I learned early in my career about the active discrimination of the media against black people.
My first post-college job was as a reporter for the old Bulletin, the powerful afternoon newspaper (circ. 700,000 a day) in Philadelphia. This was in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. Once or twice a week, the Defense Department announced war casualties. In a city the size of Philly, that often meant a score or more of losses a week.
Each time we learned the identities of those killed, we would do a story. We’d “lede” the story with a look at one casualty and would include a photo of him and his family. The rest of the casualties would get a paragraph. As one of the kids in the newsroom, the unpleasant assignment of going out to talk to a casualty’s family often fell to me. An editor would tell me which family to lede the story with.
Never once was it an African American.
That was not surprising at a newspaper with only two Blacks among 300 editorial employees, neither of them editors. The connection between the paucity of coverage of African Americans and the lack of African Americans in the newsroom was not lost on me. As I rose through the ranks of newspapers to positions with hiring authority, I kept in the mind the importance of having a newsroom that included African Americans and hired accordingly.
In its nearly 20-year history, City Pulse has employed African Americans on both the editorial and business sides. Last July, we hired an African American woman right out of MSU. She had no background in journalism, but she came with wonderful ideas and, being from the Lansing area, good contacts. She did a great job.
Unfortunately for us, six months later, MSU hired her away.
She left in January. As my staff can attest, I made it clear that my first priority in replacing her is to find another person of color.
But life has intervened. Like many small businesses (we have the equivalent of 10 fulltime positions: two and a half writers/reporters; one writer/editor; three on the business side; a half time production manager; myself, a jack-of-all-trades; and two editorial vacancies,) City Pulse is just getting by during the pandemic, thanks to funding by the federal Payroll Protection Program. Those funds will run out at the end of July. Advertising revenue is a quarter or less than it was in February. A recession like no other is forming, and advertising is one of the first expenses many businesses cut or eliminate altogether. The future is cloudy for City Pulse.
Hiring anyone now is not in the cards, regardless of color.
Nonetheless, hiring an African American remains a priority when we are able to hire again.
Given what it is going on in our community right now, from the unrest on the streets to the broader civil rights issues finally being debated in every circle, I get more than ever the importance of having an editorial staff that reflects the makeup of our community.
Toward this end, I am asking for the help of anyone who knows of a person of color in this community to consider. Experience is welcome, but, as we have done before, we stand prepared to train someone with the talent to become a journalist. We can’t hire now, but we can be prepared to when the time comes.
Even without the input of a Black reporter, City Pulse is committed to continuing to cover civil rights issues. Just to point to current events, City Pulse has led the way on examining complaints of bias in the Lansing Mayor’s Office, beginning last year. (I am pleased that the story has finally broken through to coverage in the mainstream media, but I have to wonder where they’ve been for the last year.) In the last three weeks, we have covered the unrest on the streets better than any other media in this town, despite having the smallest staff of any news organization in Lansing. We’ve devoted many pages to covering these important current events and even more digital coverage.
Our efforts will continue.
(Berl Schwartz is the editor & publisher and founding owner of City Pulse.)