By Matthew Vann
When Michael Cottman left the Washington Post to become a senior correspondent at Black America Web he breathed a sigh of relief.
“I was longing to get to that place where I could go out and report uplifting stories about things happening in the African-American community,” said Cottman, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper veteran. “It was like coming home.”
That sentiment reflects a growing trend among a number of black journalists who are leaving mainstream news organizations for black oriented media outfits.
While the past year has seen prominent journalists like T.J. Holmes and Constance C. R. White leave news organizations like CNN and eBay for BET and Essence, respectively, the number of African-American journalists declined for the fourth consecutive year.
That is according to a newsroom census conducted by the American Society of News Editors. The number of African-American journalists working in newsrooms fell from 4.68 percent in 2011 to 4.65 percent in 2012. At their peak in 2006, African-Americans held approximately 5.5.percent of newsrooms jobs.
“Some are leaving for buyouts or layoffs,” said Pamela Newkirk, a journalism professor at New York University. “The problem with retention in the mainstream has always been that many African-American journalists have not felt valued. I think the black press offers some of the rewards that the mainstream can’t provide.”
For some journalists, new ventures like NBC’s The Grio, the Root, an online site spearheaded by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the Huffington Post Black voices are hastening the transition to black media.
“Those new media groups really gave me the opportunity to delve into issues that I wanted to,” Lynnette Holloway said. She left the New York Times in 2008 to work at Ebony Magazine, and later the Root, and DiversityMBA. “Especially with the election of President Obama, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
In 1968, the National Commission on Civil Disorders—also known as the Kerner Report— put the issue of newsroom diversity on America’s radar. The report famously warned that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
The news media, the report continues, treated blacks “as if they don’t read the newspaper, marry, die, and attend PTA meetings.”
As a result, in the 1970s, the ASNE set the goal of reaching racial parity in America’s newsrooms to 2000 or sooner because they believe that “diverse newsrooms better cover America’s communities. Little progress, however, has been made in that direction and the ASNE extended their deadline to 2025.
Avis Thomas-Lester, a 22 year veteran journalist of the Washington Post who left the paper to become executive editor of Afro-American weekly papers in Washington D.C. and Maryland, questions the mainstream media’s commitment to diversity.
“They say that newsroom diversity is a priority,” Thomas-Lester said. “But I think there’s less of a commitment on the part of hiring managers.”
Thomas-Lester knew the hand-writing was on the wall for the end of her tenure at the Post, when a story she had written on a woman seeking justice for her parents who were slain by the Ku Klux Klan.
“I had written this story and it had every possible element you could imagine to bring it to life, and it was placed in the metro section,” Thomas-Lester said. “This story should have been placed on A1.”
That’s why she and others have stressed how the black press can provide people the platform needed to explore a range of topics after having worked in mainstream media.
“I wanted to do something, that for me, at this point was satisfying,” he said. “Now, I’m doing that every day.”