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An Open Letter on Diversity to Washington Post Buyer Jeff Bezos

August 6, 2013 Blog No Comments
Jeff Bezos's letter to the Post's staff

Jeff Bezos’s letter to the Post’s staff

Dear Mr. Bezos:

Congratulations on buying the Washington Post. And no, I’m not saying that while waving you off into the sunset. I hope you succeed. It will be a tall task to “invent” and “experiment” while also living by your statement that “The values of The Post do not need changing.” — all words from your letter to the employees of the Washington Post.

In 2010, the Post’s Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote a piece titled “Newsroom diversity: Falling short could be fatal.” He stated, “All told, journalists of color comprise about 24 percent of the newsroom, comfortably above the ASNE [American Society of News Editors] census average of roughly 13 percent in recent years. But here’s the problem: Minorities are 43 percent of The Post’s circulation area, and a large part of the region is edging toward `majority minority’ status. For The Post, being `good on diversity’ isn’t enough.”

I agree with Alexander. As I outlined in a recent article for The Nation magazine, staffing and editorial diversity is critical for good journalism, and critical to good business decisions generally and specifically within the context of this industry. Truth-telling is not a franchise owned by any one group, and the lack of diversity undermines our ability as reporters to get to the core of important stories. When you say “The values of the Post do not need changing,” you may want to consider that some of them do. Valuing the monetary and journalistic value of diversity more greatly could be a great change in values — a critique not so much of the Post but of our industry broadly, and an issue that as a new newspaper owner should be of great interest to you.

I realize that you’ve bought The Washington Post with your personal fortune, not as an acquisition for Amazon. However, I noted that Amazon was one of the technology companies that refused to release it’s EEO-1 data: an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mandatory filing on staff diversity. While the filing is mandatory, its release is not. And although some other tech companies voluntarily released their statistics, Amazon did not. The technology industry has a deep-rooted but not intractable problem with attracting women engineers and coders (less of whom are in the pipeline to begin with), as well as racial diversity challenges. But the only way to address these issues is by recognizing them and facing them head on, not by hiding your data.

So let’s return to the newspaper industry. The Washington Post is a paper of great renown which has served to tell stories of national and international importance, and has never quite (as is true with many newspapers) done justice to coverage of the racial, cultural, and income diversity of its home region. When I lived in DC in the mid 1990s, it was called Chocolate City. Now, although the name sticks, the city is more like Neapolitan ice cream. Still, according to 2012 Census data, the District of Columbia is 50.1 percent black. The Asian- and Latino-American population in the city continues to grow. That same 2010 piece by the Post Ombudsman cites an internal report by Milton Coleman, who stated: “Already we know that we are losing black readers and not gaining Asian and Spanish-dominant readers. Immigration is driving population growth, especially throughout our increasingly important suburbs.”

Whether you are talking about local news or national reporting, there is a compelling business case for investing in diverse staffing and rewarding storytelling that goes outside the box by reaching deep into communities.

I wish you good luck. Perhaps you’ll create a model that exceeds our current low expectations for how to deliver excellent news in a fiscally responsible way. I hope so. Remember that America, and media’s potential audiences, are getting more diverse by the day. Staying in touch and in step with an evolving America is the key to political and cultural coverage; local coverage; and, I believe, to greater revenue.

Journalist since 1990: print, television, digital, radio

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