A Paradigm Shift in the Newsroom

Courtesy of Dawn Rhodes

 

When Field Foundation grantee, Block Club Chicago, announced that they recently hired a former Chicago Tribune reporter as a senior editor, it was celebrated, in part, because Dawn Rhodes brings a breadth of experience and because the news organization is expanding during a time when most newsrooms are shrinking their staffs.

But, while the addition of Rhodes brings a dynamic writer, reporter, and meticulously attentive line editor and self-starter to the organization, the move also lands the digital news site its first, full-time African American editor with decision making power. That means the story assignments, their placement on the website and sourcing will be vetted by a voice that reflects a community too often shut out of mainstream media.

One goal of the Field Foundation’s Media & Storytelling program is to amplify the voices and impact of African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American (ALAANA) journalists, media makers, and storytellers in the local media landscape. The addition of Rhodes to the staff, with the help of a grant aimed at editorial diversity growth, fits with our mission.

“We are truly emphasizing ALAANA within our newsroom, not only with our reporters but among our leadership as well,” said Maple Walker Lloyd,  Block Club Chicago’s director of development and community engagement, in an email. She is also African American. “We’re really excited about us being on an incline rather than a decline. We’re looking forward.”

Rhodes’ hiring comes at a time when there are a number of ALAANA voices being elevated at some major news organizations.  At the same time, too many mainstream newsrooms are struggling with diversity and inclusivity, especially in leadership roles.

In 1968, in response to numerous race riots that occurred across the country, the Kerner Commission published a report that concluded that one reason there was racial discord at the time was because of racist stereotypes pushed in the media. That report accused news outlets of imbalanced reporting and of ignoring issues that were important to the black community.

The only way news coverage would actually change is if newsrooms changed. And not only did newsrooms need ALAANA reporters, but they also needed decision-makers that reflect diverse perspectives, the Kerner Commission report concluded.

“… The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now,” the report said.

Still, some 50 years after that report was published, a number of news industry watchdog organizations found that its interrogation of the media still rang true. 

And while there has been some progress on diversity since the 1960s, there hasn’t been enough, recent statistics show.

In 2019, a survey of news organizations by the News Leaders Association found that only about 18.8 percent of people of color made up management at both print/digital and online publications.

Ideally, news organizations would make diversity and inclusion among management a priority on their own. But one way to ensure it is by making it a priority in philanthropic giving.

“The [push] in getting more women and women of color into news organizations’ management tier has made some progress, but it has been slow and needs to be improved upon,” said Teri Hayt, executive director of the News Leaders Association. “We believe that a diverse news staff will be a staff that connects with their community. Building back trust with our communities requires us to tell the stories of those communities, and it’s hard to do that when a news operation staff doesn’t reflect that community.”

Dawn Rhodes worked for a decade at the Chicago Tribune, one of the largest print publications in the Midwest. During her tenure, she covered general news assignments, wrote about west suburban municipal government and community issues. She also covered the state’s public and private universities and education policy.

While she thrived as a reporter, Rhodes said moving into editing felt like a natural progression. At the Tribune, she was tapped to work as a weekend editor and juggled both reporting stories and editing at the same time.

“I was at a stage where editing was more pleasurable for me,” she said. “I knew for a while that it was the next step. I didn’t see myself moving into another reporting role.”

Rhodes said she found herself informally mentoring younger reporters, helping them shape their writing voices and she wanted to have a stronger impact on their work.

Yet, there was no defined pathway to move from the daily grind of covering an important topic beat to management. To try to prepare herself for a bigger role in the newsroom, Rhodes attended leadership workshops sponsored by the Poynter Institute and what was once known as the American Society of News Editors. Still, she found it challenging to get a seat at the table where the actual editorial decisions were being mapped out, she said.

That changed when she was hired in April at Block Club Chicago.

“There just aren’t enough women of color, or people of color, who get to have an influence over the news coverage decisions,” Rhodes said. “It feels good to have a role that involves being a source of emotional support and advice, but I also get to directly influence the work that young people do. I can shape how they approach the stories, how they conceptualize the stories, how they write them, who they interview.

“I can finally say, as a woman of color, I am an editor now.”

Having Rhodes in a senior position also signals to the reporters and other ALAANA staffers that there is room for them to grow, said Maudlyne Ihejirika,  president of the National Association of Black Journalists Chicago Chapter. It gives them a colleague to talk to about sensitive conversations about race, to discuss what they encounter while doing their jobs and someone to confide in who has been on their same journey.

“While anyone can cover a story, the story must be identified and assigned,” Ihejirika said. “When there is no one in management with any nuanced perspective on the issues afflicting communities of color … there are stories that may never get told. And if they do get told, they may never be told in a way that unveils and reaches those communities to affect change.”

Rhodes’ position is funded, in part, by a Media & Storytelling grant that was awarded in January.

 

Lolly Bowean
Program Officer, Media & Storytelling

 

 

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About Media & Storytelling

Lolly Bowean is the Media & Storytelling Program Officer. The goals of the Field Foundation’s Media & Storytelling program, a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Democracy Fund, are to create more just and inclusive narratives about Chicago that foster policy change; amplify the voices and impact of African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American journalists, media makers and storytellers in the local media landscape; and support more reporting and storytelling by traditional and alternative journalism platforms about the root causes of the city’s inequities. Learn more about our program here.

 

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