CPB-backed diversity project draws close scrutiny

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St. Louis Public Radio Diversity Fellow Jenny Simeone-Casas interviews a subject in a film about the fellowship program.

“Overlooked No More” reads a flyer advertising a new cross-station collaboration recruiting reporters to cover stories about race, ethnicity and culture. “Help change public radio.”

With goals to bring more people of color into local newsrooms and produce reporting that fills coverage gaps and reaches new audiences, four NPR affiliates are recruiting reporters for a two-year project facilitated by NPR and backed with a $450,000 CPB grant.

Participants in the collaborative recognize the significance of its goal to address longstanding problems with newsroom diversity at public radio stations. But many diverge on key decisions about its structure and leadership.

Woods

WNPR in Hartford, Conn., Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis Public Radio will each host a reporter as part of the collaboration. Each reporter will produce local coverage and contribute to the larger project supervised by an as-yet unnamed editor at St. Louis Public Radio, lead station on the collaborative.

The initiative is designed to draw a more diverse pool of journalists to stations that are seeking diversity in their news staffs, according to Keith Woods, NPR VP for newsroom training and diversity, who developed the project with CPB. Although the initiative intends to recruit journalists of color, anyone can apply and be considered. Woods and Shula Neuman, executive editor of St. Louis Public Radio, agree that people of color have a particular authority and passion for the subject.

“By covering a topic that both attracts a diverse pool and a diverse audience, stations can go after these goals in a way that raises the value of the coverage that they’re providing to their audience, while also diversifying their staff and audience,” Woods said.

Current interviewed a dozen people for this story, including leaders at NPR and participating stations, journalists in their newsrooms and two reporters who have been leaders in developing beats focused on race and culture. Some sources requested anonymity to candidly discuss problems with diversity within their newsrooms.

Some participants expressed concern that reporters recruited for this collaborative will join majority-white newsrooms to cover race, ethnicity and culture. These are topics they say white newsrooms often cover poorly; the expectation that reporters of color can shoulder all the responsibility of reversing that is unrealistic. They favor integrating coverage of race and culture into every reporter’s beat, an approach that helps create buy-in across a newsroom. Since the jobs are short-term positions, the initiative doesn’t address problems with retention of diverse reporters in public radio, they say, when these newsrooms could hire more people of color into staff positions.

Additionally, several current and former staffers of St. Louis Public Radio question whether the station is fit to take the lead on this collaboration. They point to its internal difficulties with training reporters of color who were new to public radio and its newsroom.

“I feel very torn … because I don’t think people of color should have to only report for things as diversity experts,” said Jenny Simeone-Casas, who was St. Louis Public Radio’s 2016–17 “Diversity Fellow.” She described what she considers a common approach in public radio and audio journalism: “‘Oh, we have to tackle this extreme whiteness in our newsroom by making space for people of color,’ but doing it in this way that points out people of color.”

She compared the initiative to other “showy” efforts that recruit journalists of color to cover race and culture, and exclude them from anything beyond that role. Simeone-Casas’s own experience during the diversity fellowship, in which she was frustrated by a narrow definition of diversity coverage and received inadequate training and support, shaped her views. But other journalists for St. Louis Public Radio said the newsroom’s poorly structured training warrants concerns about whether it is ready to take on the role of lead station.

NPR has strengthened its own coverage of race, ethnicity and culture through Code Switch, which produces multimedia reporting with a team of journalists devoted to the topic. CPB funded that unit with a 2013 grant. With similar objectives to deepen coverage of this beat and reach new audiences, the new collaborative will put journalists in smaller local newsrooms, collaborating with colleagues locally and at other stations.

This is a sophisticated coverage area, broadly defined, that isn’t easily integrated into existing beats, according to Neuman. The project alone cannot solve public radio’s problems with newsroom diversity, but it is a step toward addressing the challenges at local stations, including retention of minority reporters.

“It is a paradox for critics of diversity when they see a problem with using the value of that diversity to enhance and strengthen the coverage of the organization,” Woods said. “There is nothing that permanently ties anybody to a beat. But you’d have a hard time prying the beat from some of the reporters of Code Switch. So don’t devalue the content by using words like ‘pigeonholing.’”

‘We’ve been oblivious’

Woods initially conceived this project as a fellowship program to recruit journalists of color for placement at stations across the country, with the network providing training. That proposal would have cost about $1 million annually, by his estimate, and he wasn’t able to secure that level of funding. Instead, Woods worked with CPB to create a grant program that would directly fund stations, with NPR providing training. Woods invited seven stations across the country to participate, he said. Each had demonstrated an interest and commitment to diversity. CPB originally committed to fund five proposals, but later reduced that to four, he said.

Stations had to “own the process” by writing the grant proposal and shepherding it through, Woods said. St. Louis Public Radio was best-positioned to serve as the lead station by virtue of its size, structure and capacity, he said. Plus, it has been working over the past five years to build a more diverse staff.

St. Louis Public Radio

Neuman

Prior to its 2013 merger with the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news site, St. Louis Public Radio had an all-white newsroom, said Neuman, who rose to executive editor in 2016. “Even before Ferguson happened, that was starting to change,” she said, referring to the racial unrest sparked in 2014 by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. Between the merger and the station’s continuing coverage of race and law enforcement, the news team has become much more diverse.

“I don’t think any of this is happening because of Ferguson,” Neuman said. But street protests of police brutality in the nearby community prompted newsroom leaders to say, “‘Wait a second. We’ve been oblivious’” to newsroom diversity. “I would argue that if we weren’t committed to diversity, we wouldn’t be doing this at all.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s 25-person newsroom staff now includes six people of color, who are Asian, black or Latino, Neuman said.

Leaders at each participating station have different visions for covering the beat locally, but expect to further refine their plans once the team is in place. At WNPR, the reporter will provide a different lens on the station’s coverage of topics like health disparities, police profiling, education and transportation, said Jeff Cohen, news director.

Cohen

“I don’t think this beat is a bubble,” Cohen said, adding that it will cut across all of the topics covered by WNPR. “In our newsroom we are really breaking down all the beats that we currently cover and asking ourselves why we cover them.” Cohen and his staff are considering which topics are important to the station and community. “This is a conversation that’s happening for the entire newsroom, and is not unique to that reporter,” Cohen said.

Sylvia Maria Gross, storytelling editor at KCUR, says her station is looking at NPR’s Code Switch as a model. “You hear a lot of voices from the major centers in our country on issues of race and culture,” Gross said. “I think local communities really have a need to look at the dynamics that are specific to each place.”

To train the broader community, participating stations will hold bootcamps targeting print journalists who want to learn about radio, Neuman said.

‘I felt very tokenized’

Some current and former staffers who have been part of St. Louis Public Radio describe a newsroom environment that lacks direction and remains divided by generational gaps and between journalists with print and radio backgrounds. They say management has a poor track record of training new minority employees in audio production.

“If people come to this diversity initiative knowing what they want to do, and what they want to get out of it, it might be a good thing for them,” said Kimberly Springer, an engagement producer who recently left St. Louis Public Radio. She worked at the station for two years. “But … how committed are we to that kind of training and to diversity if we keep doing it ad hoc?”

Just look at Simeone-Casas, the station’s 2016–17 “Diversity Fellow,” said Springer and others. When Simeone-Casas interviewed for the fellowship, her beat was supposed to focus on race, class and power, she said.

“I had talked about wanting to look at diversity as something that included race and gender, but also … age and ability,” Simeone-Casas said. “I felt so much of this position was focused on race, but they just wanted to call it ‘diversity.’”

No one explicitly told Simeone-Casas to limit her focus to race, but her story assignments and successful pitches sent the message, she said. “Which is not a problem,” Simeone-Casas said. “I have a problem with turning toward the few people of color to be the experts in that,” and not requiring the same of everyone in the newsroom.

Simeone-Casas ended up focusing her work on immigration and “trying to give space for people who are not black or white in St. Louis,” a city where race is often cast in binary terms, she said.

St. Louis has a 4 percent Latino population. The public radio newsroom includes two other Latinos, but they are not in reporting roles. “I felt very tokenized being a Chicana in that space who speaks Spanish,” Simeone-Casas said.

For the fellowship, Simeone-Casas relocated from San Francisco, where she had been working at a startup. She was excited because it “seemed like the perfect re-entry into radio reporting.”

“The way it was billed to me felt like I was going to be very supported,” Simeone-Casas said. “They understood that young people of color often don’t have the opportunity to put their foot into radio stations,” and seemed committed to “just try it out and learn and fuck up and figure things out together.”

But the fellowship lacked structure and ongoing support that would have provided adequate training, according to Simeone-Casas and several current and former staffers. Simeone-Casas was initially paired with David Cazares, a Latino editor who was also new to the station and public radio editing. Later, she ended up rotating between different editors. “There were concerns about placing a green reporter with an editor who’s new to the place,” said Springer, who sat on the hiring committee that selected Simeone-Casas. “There was no training program in place.”

“My concern, especially for the people of color, was that we were setting them up to fail for not having any training modules in place,” Springer said. “If they didn’t have self-direction and they failed, the conclusion would be that this person of color couldn’t cut it.”

After a brief “figure-it-out” period, Simeone-Casas said she was on her own. She relied heavily on her reporter colleagues to teach her audio-editing basics and station standards, she said, but it was not their job to help. “I remember feeling very much like I had been dropped into a pool and told to swim, which is a very apt metaphor for me because I just learned to swim recently,” Simeone-Casas said.

“I am still very committed to being in public radio, and I think that speaks to the medium,” said Simeone-Casas, who is considering applying for the program’s opening at OPB. “Even though I had this shitty experience at St. Louis Public Radio, I’m not deterred from continuing to make audio projects and make compelling audio work.”

Divided newsroom

Neuman acknowledges Simeone-Casas’s frustrations during the fellowship. She and other staffers characterize St. Louis Public Radio as a newsroom in transition.

“I’m not going to deny that she didn’t have the best experience,” Neuman said. “But I’m also going to say that this is something we’re paying a lot more attention to. The whole station didn’t have a process for onboarding people until about the past six months.”

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Cazares

Differences between staff along generational lines or from radio or print backgrounds are common challenges for newsrooms, according to staffers. “It’s a place in transition, and it’s a place, like a lot newsrooms, involved in determining what the focus should be,” said Cazares, who edits arts, health, culture and science coverage. “We’re trying to determine how to do our work with limited resources.”

These challenges are no reason to run from an opportunity like the collaborative, Neuman said. Besides bringing diversity, the project is an opportunity to recruit people with print backgrounds into the newsroom, rather than recycling people who are already in public media, she said.

As lead station, St. Louis Public Radio will hire two journalists — a reporter and an editor — to join the newsroom. Both may be people of color.

“The success of it will depend on the editor, and how the editor gets to function within our newsroom, like how much autonomy and support they get,” said Carolina Hidalgo, who entered the newly created position of St. Louis Public Radio staff photographer almost two years ago and had to figure a lot out for herself. “I don’t think anyone’s really going to know until it gets going.”

She added: “I know a lot of people of color get worried when they think that other people of color are just being funneled into the race beat. But I think that’s not problematic to me so much as that the positions are so often temporary.”

Recruiting and retention

One objective of the project is to learn and apply lessons for recruiting and hiring journalists of color to report for public media, Neuman said. “The mission of the grant is as much about recruiting efforts as it is about doing a better job of reaching into new communities.”

There’s a recognition that young people, and people of color in general coming into the system, can feel alone and isolated, Woods said. Bringing different stations together and tying the reporters to one editor creates an identifiable cohort of stations and individuals and, therefore, a support network for newcomers. That collaborative structure isn’t the full answer to the problem, but it is intended to go at the issue of retention, Woods said.

However, two St. Louis Public Radio staffers and a public media professional who have watched the collaboration take shape already see problems with the recruitment process. They said the station has not created an inclusive environment that accepts diversity.

Springer, who recently left St. Louis Public Radio to curate the oral history collection at Columbia University’s library system, participated on hiring committees prior to the collaboration and observed that her colleagues were quick to dismiss candidates of color. Another staffer said the project has been two years in the making, yet organizers have not been cultivating journalists of color as candidates. If project leaders are serious about effectively recruiting and retaining journalists for this effort, the editor directing the coverage should be involved in hiring decisions. The staffer and public media professional, who discussed the project with station leadership, declined to speak on the record because of sensitivities about newsroom diversity in their workplaces and public media at large.

Woods said a consultant has been brought in to help identify candidates, and the participating stations have been actively recruiting at minority journalism conferences. Leadership from KCUR, OPB and WNPR attended the National Association of Black Journalists conference in New Orleans in August. They handed out fliers about the collaboration and talked to attendees passing through the “Public Media Village,” an area of the conference career fair that was set aside for public media organizations.

To keep the grant-funded coverage going, participating stations are expected to spend the next two years fundraising, so that expenses can be absorbed into each station’s budget when CPB funding ends, Woods said. Station leaders say they are committed to making the positions permanent, and have begun those conversations.

Dankosky

“If we’re able to come together as a group of stations with NPR, and do something that is both going to provide needed coverage of important topics that probably don’t get covered in our community, and it has the side benefit of helping to diversify our workforce, then those are really big wins for us,” said John Dankosky, executive editor of the New England News Collaborative based at WNPR.

“If there is criticism of the way it gets done, I think it’s totally warranted,” Dankosky said. “I get it. But I also know that the attempt is to make something that will help public radio be better at not just telling stories about the juncture of race and ethnicity in America, but also just telling better stories across the board. But we have to start at this somewhere.”