Column: Staff diversity something certainly worth striving for

This week’s News-Review cover package.

I know what many of you are probably thinking — at least those of you who’ve already read this week’s cover story. So before the letters even arrive, I’ll just admit to it. The News-Review calling out the Riverhead Police Department for not employing enough blacks or Hispanics is like the pot calling the kettle black (or in this case, white).

I’ve been here for almost four years, and in that time we’ve had one Hispanic in our employ, a Colombian paginator who didn’t contribute editorial content. The last black reporter to work in the newsroom here was Beverly Jensen — now a spokeswoman for Shinnecock Indian Nation — and I’m told that was well over 10 years ago.

We can sometimes go weeks without a photo of a local black or Hispanic person in the News-Review — outside of the sports section. How is that even possible in such a diverse town? The answer is simple. The all-white staff isn’t keyed in to the black and Hispanic communities. And despite our best efforts, the paper is journalistically lacking in this sense. Our coverage is supposed to reflect things happening in Riverhead. All of Riverhead. Under-representation of certain groups not only creates mistrust among readers, it’s bad for business. There are thousands of potential customers we fail to reach every day because, literally and figuratively, we don’t speak their language.

So what to do about it?

I’ve got a really good hold on the first crucial step: admitting there’s a problem. I know a good writer is a good writer regardless of race, but a writer from the black community has access to information I can’t get, stories I can’t unearth (or would have much more trouble unearthing). The same goes for the cops. A black or Hispanic police officer might have an easier time making inroads in Riverhead’s Latino community than a white officer — not just because the officer might speak Spanish, but because he “gets it,” so to speak.

So Supervisor Sean Walter’s denying there’s any problem with the East End’s least-white town having the whitest police force is part of the problem. It’s easy for someone to be colorblind — and say we need to start looking past race — when he’s part of the group on top, the group doing the policing. But really he’s just being blind. How can the town address an issue if those in its highest elected or appointed offices don’t think there’s an issue in need of addressing? In this sense, the News-Review is light-years ahead of the town.

The next step for the editors here would be crafting a plan to recruit a diverse newsroom. This is the tough part. And although the paper and the police force face different roadblocks, here is where we’re similar. There’s not much being done about achieving diversity. It’s a tough challenge. And neither organization has a plan in place. (Though I will maintain it’s more important for a tax-funded agency to reflect the demographics of its taxpayers than it is for a private, profit-driven enterprise.)

One of our biggest problems at the News-Review is that we’re always trying to make a quick hire. When someone tells the company he or she is leaving, we typically have two weeks to fill the position. And we are scrambling. This is a small shop, and being understaffed for any amount of time puts great stress on all of us.

Studies have found that publishing an ethnic newspaper is one effective way to reach non-white communities, but they’re expensive endeavors and quite often fail. (Think Newsday’s “Hoy” experiment.) They’re also hard to staff because of the need not only for a certain skill set — which is hard enough — but also for a specific ethnic background. Another way I found to achieve diversity is to develop internship programs through local schools and colleges, but around here, interns have often proven to be more trouble than they’re worth, given how much attention they need.

Achieving diversity on police forces or in newsrooms boils down to a matter of priorities, and how many resources an organization wishes to dedicate to achieve diversity amid so many other pressing concerns.

But talking about it, showing why it is something worth striving for, is the only way to start.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200 or [email protected]