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Monday, October 11, 2010
Diversity Toolbox

Reversing the j-graduate minority gap

By Yumi Wilson

Given the tough economy, it’s no surprise that the number of journalism and communications graduates finding full-time jobs has dropped to a record low. Still, it’s troubling to hear that it’s even worse for students of color.

“Bachelor’s degree recipients who were members of racial or ethnic minorities had a particularly difficult time in the job market in 2009,” according to the 2009 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates. “The gap between the level of employment of non-minority and minority graduates in 2009 is the largest ever recorded in the graduate survey.”

The survey is just the latest report confirming what many observers have been saying for a long time: The goal set by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to reach parity in newsrooms by 2025 will never be met unless drastic action is taken.

Dr. Lee B. Becker, director of the survey, agrees.

"People who are employers have to see these figures," Becker said. "This means if we are serious about re-diversifying our efforts, we have to re-double our efforts."

Employers might be able to attract and retain more people of color if they could offer a much more competitive salary, but those things probably won’t happen as long as the economy remains stagnant.

When asked how educators might “re-double” their efforts to close the minority gap, Becker suggested that the lack of paid internships remains the biggest stumbling block.

"It takes resources to land internships, particularly internships that don't pay," Becker said, noting the growing trend of hiring young workers for no or little pay. "So who are the people who can do that? They are the ones who come from wealthier families. Who can work for campus media? People who aren't hard-pressed for money and have the ability to fight their way into the system.

Plan of Action

1. Get local newsrooms to work with colleges in setting up a modest fund that can be used to subsidize the cost of unpaid internships and independent news projects for underprivileged students.

2. Have educators take the lead in screening qualified candidates and monitoring the internships.

3. Collaborate so programs can grow to fit the needs of employers, distributors and students.

"It's hard to make the case you can actually make a living in this field. It's not certain you can. We have to come to grips with that."

It’s true. The future can seem grim for any person who is trying to make a decent living as a journalist. But there’s hope.

At San Francisco State, for example, the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalists awarded digital diversity grants that helped about a dozen students offset the cost of working at a free internship while acquiring new skills and work experience. Some recipients of the Digital Diversity Fund worked at Mission Loc@l, a new hyper-local site run by UC Berkeley professor Lydia Chavez.

And in some cases, the CIIJ grant helped students pursue independent projects. One of the students, Khaboshi Imbukwa, received about $1,400 to produce her first mini-documentary, “Mama Hope.” The money made it possible for Khaboshi to focus some of her time and resources to telling a story that is deeply important to her, a story she never thought she would have the chance to tell until much later in her life.

“Mama Hope” documented how a San Francisco couple traveled to Imbukwa’s hometown of Isiolo, Africa, to try to help people bring clean water and services to families and children suffering from HIV. When Imbukwa asked the young couple how they were able to make such a big difference, they told her: It’s the little things that help the most.

And that got me thinking. If one couple, a small group in San Francisco, can help people thousands of miles away in Africa, why can’t local news organizations help the students who are in their own backyards?

Perhaps now is the time to ask media executives for help? Maybe the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune or even KQED could help set up a modest fellowship fund to offset the cost of an unpaid internship, and give underprivileged students a chance to become more competitive once they graduate?

Indeed, the cost of starting a fund for interns might not make sense at a time when 30-year veterans are being laid off or forced to take buyouts. But given the fact that the minority gap among our brightest hope for the future is widening, and the dream of parity has become more elusive, how can we not afford not to?

Certainly, the idea of collaborating is not new, but it seems more important than ever, given the challenges that all students face in the increasing unpaid world of journalism. And though the stipend might never rival the pay of newspaper interns in the go-go ’80s (I was one of them), it’s still a step toward something that will ensure our future will not only be bright, but diverse.

Yumi Wilson is an assistant professor at San Francisco State University, where she teaches reporting, opinion writing, ethics and literary journalism. She was a reporter and editor at The Associated Press and San Francisco Chronicle, among other outlets. She currently writes a blog for City Brights.

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