SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/Opinion

Can newsroom diversity attract readers to sports sections?

Newspaper circulations are declining around the country. Graduate students go to the Internet for news. Newspaper readership grows older. Discussions of enhanced Web sites tied to news organizations are taking place to draw readers and drive revenue. ESPN.com has more traffic than the sports sections of many of our biggest print media sport sections combined.

For years, I have heard people say that women and people of color do not read the newspaper, including our sports sections. Could there be a relationship to the following facts:

  • 94.7 percent of the sports editors ...
  • 86.7 percent of the assistant sports editors ...
  • 89.9 percent of our columnists ...
  • 87.4 percent of our reporters, and ...
  • 89.7 percent of our copy editors/designers — are white?

Or that for those same key positions, 95, 87, 93, 90 and 87 percent are male?

American newspaper diversity
At the nation's largest newspapers, among sports columnists, there are:
18 African-Americans
3 Hispanics
2 Asians
 
Among the sports editors on the 303 newspapers surveyed, there were:
5 African-Americans
9 Hispanics
0 Asian men
0 African-American, Hispanic or Asian women
Our sports pages are largely covering college and pro sports, especially basketball, football and baseball, in which a disproportionate number of athletes are African-American or Hispanic. On the college and high school levels, nearly 43 percent of the student-athletes are women and girls.

Most corporations recognize that diversity is a business imperative. Companies market products to demographic segments representing women and people of color. The numbers cited above, which come from a study of 303 U.S. and Canadian newspapers by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport for the Associated Press Sports Editors, seem to cry out for new voices who will write from the point of view of women and people of color. Not just because it is the right thing to do, although it is. It also makes business sense.

The Orlando Sentinel has Jemele Hill, the only woman of color who is a columnist on a major American newspaper. She creates a real discussion in Orlando about issues. A gifted writer, her young, African-American female perspective brings controversy. That brings interest and readership.

She recently compared the allegations of performance-enhancing drugs against Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds. Gutsy stuff. She made a case that I have not read elsewhere when she wrote, “How many of us have been inspired by Armstrong’s fortitude and his tireless work with his cancer foundation? How many of us wear Armstrong’s Livestrong bracelets, which have raised millions for cancer research? What in the world could Armstrong possibly have in common with a disrespectful, selfish lout like Bonds? More than you think.”

She went on to present some comparative points I had not considered. She concluded with, “ … because we like Armstrong and want to believe in him, we’re more than willing to assume his innocence. Because we despise Bonds, we’re more than willing to assume his guilt. … If we’ve learned anything about this new wave of cheating it’s that no athlete is too impenetrable. Most importantly, no athlete is above our suspicion. Especially the ones we like.”

Uncomfortable and edgy, but the idea is to draw us into a discussion.

What can we do to bring about change?

First, it was outstanding that the APSE asked for the study. The Institute does annual Racial and Gender Report Cards about the NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS, WNBA and college sports. The APSE was the first to ask for it.

Second, we have to broaden the searches for talented writers and editors so that we get the best qualified candidates into the interview process.

If we are successful at changing the numbers, can we change the atmosphere to make our new employees more comfortable and believing they can move up and succeed in that newsroom? Diversity management training will not only change the comfort zone but also may bring better understanding of angles to cover, athletes to follow, and the meaning of words we often use in sports that may be hurtful to some people or groups.

Perhaps APSE can create an “academy of excellence” for some of the talented young writers. These potential reporters, columnists and editors would add to their professional skills but also would meet people who might be in the position to hire them. A key to the academies would be having potential employers in the media present so the young stars are noticed and noted.

Now that APSE has looked inside itself, I hope it will use the data as a tool to implement such changes so that newspapers can increase their base of women and people of color who are editors, reporters and columnists. Not only will they help further illuminate all of the dimensions of sport in America, but they also might help our newspapers get and keep more new readers.

Richard Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

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