Posted on May 13, 2014

The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media

Gabriel Arana, American Prospect, May 12, 2014

On the staff of The American Prospect, I’m the only member of an ethnic minority. That’s not because I bring all the variety the magazine needs, or because the editors don’t think diversity is valuable. Everyone on the masthead of this liberal publication is committed to being inclusive–not just of racial and ethnic minorities but of women; gays, lesbians, and transgender people; and the poor.

It’s not just the Prospect. Journalism upstarts like Vox Media and FiveThirtyEight have come under fire recently for lack of diversity in their hires, but that’s largely because they are drawing from the milky-white pool of “existing talent.” In the corner of the publishing industry that caters to college-educated wonks–a slightly fuzzy designation, but I’ve included most of the publications my colleagues and I read on a daily basis–racial and ethnic diversity is abysmal.

Nearly 40 percent of the country is non-white and/or Hispanic, but the number of minorities at the outlets included in this article’s tally–most of them self-identified as liberal or progressive–hovers around 10 percent. The Washington Monthly can boast 20 percent, but that’s because it only has nine staffers in total, two of whom belong to minority groups. Dissent, like the Prospect, has one. Given the broad commitment to diversity in our corner of the publishing world, why is the track record so poor?

{snip} When you’re in the business of telling stories, lacking diversity means you’re limited in the sorts of stories you can tell–or even think of telling. A newsroom filled with white guys simply lacks the same imagination as one with people from an array of backgrounds. {snip}

A large part of the problem is simply that no one is keeping track. Unlike the National Association of News Editors, the American Society of Magazine Editors does not track the number of minorities among magazine staff.

Most of the editors I spoke with conceded up front that their record of hiring and retaining people of color was poor, but few knew the number off-hand. {snip}

{snip} In my survey, the center-left New Republic scored higher on the racial and ethnic-diversity scale than the rest of its more progressive counterparts save Mother Jones, with 12.5 percent of staff members hailing from minority groups.

The recession, too, took a toll on diversity. At newspapers, the percentage of minorities on staff decreased from 13.73 to 12.37 percent between 2008 and 2012. Anecdotally, the downturn has had a similar effect on the magazine world. {snip}

In the struggle to stay afloat, worrying about diversity came to be seen as quaint. “Up until 2008, newsrooms–especially large ones–were really really conscious about diversity,” says Slate editor David Plotz, whose publication’s staff composition of 75 is about 6.7 percent minority. “The recession made newsrooms very miserly thinking about issues like that. The thinking was, ‘We are in survival mode, we are about saving our jobs. This is not an issue we care about.'”

The stagnation of the industry also means there are few opportunities to increase diversity. “The staff here is unionized, which means there is little job turnover,” says Richard Kim, executive editor at The Nation, who is Asian American and gay. “We only get to make a hire every four or five years.” Among the progressive publications I examined, The Nation scored the lowest, with slightly over 4 percent of its staff hailing from racial and ethnic minority groups.

But the primary reason magazine staffs are so white is structural. “We practice fairly specialized form of journalism and the pool of people who do it isn’t terribly large to begin with, and then you look at the group of people who are practicing at a higher level and it’s just not a diverse pool,” Foer says.

The road that ends with a spot on staff at places like The New RepublicThe Atlantic, or the Prospect is paved with privilege. It starts with unpaid internships, which serve both as training grounds and feeders to staff positions.

“Most of our staff comes through our intern program,” says Harper’s editor Ellen Rosenbush. “Do we get as many applicants of color as we’d like? Probably not, but we do get them and we have hired them.” There’s a straightforward reason for the dearth of intern applications: Those who can afford to rely on mom and dad for a summer or a semester tend to be well-off and white.

While publications like The Atlantic and The Nation have begun to pay their interns minimum wage–in the case of the latter, after an intern revolt last year–most publications offer a meager stipend or do not pay at all. Slate pays its interns $10 an hour. Internships at The New Republic, Salon, Harper’s, and the Washington Monthly are all unpaid. The Prospect pays its interns a stipend of $100 per week. On the bright side, a number of publications offer paid entry-level fellowships: The Prospect’s pays $33,000 and includes benefits, The New Republic offers its reporter-researchers $25,000, and Mother Jones gives its fellows $1,500 per month. But money’s not the only issue when it comes to interns. Most publications put little effort into recruiting for their internship programs, and the fact of the matter is that a black or Latino kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago is far less likely to have even heard of The New Republic or the Prospect than a white woman growing up on the Upper West Side.

This highlights another key reason the country’s leading think publications lack diversity: the industry’s reliance on social networks for hiring. The people we know–professionally and personally–tend to have similar backgrounds, and so when editors cast the net to build up the applicant pool for a position, they are largely recruiting people who look and think like themselves. {snip}

If magazines want to make their staffs more inclusive, it requires more than good intentions and a broad commitment to diversity. “To use the 12-step language, first you have to name the problem,” says Monika Bauerlein, co-editor of Mother Jones, which has improved diversity in the past several years through concerted recruiting efforts, yielding 12.5 percent of its 40-person staff who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. “Diversity is something that we emphasize in every posting and that we look to as an important part in the candidates that we talk to.”


Like poverty, diversity is not a problem that will just address itself, and a broad commitment is not enough. It takes effort and planning, which is why universities–the leading institutions on the diversity front–invest so heavily in recruitment. But first you need to name and quantify the problem. Next time someone asks, I’m hoping my colleagues at other publications will at least know how many people of color they’ve got on staff.