico pulled in black executives from other news organizations, including Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida and PBS co-anchor and Washington Week Managing Editor Gwen Ifill, McCaskill said.

“The 12 students selected didn’t have to worry about a thing,” he continued. “Our travel was covered, our housing was covered, our meals were covered and most of us were left with excess money to buy anything we wanted at American University’s bookstore. So off the financial commitment alone, I feel like this was a big investment to become more diverse.”

Politico obviously sees a need to groom young journalists of color to cover policy and politics, but that initial investment means nothing if they aren’t eventually hired by Politico or some other organization to do just that. And it sure doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if, once hired, the journalists choose not to remain with the organization.

Rather than getting defensive on Twitter, Politico veterans should focus on building on its journalism institute by figuring out ways to hire more experienced black journalists, particularly those who can be added to the newsroom’s executive ranks. But most important, Politico needs to figure out how to retain the black journalists it already has. If these steps are followed, who knows — students like McCaskill may want to work there one day, and may even stay for a while.