In a few weeks the American Society of Newspaper Editors will release its annual census. The census, created to capture an accurate picture of the industry’s diversity, will also tell us how many jobs were lost in this year of layoffs, buy-outs and shuttered newspapers.

As newspaper companies struggle with advertisers and audiences continuing to migrate to the web, the horrifying and at times mind-numbing rate at which the industry appeared to be imploding has take the question of diversity virtually off the table.

As one newspaper CEO said to me a while back, “Diversity isn’t only off the front-burner, it’s not even in the kitchen.”

Two reports posted on the same day serve to remind us that the news industry has ignored diversity at its own peril.

In a bit of irony, in one case the very technological innovation the newspaper turned to in order to better connect with its readers gave a graphic illustration of just how out of touch the paper was to some parts of its communities.

On March 12, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press released findings that showed that less than half the population would care if their local newspapers disappeared. That same day a post on the Neiman Journalism Lab site about The Baltimore Sun’s decision to live-stream its weekday story conferences inadvertently gave us clue as to just why that might be.

“As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community ‘a lot.’ Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available,” the Pew study says.

In his post for the Nieman Lab about the Sun’s live-streaming experiment, Tim Windsor said about observing the story meeting, “…for those who do watch — especially those who haven’t been able to attend or participate in an actual news meeting — the visit can be eye-opening.”

Actually, the screenshot alone was eye-opening, though in a sadly predictable way. There we saw 13 people gathered around the table charged with putting together a newspaper in a city in which the majority of the population is African-American. At that particular table, on that particular day all were white and most were male.

Newspapers Out of Step

To be clear, when you look at the figures from previous ASNE workforce surveys it’s obvious that the Sun is not the only newspaper out of step with its community.
According to the last year’s figures [PDF file], people of color make up a bit more than 13 percent of the professional staff in the nation’s newspapers. There is little to suggest that the picture will be vastly changed when the new figures are released.

By contrast, people of color make up 33 percent of the general population. The disconnect shows.

Content audits continue to demonstrate that people of color are over-represented in stories about crime, entertainment and sports and under-represented in stories about business, lifestyle and everyday life.

For the most part, the contributions, the rich vibrancy and the mundane aspects of the lives of people of color are no more present in the printed pages of our daily newspapers than are the people of color around the Sun’s story meeting.

With a growing number of websites run by and for people of color it should not come as a surprise that increasingly people will turn to a source that depicts their lives in all of the complexity, and not solely concentrate on the pathological.

Overall trends show that in general people are getting their news from the Internet rather than from newspapers, according to a study from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. “The internet, which emerged this year as a leading source for campaign news, has now surpassed all other media except television as an outlet for national and international news,” the Dec. 2008 study said.

As newspapers struggle to keep their footing and retain their place in our democracy, there has been increasing talk about the need to give the public courses in media literacy. The thinking behind this movement is that if people truly understood the role the news media plays in the public discourse they would understand the danger to democracy if papers vanish.

The problem with that solution is that it ignores the fact many feel that news organizations routinely paint a stereotypical and one-dimensional picture of their lives. In those cases, many people believe mainstream news organizations detract from rather than add to the public discourse around issues important to their lives.

For the public to be moved to truly rally to save the media, the media must first fully cover all aspects of our communities.

Looking at the picture painted by the Baltimore Sun’s story conference, ASNE’s census figures and content analysis findings, it seems that the media might benefit from public literacy more than the public needs media literacy.