Sondai Costley, a sophomore at Howard University majoring in print journalism, bubbles with enthusiasm when she talks about the future.
Costley, originally from Arlington, Va., wants to write for a magazine when she graduates in 2015. She speaks with a certainty in her voice about becoming the kind of black journalist who has the skills and fortitude to write not only about issues affecting the black community but also global issues, politics, entertainment and any news story that might come her way.
Even though she has not yet landed an internship at any news organization, Costley doesn’t seem deterred or dissuaded by national statistics that showed a decline in the numbers of minority journalists working in the industry today. Nor did she appear discouraged by comments from veteran black journalists who say that blacks today have a more difficult time finding jobs in the industry than their counterparts did during the heyday of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“A black journalist from The New York Times talked to my class and told us that we would have to work harder,” said Costley, referring to her Advanced Writing and Reporting professor Ron Nixon. “I was concerned with securing a job in the industry even before the cuts because I had always heard ‘print is dying.’ But considering the network here at Howard [University] I shouldn’t have a problem.”
The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), UNITY, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), the Columbia Journalism Review and the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism report that there has been moderate growth in the number of black journalists in decision-making positions at several newspapers, magazines and broadcast companies in the past 10 years. But some black journalists argue that they are still underrepresented in newsrooms in most major cities around the country and are losing ground to other minority groups when it comes hiring.
Over the past decade, there has been a steady decline in the number of journalism jobs, especially in print media. Daily newspapers cut 5,900 journalism jobs in 2008, or 11.3 percent of their newsrooms, according to an annual census released in April 2009 by the ASNE. ASNE, which has conducted the census since its founding in 1978, reported that the 40,600 journalists employed by newspapers in 2012 is less than it has ever been since the survey began in 1978. In that year, there were 43,000 working journalists in newsrooms.
African-Americans, who make up the largest percentage of minority journalists, were hit especially hard by the downsizing in the newspaper business.
Richard Prince, columnist of “Journal-isms” for Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, suggests young black journalists prepare themselves for the newsroom by reading well-written language and listening to well-spoken speech.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” says Prince.
In 2011, ASNE reported that the number of minority journalists in newsrooms dropped from 5,500 to 5,300 or 12.79 percent, a decline of .47 of a percentage point from 2010. ASNE said the decline in journalists of color contrasts with the news industry’s stated goal of parity with the number of people of color in the general population by 2025.
“Black journalists have been particularly affected as newsrooms downsize or individuals seek a more secure line of work,” ASNE wrote in a survey released in 2011. “There were 929 fewer black journalists in the 2010 survey than were recorded in 2001, a drop of 31.5 percent.”
That may be news to some but not to seasoned black journalists like Paul Delaney.
Delaney, who made history in 1980 when he was named the first black deputy national news editor at The New York Times and was a co-founding member of the NABJ, said, without hesitation, that in the past 10 to 15 years media companies have regressed in hiring and promoting blacks. Delaney said the fact that organizations like NABJ are still needed in the 21st/ century is a sad commentary on the state of black journalists and journalism in America today.
“It seems we are back to the future,” Delaney said. “You had more black television anchors, national reporters and international reporters 10 or 15 years ago than we do now. So it’s really not looking good for non-white reporters right now. The racial climate today reminds me of the 1960s.”
Back then, black journalists found themselves being heavily courted by white news organizations looking for reporters to cover inner city black communities, the race riots of the 1960s and the civil rights movement.
“The National Commission on Civil Disorders warned that America was ‘moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal,” John F. Allen wrote in a blog for the NABJ on Feb. 25. “The bias was reflected with impunity in the mainstream news media. At this time, blacks held less than 1percent of newsroom jobs across America.”
Over the next 20 years, blacks saw their numbers increase dramatically in the industry, reaching an all-time high of 7,400 in 2006 and 2007 out of a total newsroom workforce of 53,000 and 55,000, respectively, those years.
No one knows exactly when things began to change, but black journalists cite the shift from print to the Internet as a contributing factor to their decline.
Yanick Rice-Lamb, an associate professor of journalism at Howard University and former editor at The New York Times, says her generation of journalists was slow to embrace the new technology and, in some ways, may have felt threatened by an IT field that appeared to be dominated by young, white males.
“We have to prepare the next generation of black journalists to strive for excellence, but also understand the realities of the business,” said Rice-Lamb. “They need to be forward thinking and visionary; maybe come up with the next Facebook or where ever the new technology and new media takes us.”
Costley counts herself as one of the New-Age journalists.
“I grew up with the Internet,” said an optimistic young Costley, referring to the shift to strictly online content. “The news will always need to be written; it doesn’t matter the medium. If you can craft your skills to be a better writer, you can handle the shift.”