Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”
At the Miami Herald we supported each other. We had to. The newspaper did the right thing in bringing so many of us into the newsroom around the same time. There is a lot to be said for critical mass in a workplace in order to help people who have common cultural backgrounds feel comfortable. But there probably was another step needed. The black reporters were sometimes not respected for their professional skills, and there was no support to help editors understand why black reporters were not always successful — or happy.
For example, in the 1970s black reporters were passionate about covering communities of color. So the rationale was that when you hire black reporters but you won’t let them pitch stories about the black community, a reporter may wonder why the editor doesn’t understand the value a black reporter may bring to a story. On the opposite end, sometimes black reporters want to cover some of the bigger, more mainstream stories in a community. But if editors consistently overlook the black reporters and say they are not qualified, that tends to demoralize the reporter. And then sometimes, black reporters would turn in a story and an editor rejected the reporter’s work and didn’t give them proper feedback as to why it might not be the level of work that the editor expected.
Several times some of my fellow black women journalists called my desk phone and asked to meet in the ladies restroom, which was a large space that included a resting area with a sofa. Two or three of us would gather there and let the reporter vent, and often cry before we gave her some encouragement and then we all went back to work.
To be clear, Miami was the best of times and the worst of times. Best, because we had each other, and worst because the newspaper skipped a step — they didn’t give editors the training and support they needed to adequately supervise reporters who came from a different cultural perspective, instead of belittling every little thing black reporters tried to do.
I’m sure this is not unique to newspapers but probably happens in workplaces everywhere. What good is it to hire people who are different and then hold them to a standard that doesn’t fit with them culturally or emotionally.
To be sure, this was a powerhouse group of black journalists. We went on to work at bigger newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Among us we went on to become Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, the founder of a non-profit to provide scholarships for students at HBCUs, authors, diversity advocates, award winners, editorial page writers and newsroom executives.
The Miami Herald editors were not alone in addressing the issue of newsroom diversity. Based on the accomplished people they hired, they did a great job sprinkling the newsroom with people of color who had outstanding potential, even though almost all of us eventually left the newspaper with the best part of our journalism careers ahead. Across the nation newspapers would struggle for decades to recruit and retain people of color. It took many years and lots of industry training models to try to overcome this deficiency.
There has been progress, but never total success.