In recent years, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has played a watchdog role as the region struggled with issues around race and diversity.
In 2012, reporter Jesse Bogan covered the paucity of blacks on the roster of the town’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals. At the time, there were none.
In 2014, in the months following the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, reporters Nancy Cambria, Doug Moore and Walker Moskop took an accounting of the racial makeup of police departments in St. Louis County. In 30 of the 31 communities they tracked, the percentage of black residents was higher than the proportion of black officers. In Ferguson, where two-thirds of residents were black, only 7 percent of the city’s police officers were black.
And in February, the Post-Dispatch’s editorial page called out the University of Missouri Board of Curators, for being comprised of “six people of a certain age. All are white.”
But the Post-Dispatch has its own problems with diversity, problems that mirror those at media companies throughout the nation. However, the issue is perhaps more acute here given the racial tension since the shooting in Ferguson.
Some media companies resist or respond defensively when outsiders examine their practices. But to its credit, not the Post-Dispatch. Top managers, including executive editor Gilbert Bailon, provided data that documents the racial composition of its staff and spoke openly about how they are trying to maintain and increase diversity. In most cases, reporters who offered criticism did so on the record.
Last year, the Post-Dispatch filled three prominent jobs with white men. Within the space of several months, it hired a new metro columnist, a lead sports columnist and an editorial page editor. Arguably, Bailon filled those spots with superstars. He moved Tony Messenger, the editorial page editor, into the metro columnist job. Messenger had recently been named a Pulitzer finalist for his Ferguson-related editorials.
Shortly after long-time sports columnist Bernie Miklasz departed, Bailon brought aboard Ben Hochman, a native St. Louisan who had been a decorated columnist and a frequent sports radio presence in Denver. By age 35, Hochman had already won six national awards.
Then, earlier this year, Tod Robberson replaced Messenger as editorial page editor. Robberson won a Pulitzer Prize with two other writers for work they did in highlighting socio-economic disparities in Dallas where he worked for the Dallas Morning News.
All these men were superbly qualified for these jobs. Yet three white males were selected for marquee positions as the community was dealing with the Ferguson aftershocks. And this was in an era of austerity for many newspapers, when hires are precious. At 118 employees, the Post-Dispatch newsroom is roughly one-third the size it was when Lee Enterprises purchased the paper and other media properties from Pulitzer, Inc. in 2005.
Post by the numbers
As of February, overall the Post-Dispatch newsroom staff was 17 percent non-white and management was 19 percent non-white, according to figures provided by the company. That puts it roughly on par with other newspapers in the United States.
Overall, minority journalists make up 18.5 percent of the professional workforce at newspapers in the Post-Dispatch’s circulation category (100,000-250,000), according to the latest annual survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). (Late update as of July 14: the Post-Dispatch says new figures compiled for ASNE shows improvement and the newsroom overall has now reached the national average – 18.5 percent minority journalists.)
Many U.S. news organizations, including The Poynter Institute, have trouble reflecting the diversity of America writ large. Figures cited by ASNE show that minorities make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population, with the number expected to grow to about 42 percent over the next decade. Few newsrooms come close to matching those numbers.
The St. Louis region is not as diverse as the nation. According to 2014 census estimates, the population in the city of St. Louis and the region’s five most populous counties was 26 percent non-white. So the newsroom/community gap at the Post appears to be 7.5 percentage points.
But the gap widens considerably when it comes to blacks. Blacks make up nearly 21 percent of the population in the city and those five other counties. The percentage of blacks on the Post-Dispatch staff is just eight percent. That is 10 people among the 118 in the newsroom.
Though the number of non-whites has remained consistent at the P-D during the last 10 years, the number of blacks began to decline. In 2006, blacks made up 12.3 percent of the staff, according to figures the Post-Dispatch provided to ASNE. The paper has made gains in hiring minority staff since then by hiring Asian Americans and Hispanics – about four percent in each category. That roughly reflects their percentage in the region, according to census figures.
Having Gilbert Bailon, who is of Hispanic heritage, in the role of executive editor, is a symbol of the newspaper’s commitment to diversity. The Post-Dispatch also has had a woman as an editor in recent years (Ellen Soeteber), and before that an Asian American (William F. Woo).
When it came down to making those choices for the three top jobs at the Post-Dispatch, Bailon said he considered people of color, and women. “In all three cases, we had strong minority finalists,” he said.
After those hires were made, the Post-Dispatch hired a black journalist, Junius Randolph, for its website; an Asian American, Kristen Taketa, as a general assignment reporter; and Jose de Jesus Ortiz, who is a Hispanic, as a sports columnist. In the last few weeks, it has added Ashley Lisenby, an African American as a metro reporter, and Nassim Benchaabane, a native of Algeria, as a police reporter.
Diversity by department
The sports hire was particularly notable. With the death of Bryan Burwell in 2015, the Post-Dispatch sports staff became all-white (except for Stu Durando) and all male (except for online content editor Sara Holmes).
For several weeks in fall and winter of 2015, the newspaper ran a house ad featuring a picture of the not-very-diverse team (Holmes was not pictured, though Durando was), which touted their credentials as stellar sports scribes.
Doug Moore, the newspaper’s diversity reporter, was appalled. Moore said he had been trying to get the marketing department to pay more attention to the newspaper’s 100 Neediest Cases campaign. “Then, in the middle of the campaign, I open the paper and I see an ad for sports, and these white guys smiling at me, and I think, ‘Are you f-ing kidding me? Why are we promoting that we have no diversity in our sports department?’”
Earlier this year, the marketing department launched a campaign featuring a dozen columnists. Included in the campaign are four women and three non-whites. Most of them come from the features department, which is comparatively diverse in relation to every other department.
Until recently, it was led by an Asian American, Jody Mitori (she took a job outside journalism in April), and includes a family columnist Aisha Sultan, a Muslim of Pakistani descent; pop music critic Kevin Johnson, fashion and home writer Debra Bass and feature writer, Calvin Wilson, each of whom is black; and three women, Gail Pennington, Judith Newmark and Sarah Bryan Miller, as television, theater and classical music critic respectively. Overall the staff is made up of seven women and five men, six people of color; six whites.
The photo staff is also diverse, with five non-whites among a staff of 11. But the eight-member business unit (which officially is considered part of Metro) is all white, except for one editor, who is Hispanic.
And then there’s the metro desk, which did most of the reporting on Ferguson. Although some people of color were involved in that coverage, a great deal of the reporting was handled by white reporters. Was the newspaper disadvantaged by a lack of diversity?
Bailon acknowledged that he would like to have more diversity among his metro reporters, but notes that among those involved in the Ferguson coverage were a news editor Ron Wade and video editor Gary Hairlson, both black, and Carlos Ayulo, assistant managing editor for presentation, who is Hispanic.
But on the streets, some saw problems. Moore points out that the Post-Dispatch did not land an interview with Brown’s parents in the aftermath of the shooting.
Notably, the Post-Dispatch did have Koran Addo, a recently-hired black journalist, covering the racial tension at the University of Missouri last fall when the football team threatened to boycott a game in sympathy with protesters. Addo is now covering City Hall.
‘Irrelevant to the black community?’
In many cases, it is whites on the Post-Dispatch who feel that the newspaper’s racial makeup is cringe-worthy. Jesse Bogan, a white metro reporter, raised his hand at a staff meeting last year to address the issue. In his six years at the newspaper, Bogan has written extensively about minorities, including the piece on the racial makeup of the Cardinals. At the staff meeting, Bogan brought up the fact that the paper lacked a black metro columnist and that it was an obvious omission in the newsroom's coverage post-Ferguson. What was keeping the Post-Dispatch from making such a hire, he wanted to know.
The newspaper once had a black columnist, Greg Freeman, who died at age 46 in 2002. Bob Joiner, who is black, once wrote editorials and had a weekly column on the op-ed page. He left the newspaper in 2005.
In the summer of 2003 came Sylvester Brown Jr., who left the newspaper in 2009. Brown was dismissed by the Post-Dispatch after the newspaper accused him of an ethics violation. Brown maintains that the ethics charge was used as a pretense to fire him for talking about diversity issues at the newspaper and for writing critically about white politicians, such as St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay.
Brown is still critical of the Post-Dispatch's record on diversity. “They don’t really respect black readers,” Brown said. “And in many ways they are irrelevant to the black community.”
Relevance is a theme that others with less animosity toward the Post-Dispatch also discuss. Gloria Ross is a black freelance journalist who is active on social media. She sees few papers delivered in her racially diverse Central West End neighborhood and said few of her friends are reading the Post-Dispatch online.
Felicia Pulliam, director of Policy and Community Engagement at FOCUS St. Louis and former member of the Ferguson Commission, said. “I don’t read the Post-Dispatch as much as I used to. Last year, I read it daily. The coverage last year was probably the best it had been in a long time.” But Pulliam said the newspaper fails in covering the black community in its entirety, concentrating perhaps too much on dysfunction and not as much on everyday lives.
“I have always wondered why the P-D was not much more diverse. I am getting frustrated with it,” Pulliam said. “That’s kind of why I stopped reading it.”
Pulliam’s mother, Jeanette Pulliam, is a retired educator and a subscriber. She reads it avidly every day. As a teacher and former member of the Normandy school board in North St. Louis County, she knows and respects some of the people behind the bylines, especially education writer Elisa Crouch.
“You could bet that what you said (to Crouch) would be in the paper correctly,” Jeanette Pulliam said. But Jeanette Pulliam said she can’t think of one of her friends who subscribe to the newspaper.
An understated, but important reason that readers follow a newspaper are the obituaries. Jeanette Pulliam increasingly sees notices of friends and acquaintances passing, but not in the Post-Dispatch.
Rarely will readers see a black face in the newspaper’s paid obituaries. The newspaper isn’t discriminating. The obituaries are open to anyone who wants to pay for them. But why pay for an obituary in the region’s most widely circulated newspaper if few of your friends and acquaintances are reading it?
Many blacks do pick up and read the free weekly St. Louis American, the region’s black paper, as well as both the largest independently owned newspaper in Missouri and the largest weekly paper in the state. Interestingly, its current managing editor, Chris King, is white, and its investigative reporter and video editor, Rebecca Rivas, is Hispanic. But its publisher and executive editor, Donald M. Suggs, is black and has deep ties in his community, and the majority of the newspaper staff in every department is African-American. That’s where you will find the news about blacks that covers a lot of achievements, as well as dysfunction. It is also where you can find the obituaries that never surface in the Post-Dispatch.
“I would hope that, despite our shortcomings on any given day, (black readers) would recognize how dedicated we are to all of St. Louis and how committed we are to seeking out the truth and keeping all parts of our community informed,” said Adam Goodman, who oversees the Post-Dispatch’s metro coverage as an assistant managing editor. “That means being devoted to telling the stories that need to be told and to holding folks accountable.”
Recently, the newspaper sponsored a community forum on the heels of printing a 10-page special section called “The Crisis Within.” The report, by Nancy Cambria and photographer Laurie Skrivan, documented how crime and poverty inhibits brain growth in children “inviting disease and slashing life spans.”
In another way, Debra Bass’ work is equally important when it comes to outreach. Her reports on fashion and lifestyle trends capture the community’s multicultural zeitgeist in a way that is upbeat and inclusive.
Bass is black, loves her job and her colleagues. But she is frank about her newspaper’s faults. “I defend our news judgment and our coverage. I cannot defend the makeup of our staff,” she said. “You have people covering stories who don’t look like the people they are covering, and it raises issues.”
Bass and others know that it has become increasingly difficult to recruit journalists of color. Job openings don’t come around as often, and when they do it’s hard to persuade an up-and-coming black journalist that St. Louis is the place to be.
Ferguson made the region seem inhospitable to people of color. But the region has never enjoyed a sterling reputation in that regard.
Jamila Robinson, a black journalist, worked in the features department at the Post-Dispatch from 2003 to 2007. “I felt that I had a lot of opportunity at the Post-Dispatch,” she said. “St. Louis is a different thing.”
Robinson, a native of Detroit, spoke of blacks in St. Louis as “some of the most downtrodden” she had ever seen. “You could go downtown in St. Louis not see a black person in a suit,” she said. “You can’t rise and create social capital there like you can in some cities. You don’t have a network to create that.”
The Post-Dispatch once had a full-time recruiter, Cynthia Todd, a black woman who focused a lot of attention on minorities. Then it had a part-time recruiter in Irv Harrell, also black. Now due to staff cuts, no one is officially tasked with recruitment of staff members, minority or otherwise.
But Mike Meiners, director of newsroom administration, said the Post-Dispatch remains eager to recruit African-American staff members and will have a recruitment booth at the upcoming NABJ convention in August.
Edited for space from a longer article on Richard Weiss' blog. Please read his complete report at http://weisswrite.wixsite.com/p-d-diversity.
Richard H. Weiss is a former member of the Post-Dispatch staff. He worked there 30 years as a reporter and editor and took a buyout in 2005. Weiss has continued to collaborate with the Post-Dispatch from time to time on projects sponsored by the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis, where he once served as president.