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For op-ed diversity, give editing, mentoring

By Richard Prince

When the Web was full of stories about Trayvon Martin, a young African American writer asked what I thought of his story on the killing. It left a lot to be desired, and I told him so.

"Upon reviewing the final story a day later, I recognized some of the observations you made in your email," he replied. "My concern is that -- as I'm no longer in a 'traditional' newsroom setting -- I'm not receiving the thorough 'editor's eye' with which I was mentored."

He added, "...the feedback you provided is what I wished I was getting before my pieces were hitting the web. And I've felt this way for a while as a freelance contributor."

I pass along his lament because his experience is not unique.

The Internet is filled with poorly edited opinion pieces by writers who are burning to express themselves and are not going away.

When the Columbia Journalism Review recently asked about demographic diversity on op-ed pages for a late May article,I thought not only about op-ed pages, but about young writers on the Internet. The two need each other.

Sad to say, the prospects for increased diversity on newspaper staffs, including those writing for op-ed pages, don't look promising. In the 2012 newsroom census from the American Society of News Editors, total newsroom employment at daily newspapers declined by 2.4 percent, while the loss in positions held by journalists of color was 5.7 percent

This, in an industry with a goal of matching by 2025 the percentage of journalists of color with the percentage of blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans in the general populace. Census figures put the combined population of these groups at 37 percent and growing, a far cry from the 12.3 percent and shrinking that ASNE counted.

It’s sometimes said that news organizations had more of an opportunity to diversify when the economy was stronger and newspapers weren’t competing with more modern technologies. These days, “doing more with less” seems to be the rule.

AOJ can do the next best thing, however: It can give the gift of editing. Our members might not be able to hire, but we can mentor these freelance writers.

This isn't a new concept for AOJ. The Minority Writers Seminar, now in its 17th year, has already adopted mentoring as a primary reason for being, according to Rick Horowitz, one of the program's guiding lights since 2000.

Groups seeking to boost the inclusion of women have caught on, too. The New York-based Op-Ed Project says its mission is "to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world."

It says: "A starting goal is to increase the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums to a tipping point. We envision a world where the best ideas -- regardless of where they come from -- will have a chance to be heard, and to shape society and the world. Working with top universities, foundations, think tanks, nonprofits, corporations and community organizations, we scout and train under-represented experts to take thought leadership positions in their fields; we connect them with our national network of high-level media mentors; and we vet and channel the best new experts and ideas directly [to] media gatekeepers who need them, across all platforms."

Anne Michaud, interactive opinion editor at Newsday, alerted the AOJ members' online discussion list to this project.

She wrote, "I went through the training about 18 months ago, to check it out, and it is really very powerful -- both about encouraging women with different expertise to recognize that and participate in 'the public debate,' and also with practical writing tips and editing assistance."

Op-ed pages need more diversity and this has been a recurring topic among those concerned about the accuracy of our news products.

[Update Sept. 8, 2012: Prince column, only 1/2 of 1 percent of big-paper op-eds are by Hispanics, with photo of a N.Y. Times workshop.]

The Summer 2001 issue of The Masthead carried  "Why Women Don't Write" by Bill Williams, at the time an editorial writer and former letters editor at the Hartford Courant, and David Medina, then letters editor there. They surveyed readers about why more women weren't writing letters to the editor, and settled on two main reasons: Women were “too busy” and they feared harassment after the letters were published.

In 2008, the late Deborah Howell, then ombudsman of the Washington Post, bluntly told readers: "The Post's op-ed page is too male and too white. And there aren't a lot of youthful opinions, either."

She took a count in May of that year: "The 2008 numbers as of Wednesday: 654 op-ed pieces -- 575 by men, 79 by women and about 80 by minorities."

Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist at the New York Times, picked up on Howell's theme in his blog: "This lack of diversity is, frankly, a broader problem with American punditry in general, from newspaper columnists to television talking heads to writers of letters to the editor. American journalism is becoming much more representative of the country, in terms of race and gender, but opinion pages still tend to be preserves of white men."

A breakthrough occurred in January 2012: The Washington Post announced "She The People," a new website section.

"According to comScore, only 42% of U.S. readers of political news sites are female, compared to 51% of all online adults, suggesting women have been under-represented by political sites and in political reporting," Raju Narisetti, then Post managing editor, announced: "The Washington Post believes ‘She the People’ will give a distinct platform to unique female voices who have interesting perspectives to share."

Other media companies are dedicating web sections to Hispanic and African American news and opinion. By and large, however, these are Internet-based or multimedia companies, such as Huffington Post, NBC and Fox -- not newspapers.

Nevertheless, these sites are creating more spaces for writers of color, though not always providing them the editing they need. Yet that isn't stopping the would-be pundits, who could benefit from sound grounding in, say, AOJ's handbook, "Beyond Argument."

Helping them would not only improve what we read on the Internet, but boost the pool of available opinion writers for our own organizations.

"I think we tend to over-think issues like this," Arnold Garcia, editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman, told me after I queried him on op-ed page diversity.

"Why is diversity important on the op-ed pages?" Garcia said. "The same reason that is important on every other page of the newspaper. If a publication purports to be a mirror of the community it is covering, then its content should reflect accurately that community. It's called thorough, comprehensive journalism. I can tell you that it would be very easy to fill those pages with the pretty narrow world views that people are eager to offer. It's a little more work but a lot more reward to go looking for views that aren't always reflected on op-ed pages."

In a bid for a more inclusive membership, the National Conference of Editorial Writers has become the Association of Opinion Journalists. Let's expand our focus, too.

We might not be able to hire, but there are other ways to make our products more inclusive. Let’s think about what we can do with freelancers.

And let's give the gift of editing!

  Richard Prince writes “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms,” http://mije.org/richardprince, a three-times-a-week online column on diversity issues in the news media, for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. He chairs the AOJ Diversity Committee.

Some links in and from this article:

Trayvon Martin was the unarmed black teen (17) fatally shot on Feb. 26, 2012, by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in Sanford, Florida. (updates via N.Y. Times story tracking: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/trayvon_martin/index.html?inline=nyt-per

Go back to top.

Columbia Journalism Review http://www.cjr.org/  and Why Is Opinion Writing Still Mostly Male? http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/its_2012_already_why_is_opinio.php?page=all

News Editors survey:
http://asne.org/Article_View/ArticleId/2499/Total-and-minority-newsroom-employment-declines-in-2011-but-loss-continues-to-stabilize.aspx

AOJ Minority Writers Seminar http://www.minoritywritersseminar.org/

Op-Ed Project http://www.theopedproject.org/

2001 Masthead "Why Women Don't Write" UPDATE 8/24/12: The archive source previously linked (findarticle.com) has vanished. The owner of that service, apparently a subsidiary of CBS, now intercepts that URL and opens in its general search engine; this 2012 article is one of the first hits in the resulting around-in-circles search. I am leaving the link here but removing it from the article: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2737/is_2_53/ai_n25038974/?tag=content;col1 --JRM

Return to "Why...Write" paragraph.

D. Howell in Wash-Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/23/AR2008052302308.html

N.Kristof in N.Y. Times: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/27/are-we-too-male-and-too-white/?ex=1212638400&en=fbe1453e7ca820d8&ei=5070&emc=eta1

 "She The People" on Wash-Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people

 R. Narisetti, Wash-Post:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/community-relations/the-washington-post-launches-she-the-people-women-writing-about-politics-and-culture/2012/01/03/gIQAp0pWaP_story.html

AOJ handbook "Beyond Argument:"
https://www.opinionjournalists.org/index.php?src=forms&ref=Beyond+Argument+2&id=Beyond+Argument+2
Its authors:
http://www.opinionjournalists.org/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=Beyond_Argument_Authors&category=Foundation&link=Beyond_Argument_Authors

 

The Masthead, summer 2012, published in stages June-August 2012 at
http://opinionjournalists.org/masthead
This page posted 6/8/12 updated 8/24/12
(c) Association of Opinion Journalists