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Black and White And Read All Over

Stats dispute Jayson Blair part of black-recruitment trend

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If the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at The New York Times begs for an examination of how affirmative action has swung the door wide open for minority reporters regardless of qualifications -- as conservative columnists suggest -- newly released tallies of African American journalists say the "problem" is hardly widespread.

An American Society of Newspaper Editors survey released recently reports that, for the first time in three years, the number of black journalists working at U.S. newspapers has increased & by a whopping .04 percent, or 40 new black journalists nationwide. The overall percentage of minorities has increased "less than one half of one percent" in newsrooms, where blacks now occupy just 12.53 percent of reporting slots. Minorities in management positions declined from 20 to 19 percent last year, while minority interns dropped from 31.1 to 30.6 percent. Almost 40 percent of U.S. newspapers reported that they had no "journalists of color" working for them at all -- Lancaster, Pa.'s New Era paper is the second largest paper in the country with none whatsoever.

Locally, Pittsburgh Black Media Federation leadership has expressed concern, especially given the number of journalists recently vanished, including Pittsburgh New Courier news editor Tawanda Johnson and writer Ben Johnson (who resigned just last month) as well as several black broadcast journalists: WPXI-TV news reporter Reg Chapman and WPGH/FOX53 reporter Jay Harris. With the exception of Ben Johnson, all took positions in other cities.

Twenty-four-year-old Johnson, of black and Korean descent, says it was "frustrating" trying to find a job in journalism before the Courier picked him up. "There needs to be more opportunities for minority writers who have a lot more to say on certain subjects and can touch on them from different aspects than a [white] writer," he says. "[Black writers] gel well with the community -- where certain questions may be uncomfortable for a [white] writer to ask when in black communities, [black writers] will feel more comfortable talking to these same people."

PBMF President Erv Dyer, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says: "At a minimum, Post-Gazette ought to shoot for a minority staff percentage that reflects Allegheny County -- 14.6 percent [black]. Without accounting for anyone who might leave, our next 18 hires would all have to be minorities for the P-G newsroom to reach that percentage."

PBMF holds annual events to attract young black students to journalism, such as an upcoming summer urban journalism workshop. But Courier news editor Sonya Toler says it's newspapers' own "lack of will" that slows their diversification efforts.

Toler says she doesn't appreciate how mainstream papers will cast neophyte writers off to the black press, only to recruit them once their portfolios have thickened. "Someone called me today who was trying to get started in journalism; since they didn't study journalism in school and had no clips they were told by the dailies to start out at the Pittsburgh Courier," Toler reports. "So what are we supposed to do? Train people here to move on somewhere else?"

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