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Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity

Thirty years ago today, a band of reporters met in Washington, D.C. to announce the creation of a new group. It was the National Association of Black Journalists. At the time, African Americans held precious few jobs in newsrooms. Coverage of many issues important to blacks was spotty.

Those are issues that are familiar to Glenn Proctor. The 59-year-old ex-Marine became the executive editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month and he says he quickly made clear who was in charge of the paper.

"I said, 'This is my newsroom.' And I repeated that several times," Proctor says. "For the first part of this experience here, I need to know everything that's going on in this newsroom. I need to see how it works. How it doesn't work. Am I micromanaging? Yes. In that context, yes -- it's my newsroom."

Proctor faces the same problems that confront editors elsewhere. He says his greatest priority is to reverse slides in circulation.

"Too often we're giving readers our choices, because we think it's a big deal story. Iraq is big just because it's a big national or international story," Proctor says. "But is that really what the Times-Dispatch readers want to see?"

He says the best way to attract readers is to break news. Two weeks' worth of front pages are pinned to a newsroom wall. Proctor points to one page dominated by a story about the trial of a white Richmond police officer who killed a black youth.

"A lot of the black leadership went to the police department and talked about the way certain police officers act in minority neighborhoods," Proctor says. "It was a case that drew a lot of interest."

Sales of the paper spiked up that day.

Glenn Proctor's appointment also sparked a lot of interest in town. He's the first black editor ever to lead the paper. Black editors hold the top jobs at newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Denver -- but that's about it for the nation's biggest dailies.

Richmond is a city with a complicated racial history. Its current mayor -- L. Douglas Wilder -- was once the first black politician to be elected governor of an American state. But Richmond also served as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

And many people say the Times-Dispatch and its sister paper, the defunct News-Leader, propelled hostility toward racial integration in Virginia.

Raymond Boone is the founder of a black alternative weekly, the Richmond Free Press. He's nearly a decade older than Proctor and his career took him to several African American newspapers. Sometimes his paper covers controversies at the Times-Dispatch.

"It is often referred to as the 'Richmond Times-Disgrace' because this paper has been the source of much racial divisiveness in this community, and indeed this state," Boone says.

Despite Proctor's appointment, Boone is skeptical that much has changed.

But Times-Dispatch publisher Thomas Silvestri says the paper should be judged by its current performance, not its past. And Andy Lewis, a civil rights historian at the University of Richmond, cites Proctor's arrival as fresh evidence of a new South.

"To have an African American editor of a paper that represented the segregationist position with such strength is surprising," Lewis says. "I took it as a real sign of change."

The Times Dispatch hired its first full-time black reporter in 1979 -- four years after the founding of the National Association of Black Journalists. Since then, the combined percentage of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans at daily newspapers has more than tripled. The numbers are higher for television news. But the figures still lag behind those for minorities in the workforce.

At his last job, as associate editor at the Newark Star-Ledger, Proctor recruited journalists with widely varying backgrounds -- focusing not just on race, but on religion, political outlook, financial status, and work experience. He says he once hired an aspiring reporter because the applicant had managed a rock band.

Proctor himself had an unconventional introduction to journalism. He was 23, back from the Marines, when he got caught up in a confrontation in a small town west of Philadelphia.

"It was a shootout amongst a motorcycle gang and a bunch of black men," Proctor says. "I was there with just a bunch of friends. It was a hot August day and things just unfortunately escalated."

The sight of reporters covering the scene stuck with him.

"I saw them kind of from afar," he recalls. "That was just fascinating to me," he says.

Proctor called up one reporter and ultimately got a job nearby -- at The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pa.

He says he's always sought to be the best journalist he could -- not the best black journalist, even as he breaks new ground at the Richmond paper.

"I don't profess to know all of the history of the newspaper," Proctor says. "I'm here to do a good job as the editor, and not to wear race or any other thing on my sleeve."

American newsrooms are far more embracing of the push for diversity than they were 30 years ago. About 100 miles north of Richmond, at the Washington Post cafeteria, you'll find prominent white and black journalists -- the kind of folks who pop up on the Sunday television talk shows.

It's a place where people gather to hash over issues of the day, along with issues involving the paper itself.

A year ago, there was a lot of talk when the Post passed over a black senior editor for the second highest editing job. That caught the eye of Post journalists such as Richard Prince, a copy editor on the foreign desk. He's active in the black journalism association and writes a blog on diversity.

"Gene Robinson, who is African American and was very popular in the newsroom, was not chosen," Prince says. "And people felt that there was a glass ceiling."

Some employees challenged the selection of Philip Bennett, who is white. Prince says the Post's leadership heard the message.

"Surprisingly, the Post has, since that time last November, made remarkable strides in promoting people of color to key positions at the newspaper, " Prince says.

The Post now has the highest levels of black and minority journalists ever -- but new managing editor Phil Bennett says that's not enough. He looks at the Post's falling circulation and says it needs to capture a region with a strong black population and a booming Latino presence. Bennett says readers make snap decisions about papers even on such fleeting things as photographs on the front page.

"If all of those are of white guys in ties, they don't feel connected to the paper in the way that they should," Bennett says.

Thirty years ago, similar concerns helped to drive the creation of the NABJ.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.