Older man reading the USA Today

Al Neuharth

The Columbus Dispatch's corporate owners, the Gannett Co., are compelling it to become an honest, diverse newspaper. And you can blame the late, great Al Neuharth. I will explain shortly.

You would have to be a resident of outer space without satellite communication to not know that at the Dispatch, white men dominate the newsroom.

For as long as I can remember, the Dispatch and its companion websites have  covered the news from the perspective of white men. Women, minorities, people practicing alternative lifestyles and the young have gotten the short shrift.       

The latest example occurred in May when the Dispatch wrote an editorial questioning the wisdom of the city steering contracts to minorities. The Black community immediately took offense and forced Dispatch editor Alan Miller to go into full public relations mode that further disrespected the Black community. See the second item in my June column in the Columbus Free Press. It is titled "Dispatch Editor Treats Blacks, Women Unfairly." https://columbusfreepress.com/article/columbusmediainsider-mr-and-ms-popularity

So how is the Dispatch's new corporate parent, Gannett, going to change things?

It all started online on Aug. 20 and in print Aug. 23 when Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president/news for Gannett and publisher of USA Today (now a sister newspaper of the Dispatch) wrote an article titled: "Diversity and inclusion are choices, not just words. Today we reaffirm our mission." She stated that each Gannett newspaper is to "achieve gender, racial and ethnic parity by 2025."

Annual public reports will be given, she promised. Several reporter positions covering racial justice issues will be created by the corporation to ensure that coverage of diverse communities will match the increase in hiring women and minorities, she added.

Much like he did with the Black contracting controversy, editor Miller downplayed the critical article, putting Wadsworth's on page 2F of the editorial page section. He placed his column at the bottom of the front page of front section (1A) under the headline: "... We pledge to increase newsroom diversity."

Miller mentioned the unflattering statistics in the sixth and subsequent paragraphs of the column, but omitted the full color graphic that accompanied his column on the website https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200820/telling-stories-about-columbus-requires-diverse-newsroom-herersquos-look-at-our-staff and replaced with a small, less catchy graphic that left out the colors. In other words, he downplayed the most damning information.

It seemed to be a rerun of a front page column he wrote on May 24 in the wake of the Black contracting controversy under the headline: "With an apology, The Dispatch reinforces need to fight racism."

Sadly, three months later not much had happened. He left that out, too.

The Dispatch's employment percentages are abysmal: too white and too male.

In a community that is 79% white, the Dispatch's newsroom is 93% white and its newsroom leadership is 85% white.

While 49% of the community is male and 51% female, the newsroom is 65% male and newsroom leadership is 60% male.

Blacks, other minorities and women are significantly under represented.

The Akron Beacon Journal, purchased by Gannett earlier this year at the same time as the Dispatch, is also below par. In a 72% white community, its newsroom is 82% white and its leadership is 86% white. Women account for 52% of population while men are 48% percent, but men hold 64% of newsroom positions and 71% of leadership ones.

The other large metropolitan newspaper that Gannett owns in Ohio, the Cincinnati Enquirer, did somewhat better on diversity than its sister Ohio papers. Its population splits 51%-49% for females while its newsroom is 60%-40% male and leadership is 53%-47% male. The area's racial breakdown is 78% white with the paper's newsroom 79% white and its leadership 94% white.

The Enquirer has been under Gannett ownership and employment guidelines for several decades rather than several months. That may account for its better numbers.

The push for diversity at Gannett goes back to the 1980s when the aforementioned Al Neuharth was the chair and chief operating officer.

Neuharth, now deceased, wanted the chain, then consisting of mostly small and medium-sized newspapers, to become a national journalistic force. He started buying metropolitan dailies such as the Detroit News, Louisville Courier-Journal, and Indianapolis Star.

He invented and founded USA Today, a national daily newspaper to compete with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, on Sept. 15, 1982.

The Nation's Newspaper, as it called itself, was designed to be different from traditional newspapers. It featured clever headlines, short articles, and lots of color pictures and colorful graphics. It heavily covered sports and entertainment. It gave readers what they were interested in (including trivial stuff) rather than serious stuff that editors of conventional newspapers like the Dispatch thought readers needed to know. USA Today was modeled after television news not existing newspapers.

I started as a journalism professor at Central Michigan University in 1984 and adopted USA Today as my major research interest because I noticed that young adults were turning away from newspapers. I thought the new fancy colorful newspaper might win them back. It did for a while, but the internet has significantly weakened the newspaper industry.

I subsequently wrote two books about the national newspaper, The USA Today Way  in 1992 and The USA Today Way 2 The Future in 2000. I was widely quoted on the subject back in the day. If you want to read my books, email me and I will lend a few them out at no charge.

One of the subjects I wrote about in my books and articles was Neuharth's push for diversity in Gannett newspapers in the 1980s. He called it NEWS 2000.

All Gannett newspapers were graded on both diversity (women and minorities) hiring and their commitment to covering the interests of women and minorities. USA Today was required to have a picture of a woman and a minority on page one every day and its other newspapers were to follow suit.

Lori Nelson, Neuharth's wife in the 1980s, was an ardent feminist and is credited with pushing him in the direction of diversity.

Neuharth retired in 1989, but left the company in the hands of the Curley brothers, John as chair and CEO and younger brother Tom as USA Today publisher and chief operating officer. They continued Gannett's commitment to diversity in both hiring and news coverage. It was seen by then as good business. Their successors continued the push, but were hampered by the declining economic fortunes of the industry.

Remarkably, Michael Reed, the chair and chief executive officer of New Media Investments, that purchased Gannett in early 2020, is incorporating Gannett's diversity policy into the merged company that has retained the name Gannett. New Media Investments purchased the Columbus Dispatch in 2015 and the Akron Beacon Journal in 2019. Gannett is the largest newspaper owner in the country with 260 dailies and numerous weeklies. It is a top 10 operator of news websites in the country.

In an irony of ironies, John W. Wolfe, who ran the Dispatch for his family, reportedly refused to sell the Dispatch to Gannett in part because USA Today had given him fits back in the 1980s and 1990s because it had a 6 percent penetration rate in Columbus, triple its national rate. Apparently, Columbus residents found USA Today more interesting than the stodgy, boring, white-male-run hometownDispatch. It forced the Dispatch to add color, improve its graphics and pep up the product. But it did not give up its male domination.

Give Al Neuharth credit for getting the diversity ball rolling four decades ago and give Maribel Perez Wadsworth credit for committing the Dispatch to the honorable quest in 2020.

(Please send your comments and suggestions for future columns to John K. Hartman, ColumbusMediaInsider@gmail.com)  

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