Now Reading: Redressing the History of Racism in the Debate About Journalism’s Future

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Redressing the History of Racism in the Debate About Journalism’s Future


By Joseph Torres and Collette Watson

The Los Angeles Times’ recent decision to lay off more than 20 percent of its newsroom served as another stark reminder of why the stakes are so high — especially for communities of color — in the current debate about the future of journalism. 

In 2020, the Times apologized for its history of racism and white supremacy just months after the murder of George Floyd. At the time, the paper pledged to “do better” in regards to issues of race. It stated that “a region as diverse and complex and fascinating as Southern California deserves a newspaper that reflects its communities,” acknowledging that the number of journalists of color the paper employed was “not nearly good enough.”

But in January, the Times significantly slashed the number of journalists of color working at the paper, even though people of color make up the majority of the population living in the city of Los Angeles, the county and in California, with the Latinx population making up the largest ethnic group in the state. 

“The company has reneged on its promises to diversify its ranks since young journalists of color have been disproportionately affected,” said the Los Angeles Times Guild after the job cuts were announced. “The Black, AAPI, and Latino Caucuses have suffered devastating losses. Voluntary buyouts could have helped prevent this, but that’s not the path the company chose.” 

“The company has reneged on its promises to diversify its ranks since young journalists of color have been disproportionately affected,”

LA Times Guild.

The start of 2024 has been difficult for journalists working at legacy media outlets. Publications such as Sports Illustrated, TIME and The Wall Street Journal have also announced significant layoffs that have only intensified scrutiny surrounding the questions — and the debate — about journalism’s future

Meanwhile, the precarious state of the industry has led many of our nation’s most influential foundations to announce their intention to work collectively on solutions that ensure the sustainability of journalism’s future. 

But so far, these questions — this growing debate — have failed to reckon with the industry’s history of racism, leaving many reporters of color worried that journalism’s future will not look much different from its past. 

Concerns about a new philanthropic effort

Last September, the MacArthur Foundation announced the creation of a new 22-member coalition called Press Forward that pledged to make an initial historic investment of $500 million over the next five years to “strengthen communities and democracy by supporting local news and information.”

Following the coalition’s announcement, several journalism-affinity groups representing Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color wrote an open letter to Press Forward asserting that “racial and ethnic diversity, equity and belonging must be among the pillars of [Press Forward’s] foundation.” The groups also called for an “equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.”  

The coalition letter noted: “It is no secret that BIPOC-led organizations are awarded less grant money and are less trusted with how to spend that money when compared to white-led institutions.” 

Longtime newsroom-diversity leader Tracie Powell, the founder of The Pivot Fund, which supports “independent BIPOC-led community news”, also weighed in. “Funders need to radically rethink the way they find and fund news organizations,” she wrote, “to avoid inadvertently recreating the inequitable systems of the past.”  

These concerns led Borealis Philanthropy and the Maynard Institute to co-host a webinar in November that gave journalism practitioners of color the rare opportunity to collectively question several influential leaders of Press Forward on how this new and historic funding initiative will address race.  

Representing Press Forward during this webinar were John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation; Jim Brady, the vice president of journalism at the Knight Foundation; and Lolly Bowean, a program officer on the creativity and free expression team at the Ford Foundation.

At the event, MLK50’s publisher, Wendi Thomas, noted that the “emergence of these Press Forward local initiatives” would have a difficult time succeeding in Southern “low-wealth cities” like Memphis due to a lack of “local philanthropic infrastructure” and local donor support for local BIPOC news outlets. Thomas’ question: How was Press Forward “weighing its overall funding — if at all — towards these BIPOC communities where there’s not a concentration of wealth” and “local philanthropy”?” She also asked whether “there’s been any thoughts [by the coalition]” toward “some sort of reparations” funding approach?

Palfrey said that he “hope[s] … there will be some greater emphasis on national money [going] to communities that do not have as much local wealth.” Part of the coalition’s strategy, he said, will be to develop some sort of “cross-subsidies” or a “reparative, reparations-style approach” that the initiative will have to “figure out how to do as well as possible.” 

Meanwhile, one of the authors of this essay asked the funders if they “believe a multiracial democracy [could] be achieved without a robust, BIPOC media ecosystem that is well resourced — which obviously  isn’t the case right now.”

“There is no way for a multiracial democracy to exist without a strong people of color-led media ecosystem and that doesn’t exist today.”

-Palfrey

“Absolutely not,” Palfrey responded. “There is no way for a multiracial democracy to exist without a strong people of color-led media ecosystem and that doesn’t exist today. And that is certainly one of the animating forces for why I am spending a disproportionate amount of my time on trying to make this happen. So totally with you in that regard without any hesitation.” 

In a blog post summarizing the November webinar, Borealis Philanthropy wrote, “There are still more questions than definitive answers regarding Press Forward and the relationships between foundation staff, individual donors and the BIPOC journalism ecosystem.”

Press Forward’s first moves

Some initial answers arrived in December, when the MacArthur Foundation announced it was awarding $48 million in grants in support of the Press Forward initiative. Of the total, MacArthur awarded $32.5 million to Press Forward’s national pooled fund for local news that is housed at the Miami Foundation and made up of coalition members who will collectively determine the fund’s grant strategy. Press Forward has also established an aligned fund where individual coalition members will determine their own funding strategies in support of the group’s mission. And it has created Press Forward Locals , which are a “network of chapters” to help funders “address specific local information needs.” 

As part of its aligned funding strategy, MacArthur also awarded close to $16 million in grants in December to journalism organizations and advocacy groups, with at least $7 million going directly to BIPOC-owned or -controlled journalism outlets and institutions. 

BIPOC news outlets that have so far received funding from MacArthur include Documented, Enlace Latino, Mississippi Free Press, Outlier Media and URL Media as well as the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. In addition, Press Forward awarded grants to Free Press (our employer) and Rebuild Local Media to work on journalism policy.

But as Press Forward further unveils its funding strategies through the grants that it makes, it will continue to face questions about how the coalition will address and redress issues of race and the “equitable distribution of resources.”      

The devil, as always, remains in the details.

Diagnosing the problem 

Press Forward’s initiative has the real potential to shape and influence the terrain in which the future of journalism — and its potential solutions — are argued and debated on. As the co-creators of the Media 2070 project at Free Press, we believe it’s critical for the philanthropic world to make the kind of historic intervention that Press Forward has committed to. But we simultaneously hold curiosity about how the coalition will directly address the continuous harm the journalism profession has inflicted on Black communities and other communities of color. 

Press Forward has stated that it is seeking to save local journalism in an effort to “strengthen” — or save — democracy. But we hold critical questions about how, in its funding strategy, Press Forward is diagnosing the problems it seeks to solve. 

It is essential to acknowledge that journalism has always been in crisis for Black people. The same goes for democracy. 

Our nation’s most powerful media institutions have played a central role in undermining democracy for Black people and other communities of color. These institutions have profited from racism by dehumanizing and criminalizing Black people, publishing slave ads during colonial times, opposing integration and civil rights, and perpetuating the fearmongering crime beat.  

If we equate democracy with the right to vote, then our current so-called version of democracy came into existence only 60 years ago with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court and other entities have systematically weakened this law in an organized political effort to disenfranchise Black and brown voters. This effort metastasized on Jan. 6, 2021, with a deadly insurrection to prevent a multiracial democracy from being fully realized.

In its announcement, Press Forward stated that its initiative will operate “independent of ideology.” Yet the fight for multiracial democracy has always been an ideological question. There is a long history of media institutions silencing stories, publishing falsehoods and excluding marginalized voices, all in direct opposition to a multiracial future. Proceeding without clarity around this history — and the need for repair — could deepen existing inequities.  

When it comes to journalism and democracy, race has never been a subcategory in this struggle — it has always been central. To move forward, we have to reconcile and repair the role that powerful U.S. media institutions and media policies have played in undermining democracy for our nation’s Black communities. 

Apologies play an important initial role in this reparative process. When The Los Angeles Times apologized in 2020 for its history of racism, it acknowledged its role in protecting our nation’s racial-caste system. The paper stated that “for at least its first 80 years,” it was “deeply rooted in white supremacy and committed to promoting the interests of the city’s industrialists and landowners.”

But the Times wasn’t the only paper to apologize. In 2022, The Baltimore Sun admitted that its news coverage and editorial opinions had “preserved and furthered the structural racism that still subjugates Black Marylanders in our communities today.” This acknowledgement was published before the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-wing TV network, bought the paper. 

That same year, The Oregonian acknowledged that its early leaders “didn’t disguise [their] view that the United States was a white nation and should stay that way.” It added that the paper “spoke to white, affluent Portland, including industries like real estate and banking, which spent decades working to exclude people of color from the city.”

The histories these newspapers have apologized for do not represent some sort of anomaly. The harms these newsrooms have inflicted aren’t aberrations but the norm.  

As Media 2070’s historical essay on the need for media reparations shows, journalism institutions and government policies have played a central role in ensuring the subjugation of Black people. Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous narratives have made up the DNA of our media system since its inception. Narratives promoting the myth of Black inferiority have served the cultural and political goals of upholding racial hierarchies — reinforcing racial capitalism and the exploitation of marginalized communities. 

These are the realities that philanthropists looking to strengthen communities, democracy and journalism must reckon with. How is Press Forward taking into account the historic role that our local news institutions have played in reinforcing racial hierarchies? And how is the coalition ensuring that its much-needed infusion of resources will not empower continued harm? 

For-profit failures

We must recognize that there was never a golden age of journalism for Black communities, other communities of color, the poor and other marginalized groups.  

Just two decades ago, the newspaper industry was among the most profitable businesses in the country. While the internet has disrupted the industry’s grip on local advertising markets, newspaper conglomerates have also contributed to their own downfall through massive consolidation — laying off journalists even when they were recording massive profit margins. 

Through the decades, the primary goal of our nation’s dominant, white-owned and -controlled newspaper and media conglomerates has been to maximize profit for their shareholders. It hasn’t been — and still isn’t — democracy, especially a multiracial one. 

Many great Black journalists and other journalists of color continue to work at local-news organizations that do not value their voices and expertise. The industry has never truly been committed to covering the full humanity of the Black community or to supporting the journalistic excellence of their Black and brown newsroom staff. Many newspapers have even participated in redlining by refusing to deliver their newspapers to communities of color.

When The Los Angeles Times apologized for its history of racism in 2020, the paper also addressed the disdain its former publisher, Otis Chandler, had for Black and Latinx readers as well as the poor. “It’s not their kind of newspaper,” Chandler stated in a 1978 interview, “it’s too big, it’s too stuffy. If you will, it’s too complicated.”

Chandler later attempted to clarify his words but did not make matters better when he stated that the Times was attempting to attract readers in the “broad middle class” and “upper classes.” He added: “We are not a paper that’s sought after in the lower-class areas.” 

He may have said the quiet part out loud, but Chandler was far from the only publisher viewing Black and brown communities and the poor with contempt.  

Harming the Black press

The story of our current version of democracy cannot be told without acknowledging the role the Black press played throughout the struggle to democratize our society. 

The reach and influence of the Black press — but not its critical importance — have diminished since the civil-rights era due to the economic challenges the sector has historically endured as a result of racism.

Throughout our nation’s history, state-supported violence has targeted Black-owned and -controlled media institutions to silence their voices. Several Black newspapers were destroyed in places like Memphis; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Tulsa. The federal government targeted Black publications during World War I as part of an unsuccessful effort to convince Congress to pass peacetime sedition laws.

During World War II, the Justice Department once again threatened to arrest Black publishers for calling out our country’s hypocrisy of fighting against fascism abroad while preserving Jim Crow authoritarian racism at home. After the war, circulation for Black newspapers began to decline due to several factors, including increased coverage of the civil-rights movement by TV news and local newspapers.

As Armistead R. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II wrote in their book on the history of the Black press, a “chief complaint” of Black publishers was that “advertisers of staple goods, had, with few exceptions, passed them by.” 

Meanwhile, the Community Relations Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote in 1969: “Few American institutions have so completely excluded minority group members from influence and control as have the news media. This failure is reflected by general insensitivity and indifference and is verified by ownership, management, and employment statistics.”

As Brandi Collins-Dexter addressed in her 2022 book Black Skinhead, the decline in Black-owned media has resulted in the loss of “Black public spaces”:

Black radio and media spaces on- and offline have long allowed for the articulation and processing of divergent Black political thought. We have needed those spaces because predominantly white-owned media are neither able nor willing to platform more diverse Black political thought unless it serves their broader purpose or story.

The decline of the Black press — coupled with the failure of local-news outlets to serve the news and information needs of Black people — has left too many communities “with little-to-no reliable coverage of important local events,” to borrow the words of Press Forward. This was the case even when the news industry was raking in massive profit margins. 

Redressing Race & Journalism’s future

The philanthropic world also has yet to reconcile with its history of upholding racial hierarchies in our media ecosystem. For too long foundations have severely underinvested in BIPOC community media. A 2019 Democracy Fund study found that of the $1.1 billion that foundations awarded to fund journalism from 2013 to 2017, “only 8.1 percent of these dollars went to journalism efforts specifically designed to serve populations that included racial and ethnic groups, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ communities.”   

And a recent study of “103 leaders of community media outlets serving racial, ethnic, or linguistic communities in 24 states” found that “53 respondents stated “their organization would go out of business in less than five years when asked about their ability to continue to operate based on their recent financial performance.”  

The Press Forward initiative provides an urgent opportunity for the coalition’s funders to directly address the historic racial inequities that they contributed to. The coalition also has the opportunity to address these inequities by making a historic investment in the Black and brown press.

We raise these concerns and questions because we want Press Forward to succeed. We believe that a vibrant multiracial press is essential to realizing the struggle for a multiracial democracy. Efforts to undermine democracy are about protecting the power and privilege that come from upholding racial hierarchies. 

Achieving an equitable and reparative future requires policies and practices that will provide financial and programmatic redress for the harm that our media system and its institutions have caused. This means ensuring that we have an abundance of Black media — including journalism, book publishing, film, the arts, TV and radio stations, online platforms and community-controlled ISPs. This means greater community control and ownership over our nation’s communications infrastructure to serve the health and well-being of local communities rather than maximizing profits for shareholders. 

We urge the Press Forward funders to invest the vast majority of their funding in the kind of capital investment that is needed to ensure the short- and long-term sustainability of BIPOC media institutions and BIPOC organizations. This would serve as a beginning step toward reckoning with the centuries of harm journalism has inflicted on communities of color.

So many BIPOC media institutions and BIPOC organizations have been the main sources of justice and healing for those wrongs, and they remain uniquely experienced in creating the kind of media ecosystem that is needed in the struggle for a just multiracial democracy and society.

Joseph Torres is the senior advisor, reparative policy and programs, at Free Press, where Collette Watson is the vice president of cultural strategy and the director of the Media 2070 project.

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    Redressing the History of Racism in the Debate About Journalism’s Future