Why New Media Looks A Whole Lot Like Old Media

Bryan Monroe is a visiting professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He was the former president of The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines and assistant vice president/news at Knight Ridder. These are his remarks from the Federal Trade Commission’s News Media Workshop held on December 1 and 2, 2009. They were originally published on the Huffington Post.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission will be convening a high-level hearing in D.C. looking at "How Will Journalism Survive The Internet Age."

Media giants like Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington will likely slug it out on pay walls, copyrights and the prospect of Microsoft buying its way into the search world.

I, on the other hand, am going to talk about how white the Web is, and the threat that reality represents to journalism for our increasingly diverse nation.

Look no further than the 17 staff members of AOL's new Sphere.com. Or the single African-American reporter at Politico. Or the lack of diversity in Chicago's new co-op journalism venture. We are starting off on the wrong foot.

You see, journalism is not dead. Not by a long shot. It is, however, in the process of painfully shedding its old skin for a new one. But, in the battle for its soul between old media and new media, something important is being lost: we are now living in a new America.

With the recent closures, bankruptcies, declining circulation and layoffs, the legacy media business has proven that cutting its way to success just won't work. We now know we cannot grow from a crouched position.

For the underlying DNA of journalism --accuracy, inclusion, clarity, storytelling, fairness and truth -- to live on it must now find a new host. To succeed, we must make sure diverse voices -- all voices -- are represented in digital and on the Web.

So far, though, online journalism ventures haven't figured out that to not just survive, but thrive, they must reflect a changing nation.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that, by 2023, half of all U.S. children will be non-white. By 2042, people of color will outnumber whites in America.

But in conversations about Web sites and mobile, digital journalism versus soybean-ink-on-dead-trees, there has been little discussion about of the importance of capitalizing on emerging communities with broad content and diverse editorial staffs.

In fact, just the opposite has happened.

Chalk it up to either inattention or "diversity fatigue," but when it comes to newsroom diversity and serving inclusive audiences, we've actually seen the gains of the past 50 years being erased by the declines of the last five.

In the old school media world (read: newspapers, magazines and broadcast TV), we have watched as those last hired -- usually journalists of color -- become the first fired in round after round of newsroom downsizing.

And we know how well that's been working for them.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Tribune Company are both in bankruptcy; AP and Time Warner are slashing staffs; NBC may be sold to Comcast.

Meanwhile, the Web world is heading in the wrong direction, too.

For instance, the new AOL news and features site, Sphere.com, recently touted its fresh editorial staff lineup. Guess what, according to recent reports, all 17 out of 17 new writers, editors and producers announced last month were white. They say they are just getting started, and promise more diversity, but all we have is what they have announced so far. Here's what they said on their site, next to mug shots of their new staff:

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp"Welcome to this preview of Sphere, the next phase in the evolution of AOL News."

That is evolution, eh?

When the political news site Politico.com started in 2007, very few of its staff members were journalists of color. Today, only one African-American journalist, White House correspondent Nia-Malika Henderson, is on the reporting staff (she took the place of Helena Andrews, Politico's only other African-American writer, who left last fall).

In Washington D.C.--a city that is 54 percent African American-- a new local Web offering funded by Politico owners Allbritton Communications debuts next year and is expected to be staffed with at least 50 people. How many, if any, of the writers, editors and top management will be journalists of color?

In Chicago, a new public service journalism consortium, Chicago News Cooperative (CNC), was recently announced with great fanfare and $500,000 in initial funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Among its roster are award-winning journalists and leading minds in the Chicago media space.

Problem is, its initial staff and leadership lineup announced included no Blacks, no Asians and no Latinos, no one under 40, and they have taken a beating in the press for that oversight. (Since the Oct. 22 announcement, its Web site now lists at least one African-American writer, the stellar Don Terry, and a Hispanic picture editor, former Trib photographer José Moré.) Still, the board of directors is virtually all white, and all but two members of the 10-person board are male. They will be covering a city that is 58 percent non-white, more than 1/3 Black and half female.

If this is what "new media" is supposed to be, it is looking a lot like "old media" --only less diverse and more isolated.

So, why does all this matter, anyway? In the age of Obama, aren't we all supposed to be over all this? Well, if our newsrooms lack the broad ranges of culture, backgrounds and life experiences reflective of our society at large, how can we even hope to know what to cover and what appeals to a rapidly diversified marketplace?

Yes, there are Web ventures such as BlackWeb 2.0, whose young, diverse staff has built a large following by cultivating it through Facebook. Mainstream companies like NBC have created TheGrio.com and the Washington Post launched TheRoot.com with Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates. Both are solid journalistic ventures with growing audiences but should not be seen as substitutes for inclusion in the broader media world.

Still, new local digital ventures have also sprung up across the nation. In Philadelphia, more than 240 new community sites have emerged, including several aimed at Black and Hispanic audiences. In Richmond, Calif., richmondconfidential.org appeals to their diverse readers by providing local news and context. In the Central Valley, GreatValley.org speaks to the rural, agricultural community that is largely Latino. They've even teamed up with AT&T to launch the Pixley Digital Connection project about wired teens of Latino farm workers.

Local, community-based Asian and Spanish language newspapers are also growing -- up 16 percent in a recent study -- as they cover immigrant and ethnic communities, according to a poll by New America Media. Another recent study conducted by American University's J-Lab Institute for Interactive Journalism showed that community journalism is far more participatory than legacy media, and it requires the skills of those close to their communities, those who know their communities best.

And I am on the advisory boards of two new media ventures: rrripple.com, a start-up in Silicon Valley offering a safe, secure, social media alternative to MySpace or Facebook, and Urban Access Media Group, a private television network that connects beauty salons and barber shops in the Chicago area with free 42" flat screen LCD TVs attached to smart, addressable Internet routers serving up content, information and advertising. Both companies are led by African-American entrepreneurs and have talented, diverse staffs and investors.

For media entrepreneurs of color, access to capital and technology still remain big obstacles. In a good year, getting banks, angel investors and venture capitalists interested in any idea is difficult enough. But when they all run in circles that are often exclusive of people like me, gaining access to that access becomes nearly impossible.

And what about programmers, engineers and those who write code for the Web? Finding African Americans and Hispanics in the engineering schools of MIT, Stanford or Cal Tech continues to be, at best, a rare occurrence.

Sure, with enough money, you can hire top software talents, whether they are in Silicon Valley or Bangalore. But what about the "hook-ups," the informal networks that come from college relationships, that first startup or "friends and family?" How can a budding media entrepreneur in Atlanta or Chicago or Oakland get his or her idea off the ground without deep involvement from technologists? Cultivating the next wave of engineers of color is critical to the creation of the next media powerhouses.

That's why efforts from groups such as the National Black Programming Consortium, The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and Unity: Journalists of Color, --organizations that help expose investors to great media ideas and media minds--are even more critical in the 21st century. What if media foundations invested in the development of partnerships between VCs, engineers and journalists to birth new ventures?

Meanwhile, the digital divide still keeps 40 percent of Americans -- and, disproportionately, people of color -- away from full digital citizenship because of the barriers of wealth, class and age. Many still lack adequate access to broadband, Wi-Fi and mobile Internet. For instance, The Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that Blacks are much more likely to lack computers or broadband access at home, and their broadband adoption is growing at a much slower rate than the American population at large. There is the fierce urgency of acting now, before that digital divide gets even greater.

For most young people, a diverse, "majority-minority" America is already their reality. Those 18-35 have grown up in a much more diverse America than the nation of their parents. They are more likely to have hung out with Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, more likely to have had bi-racial friends and more likely to have been exposed to diverse ideas.

And, by the way, most young people under 30 have come to expect their news and information to be free. Like the air they breathe. Free.

Now, that doesn't mean that they won't pay for content that they want --just think ringtones and iPhone apps. But if news providers and media outlets think that erecting a pay wall or charging for community news will rescue their flailing business model, then they will be in the short term disappointed and, in the long run, only hasten their own one-way voyage to irrelevance. For these young folks that ship has sailed.

Still, I remain an optimist. I am encouraged by the energy and passions of students I run into on campus and the young minds trying to create the next big thing. Sure, they know that mainstream media is in decline, and know they won't likely find jobs at the Washington Post or NBC waiting for them when they graduate, but they nevertheless want to become part of what's next -- in social media, on the Web or wherever.

Enrollment at Medill and other major journalism schools around the country is actually up. Many students still want to learn the fundamentals of editing and good writing, the ethics and discipline of journalism and the solid techniques of storytelling, but then want to take those skills and launch their own media start-ups or community news platforms.

Yes, they want to shine the light and speak for the voiceless, and not just stalk reality TV stars. But they have little desire to become the next Bob Woodward or Walter Cronkite, instead set their sights on being the next Arianna Huffington, Mara Schiavocampo or Omar Wasow.

And many of those young, talented minds are media entrepreneurs of color. All they need is that access to capital, access to technology, access to jobs and access to hope.

-- Bryan Monroe can be reached at www.bryanmonroe.com.

People + Policy

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good