Yesterday I talked to a group of college students about what I do for a living, why I do it and how. I always appreciate such an opportunity, particularly when there are young people of color in the room and I might help convince them to pursue journalism. There are so few of us, and the need is great—the percentage of journalists of color in newsrooms has been stuck at around just 12 percent for the past two decades. People who aren’t white make up about 39 percent of the US population.
I was especially glad to do so on the day that news of Dori Maynard’s passing hit many of us hard. Not only could I tell the students a bit about her legacy, but having Dori on my mind also helped focus the points I wanted to make about why it’s crucial that news organizations reflect the audiences they want to reach. That accurate reporting and storytelling depends on it is something to which many in the industry pay lip service, but that far fewer seem committed to addressing. Getting outlets to understand how vital integrated, representative newsrooms are was Dori Maynard’s life work.
Because I live in Oakland, Dori’s hometown and home base for her nationwide efforts, I had the chance to spend time with her on a few occasions. Each time I did, I knew that I was in the presence of someone great—kind and funny, too, and eager to connect with younger journalists. I also felt sure that I had only ever worked for metro daily papers such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Miami Herald because she and people like her had demanded that I be allowed in and that I be taken seriously once there.
I was also aware of the weight that Dori’s family name carried. Her father, Robert C. Maynard, had been editor and publisher of The Oakland Tribune, and owned a controlling interest in the paper that held the distinction of being the country’s first black-owned major metro daily until it was sold in the early ’90s. Her father was also a co-founder of the Institute for Journalism Education, which helped “integrate newsrooms nationwide by recruiting, training and placing African-Americans, Asians and Latinos in reporting, editing and management jobs,” according to Wayne Dawkins’ book Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim in the Mainstream.
That what little diversity we have in media today is the result of organizing and pipeline development rather than benevolent action on the part of newsrooms is an important point, and one I emphasized yesterday when talking with students. When mainstream metropolitan dailies started hiring people of color—specifically black reporters—in the late ’60s, it was because they finally recognized that news events demanded it. As uprisings took over American cities, many of these newspapers were simply unable to tell an accurate story. Black Power sentiments had, in many places, overtaken the integrationist ideals of the earlier civil-rights movement, and some of the most important sources simply would not speak—or at least would not speak freely—with white reporters. As Dori herself wrote about this history:
“It was white journalists who reported on the civil rights movement (except for those reporters from the black press), while it was mainly black reporters who covered this other era—Black Power, black consciousness, and the black revolution. In fact, this became the only time that mainstream media put an important story entirely in the hands of black reporters. That was a decision borne from necessity. With cries of ‘white reporter out,’ black journalists were the only ones who were able to get the story.”
It’s fair to argue that we’re at a similar moment now, with today’s net-neutrality win ensuring that the many online voices breaking and interpreting news and demanding more of mainstream news accounts will continue to flourish. This is critical, but it doesn’t take the place of trained reporters rooted in a place and committed to local coverage, or else with the budgets to travel and see what’s actually happening. Dori Maynard tried to ensure that such news gathering was done by as an inclusive group as possible. She made great strides. There’s still much work to do.