The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media

Flickr/Sean Winters

This article has been corrected.

On the staff of The American Prospect, I’m the only member of an ethnic minority. That's not because I bring all the variety the magazine needs, or because the editors don't think diversity is valuable. Everyone on the masthead of this liberal publication is committed to being inclusive—not just of racial and ethnic minorities but of women; gays, lesbians, and transgender people; and the poor.

It's not just the Prospect. Journalism upstarts like Vox Media and FiveThirtyEight have come under fire recently for lack of diversity in their hires, but that's largely because they are drawing from the milky-white pool of “existing talent.” In the corner of the publishing industry that caters to college-educated wonks—a slightly fuzzy designation, but I've included most of the publications my colleagues and I read on a daily basis—racial and ethnic diversity is abysmal.

(Numbers include only editorial staff. Have updated numbers? Send us an e-mail.)

Nearly 40 percent of the country is non-white and/or Hispanic, but the number of minorities at the outlets included in this article's tally—most of them self-identified as liberal or progressive—hovers around 10 percent. The Washington Monthly can boast 20 percent, but that's because it only has nine staffers in total, two of whom belong to minority groups. Dissent, like the Prospect, has one. Given the broad commitment to diversity in our corner of the publishing world, why is the track record so poor?

Corporate America long ago signed on to the idea that diversity—besides being a noble goal in itself—is good for business. Companies with diverse workforces consistently outperform their competitors; diversity drives innovation, and workers tend to be happier at companies that value inclusiveness. But it's even more important in journalism than, say, at an accounting firm. When you're in the business of telling stories, lacking diversity means you're limited in the sorts of stories you can tell—or even think of telling. A newsroom filled with white guys simply lacks the same imagination as one with people from an array of backgrounds. One editor I spoke with stressed that they "choose staff for what they can bring to the magazine, first and foremost," but lacking diversity is actually a prime indicator that you're failing to attract the top talent.

A large part of the problem is simply that no one is keeping track. Unlike the National Association of News Editors, the American Society of Magazine Editors does not track the number of minorities among magazine staff.

Most of the editors I spoke with conceded up front that their record of hiring and retaining people of color was poor, but few knew the number off-hand. Most, however, knew their VIDA score—and remember answering for it. Since it launched in 2009, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has tallied the number of women on staff and in the pages of literary publications each year, releasing its counts in January. The organization's name-and-shame strategy has been highly successful.

"When VIDA publishes those numbers, it rattles around your head," says Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic. "It’s a form of shaming I think is actually fairly effective." Foer, who returned to helm the magazine in 2012 after leaving the post in 2010, says after the most recent VIDA count, he and his staff began keeping tabs on the number of male and female bylines in each issue and established a goal they want to reach before next year's numbers come out. Other publications—including the Prospect—have made inroads on the problem after the VIDA counts. "Having analytics and goals and knowing that it’ll just be embarrassing if you don’t do better next year is a pretty strong guarantee that things will be better," Foer says. In my survey, the center-left New Republic scored higher on the racial and ethnic-diversity scale than the rest of its more progressive counterparts save Mother Jones, with 12.5 percent of staff members hailing from minority groups.

The recession, too, took a toll on diversity. At newspapers, the percentage of minorities on staff decreased from 13.73 to 12.37 percent between 2008 and 2012. Anecdotally, the downturn has had a similar effect on the magazine world. Magazine editors offered several explanations for the whitewashing: Publications shrank to their core leadership, cutting off positions in the lower echelons, where members of minority groups are more likely to find themselves; people of color and members of other minority groups disproportionately took buyouts.

In the struggle to stay afloat, worrying about diversity came to be seen as quaint. "Up until 2008, newsrooms—especially large ones—were really really conscious about diversity," says Slate editor David Plotz, whose publication’s staff composition of 75 is about 6.7 percent minority. "The recession made newsrooms very miserly thinking about issues like that. The thinking was, 'We are in survival mode, we are about saving our jobs. This is not an issue we care about.'"

The stagnation of the industry also means there are few opportunities to increase diversity. "The staff here is unionized, which means there is little job turnover," says Richard Kim, executive editor at The Nation, who is Asian American and gay. "We only get to make a hire every four or five years." Among the progressive publications I examined, The Nation scored the lowest, with slightly over 4 percent of its staff hailing from racial and ethnic minority groups.

But the primary reason magazine staffs are so white is structural. "We practice fairly specialized form of journalism and the pool of people who do it isn’t terribly large to begin with, and then you look at the group of people who are practicing at a higher level and it’s just not a diverse pool," Foer says.

The road that ends with a spot on staff at places like The New Republic, The Atlantic, or the Prospect is paved with privilege. It starts with unpaid internships, which serve both as training grounds and feeders to staff positions.

"Most of our staff comes through our intern program," says Harper's editor Ellen Rosenbush. "Do we get as many applicants of color as we’d like? Probably not, but we do get them and we have hired them." There's a straightforward reason for the dearth of intern applications: Those who can afford to rely on mom and dad for a summer or a semester tend to be well-off and white.

While publications like The Atlantic and The Nation have begun to pay their interns minimum wage—in the case of the latter, after an intern revolt last year—most publications offer a meager stipend or do not pay at all. Slate pays its interns $10 an hour. Internships at The New Republic, Salon, Harper's, and the Washington Monthly are all unpaid. The Prospect pays its interns a stipend of $100 per week. On the bright side, a number of publications offer paid entry-level fellowships: The Prospect's pays $33,000 and includes benefits, The New Republic offers its reporter-researchers $25,000, and Mother Jones gives its fellows $1,500 per month. But money's not the only issue when it comes to interns. Most publications put little effort into recruiting for their internship programs, and the fact of the matter is that a black or Latino kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago is far less likely to have even heard of The New Republic or the Prospect than a white woman growing up on the Upper West Side.

This highlights another key reason the country's leading think publications lack diversity: the industry's reliance on social networks for hiring. The people we know—professionally and personally—tend to have similar backgrounds, and so when editors cast the net to build up the applicant pool for a position, they are largely recruiting people who look and think like themselves. The payroll at the outlets included in this piece draw heavily from the Ivy League or similarly selective institutions. "The original writing and editing batch at Slate came from elite college folks of the old [former TNR editor] Michael Kinsley New Republic tradition, folks who work there came out of that and tended to be white and Jewish and Northeastern," Plotz says. "That perpetuates itself—it’s hard to look for and find people who are not like you." Making matters worse, many outlets don't advertise open positions, instead relying on their circle of professional contacts to fill slots.

If magazines want to make their staffs more inclusive, it requires more than good intentions and a broad commitment to diversity. "To use the 12-step language, first you have to name the problem," says Monika Bauerlein, co-editor of Mother Jones, which has improved diversity in the past several years through concerted recruiting efforts, yielding 12.5 percent of its 40-person staff who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. "Diversity is something that we emphasize in every posting and that we look to as an important part in the candidates that we talk to."

So what happens if you stress diversity and still end up with an applicant pool that is almost exclusively white? "If you care about a diverse newsroom, you need to constantly be looking down the pipeline," says Ann Friedman, former deputy editor at the Prospect. "It requires you to be actively looking for new staff members, not just perusing the résumés that roll in." That means looking outside one's existing social network and actively asking minorities to apply. When the pool of applicants for the Prospect's writing fellowship was male and nearly entirely white, Friedman says she turned to the blogosphere, which is where the magazine found talented writers like Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie. "There are all sorts of nonwhite, nonmale writers all over the Internet," Friedman says.

Besides scouring the Internet, magazines can also increase the number of people of color who apply for fellowships and positions by reaching out to journalism departments at historically black colleges and Latino-serving institutions as well as professional organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Asian American Journalists Association. But the work doesn't stop there. "Even after you find someone you think will be a good fit in your newsroom, if your newsroom is mostly white and male and straight, you'll probably have to convince them they'll be welcome," Friedman says.

But cultivating diversity also means thinking differently about a candidate's qualifications. Because the barriers for entry into journalism are higher for members of racial and ethnic minorities than for other groups, they often come to the process with less journalism experience than their white counterparts.

"The pitfall many managers fall into is thinking that the most qualified candidate is the one with the most experience," says Buzzfeed deputy editor Shani Hilton, who has written about newsroom diversity, and is African American. "But experience isn't the only metric. We're hiring for a mosaic of reasons—it’s not just your clips, but also how you are in newsroom, who recognizes you and also how good you are at Twitter and on the Internet." Recruiting and investing in minorities at the entry level—including intern positions—is crucial if the industry hopes to make progress down the line; today's interns are tomorrow's editors.

The good news about diversity is that it tends to perpetuate itself. Having people who belong to minority groups on staff signals that the workplace is inclusive, which encourages people of color and those from other minority groups to apply, and once minority writers and editors sign on, they instantly expand the network of personal and professional contacts to draw on the next time a position opens up. This is especially true when a publication hires a person of color in its senior editorial ranks, and that's where diversity is worst: Among liberal publications, only The Nation and Mother Jones have racial and ethnic minorities in upper management.

Like poverty, diversity is not a problem that will just address itself, and a broad commitment is not enough. It takes effort and planning, which is why universities—the leading institutions on the diversity front—invest so heavily in recruitment. But first you need to name and quantify the problem. Next time someone asks, I'm hoping my colleagues at other publications will at least know how many people of color they've got on staff. 

The original version of this article misstated the percentage of Mother Jones's staff comprising members of ethnic minority groups. The correct percentage is 12.5, not 10. In addition, contrary to a statement in the original version, Vox Media pays its interns.

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