It’s been a couple of weeks since Tim O’Reilly’s News Foo rolled into the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, and while I truly enjoyed thinking big thoughts with big thinkers about the direction of our industry, I couldn’t help but notice how lacking in diversity the invitation-only gathering was. The same thing could be said for the Online News Association conference held in Washington, D.C., the end of October. True, there were a lot more brown faces at this last gathering than six or seven years ago when Ju-Don Roberts, then a senior editor at Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive, and I were the only African Americans in the room. The lack of diversity at ONA ’10 was the subject of a brief but heated conversation between some National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) members, a few of whom wanted to “do something” about it, like call ONA’s leadership out.

Was it an oversight? A slap? Or was it a reflection of the lack of diversity in the country’s online newsrooms? Maybe it is the echo chamber effect of the online news types whose definition of who is innovating is limited to the people they hang with.

Plenty of Candidates

It surely couldn’t be that there are no persons of color innovating in media. A year before, prior to the ONA conference in San Francisco, I helped put together a list of about 20 African Americans, ranging from online executives to entrepreneurs to a CTO, who could be on panels. Sadly, none of them made the cut. And each year, when I organize a week-long intensive innovation session held by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, where three groups of five college students each have five days to come up with a new product for the newspaper industry, minorities and women are well represented on the speaker’s list.

This year, more than half of the speakers were persons of color, including power hitters such as Chris Hendricks, VP of interactive media for McClatchy, who schooled the students about the reality of online advertising; Caesar Andrews of Gannett to talk about ethics and technology; Dr. Sybril Bennett of Belmont University who caught the students up on the latest technology innovations; and Brandon Harris of Gannett’s innovation group, 11g, who guided them through the human-centered design approach to disruption.

It didn’t take that much effort to put together the list of speakers, and I was pretty much restricted to NAA members so didn’t reach out to people who are doing their own thing like Fern Shen, founder of Baltimore Brew, or Rick Hancock, who built a full multimedia studio in his basement where he runs a successful new media empire in Connecticut. And I didn’t reach out to the likes of Denmark West, president of digital media for BET Networks; or Chuck Creekmur and Greg Watkins, the guys who successfully launched Allhiphop.com more than a decade ago when they were using two-way pagers to push the news out; or academics such as Kevin Clark, director of Digital Media and Innovation at George Mason University; or Michelle Ferrier, associate professor at Elon University and a J-Lab Women Entrepreneurs grant winner. These people are from a list off the top of my head, and there are many more out there.

I’m not going to put all of the blame, if you will, for the lack of diversity at these conferences on the organizers. Persons of color who are innovating or want to innovate need to get involved and raise their own profiles. The UNITY journalism groups have been way too slow in preparing members to make the transition from staff member to COO of their own ventures or training them to roll from legacy to new media. But that is changing. Thanks to the Ford Foundation, each of the minority journalism groups had funding this year to seed a startup, and a panel I was on that dealt with innovation was standing room-only at last summer’s NABJ convention.

I also applaud those organizations that are consciously making sure that journalists of color are getting the training they need to be successful in new media. The Freedom Forum’s New Media training at the Diversity Institute in Nashville and the Maynard Institute continues to make sure mid-level executives are steeped in new media and innovation. This summer, the Village Voice alt-weekly is launching a Minority Media Digital Fellowship, a 10-week training program for college students that will be held at the Cronkite School and facilitated by yours truly, because the publisher doesn’t like the number of minorities doing the digital thing. The deadline for applying is Feb. 8.

New Year’s Resolutions

I’m not one to see problems without thinking of solutions, so in light of a new year coming upon us, let’s collectively make some resolutions when it comes to diversity in this new media that we are building:

• When planning conferences and panels, resolve to expand beyond your trusted go-to group of presenters to a more diverse set. If you don’t know whom to invite, ask and I’ll make sure I give you some names. Feel free to start with the people already mentioned.

• Go young: BET.com, MTV.com, Allhiphop.com to name a few are a wonderful source for millennials who have experience in interactive content and news. I am happy to see ONA launching a youth initiative as a tribute to one of its founding members, MJ Bear, who passed away in December. It was one of her last wishes.

NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA, let’s make sure this summer’s conventions are steeped in innovation and new media training for our members. It’s nearly 2011 and media are evolving and we need to make sure we evolve with it.

• Site managers please look at your staffs. If they are all white, resolve to diversify whether by hiring experienced persons of color or growing your own. I had to build an entire staff of culturally aware content producers in 1999 when BET.com launched at a time when the number of African Americans in new media was woefully small. So I trained black and Latino hip-hop magazine writers, BET television producers and young people straight out of Howard and Hampton universities in new media. Many of them are now leaders at new media companies across the country.

I believe that if there is a will, there is a way. We can’t build a strong new media if their content and staffs are not diverse. New media cannot afford to make the same mistakes as old media, especially in the face of a changing America. More journalists of color have to take chances and innovate, whether it is at your legacy media company or at a startup that you form at your kitchen table. Whether you are pushed or you leap, you will need new media skills to get ahead. There is still time and there is still room in the media landscape for a diversity of ideas and people.

Editor’s Note: Due to the reaction we’ve had to this story at Idea Lab, we will be having a discussion about it and other issues of diversity in new media on Twitter at 2 pm Eastern Time on Dec. 29 at the #mediadiversity hashtag. Please join us!

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