Diversity matters. And the Detroit Free Press itself must do better.

Peter Bhatia, Detroit Free Press
Published 6:02 a.m. ET Aug. 20, 2020


The newspaper industry’s failure to do more about diversity is decades old. When I was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2003-2004 it was an issue. It still is today, nationally and in Detroit. 

I’m tired of the excuses. This is a time when we really can — and should — get something done and build a legacy for the future. We must increase the number of people of color working in our newsrooms to better reflect our communities. And we also must commit to making our overall coverage more equitable and inclusive. 

Peter Bhatia, Detroit Free Press editor and vice president. (Photo: Cameron Pollack, Detroit Free Press)

It will take strong leadership, and we have that at the Free Press. It will also take deep commitment, and our parent company Gannett is 100% behind the effort. 

Today, we present an audit of our staff, which shows the distance we still need to travel to adequately represent the diversity of southeast Michigan and Detroit. This is about our staffing numbers, but is equally about coverage priorities and efforts.

Let’s start with the numbers:

Today the Free Press newsroom (we currently have 92 news staffers, not counting interns) is 27.7% people of color. Our newsroom is 12.2% African-American, 7.8% Asian and 3.3% Latino. Mixed-race staffers account for another 4.4%. (The latter includes people like me. My late father immigrated to the U.S. from India after World War II. He met my mother at the University of Iowa. She is from Chicago, of Irish descent.) 

More:Having a diverse newsroom is critical to telling stories about Detroit. Here’s a look at our staff.

Gannett has vowed — and I heartily endorse — that its newsrooms should be at parity with their communities by 2025. This includes gender. Today, men make up 58% of our news staff; women, 42%. The three-county Detroit metro area by comparison is 49% to 51%, male to female. I set a goal at the beginning of the year for our newsroom to be 35% people of color and 20% African-American by the end of year.

For the purposes of this audit, our company used 2019 census data and what is called the newspaper’s NDM — newspaper designated market. For the Free Press that is a seven-county area encompassing our main areas of circulation. Our newsroom staffing lags the NDM, which is 33.7% people of color and 21.5% African-American. I prefer to use the three-county Wayne-Oakland-Macomb area, which raises the percentage of color to 37.1 and the percentage of African-Americans to 24.4. And, of course, Detroit itself is 78.6% African-American, according to those census figures. 

We must and will do better. We have recently hired three African-American staffers: an assistant sports editor and two reporters. The sports editor is a man, the reporters are women. That’s progress — the hires took place after the audit closed and raises our numbers to 30%, but it’s still not close to parity. We have more hires to make and, as is always the case, we will seek women and people of color as candidates. 

As for content:

  • One of the reporters mentioned above will be developing a new business beat focused on minority-owned businesses, nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
  • We will be launching soon our “Detroit Is” initiative, an effort to dive deeper into life in the city. This hasn’t been an area of recent strength of the Free Press, more episodic than consistent, and one of our new reporters will be focused on the stories of daily life in Detroit. She won’t be the only staffer contributing to “Detroit Is,” which will have a special presentation on freep.com. This effort was to be launched some months ago but has been delayed by the COVID-19 epidemic and the requirements of covering it.
  • We are committed to doing a better job of connecting with the African-American community in Detroit. We plan to hold a series of community conversations. We had one — a very informative one —– with a group of small business owners before COVID kicked in. 
  • With funding from Gannett as part of a major diversity initiative just announced, we will be hiring a reporter dedicated to covering inequities in our state’s public education system and its impact on communities with lesser resources. 

Important to making all of this happen is a commitment to cultural change in our newsroom. It’s no secret that newsrooms by and large are still dominated by a white, male way of doing business. We are changing that at the Free Press. Our senior leadership team is diverse: two African-Americans (one male and female), an Asian woman, two white women and two white males. And me. 

We will work to make our coverage of communities of color and women more inclusive, accurate and authentic. Staffing is important to that, of course, but so is better understanding where we live. We have work to do to make sure our standards for stories are universal. We regularly and rightly are criticized for covering a story in the suburbs that is unusual there, but might occur more regularly in the city and be ignored. We still are not sensitive enough to the views of marginalized communities, as a recent headline on an editorial about the police shooting of Hakim Littleton illustrated. 

Small steps get us to big steps.

  • We have been diligent in making sure our COVID-19 coverage reflects the out-of-proportion impact the virus has had on minority communities.
  • I am forming two small community-advisory groups, one on issues of race, equity and inclusion, and one on Detroit and Michigan regional issues. (If you’re interested in serving, email me. It will require about an hour a month.)
  • Brian Dickerson, our editorial page editor, and I will be working up a plan to bring more diverse voices into our opinion-page deliberations.
  • Our newsroom listening committee, also slowed down by the enormous amount of COVID-19 and protest coverage since March, will relaunch its efforts to connect with communities and to evaluate our work. 
  • We are limiting the use of police-released mug shots to counter the inaccurate vision of crime they can create. More on that soon. 

We embrace these goals as articulated by the leadership of our company:

  • We will continue to use our journalism to educate and shine a light on racial and social injustices across our country.
  • We will focus on building a more inclusive and diverse workforce, making it an important pillar of our transformation. We are fully committed to diversity through all levels of the organization, both management and staff. We will further accelerate change by establishing specific goals and measurements — and will communicate our progress going forward. 

Today’s report is a first step in that communication. 

I’ll close this with an excerpt from a memo I wrote to our staff two months ago:

Events of the past two weeks, since the murder of George Floyd, have changed (finally) the discussion of race in our society. Everyone can now see the atrocities committed upon Black Americans. Our country has engaged in a way never seen before. Many believe we are engaged in a time of permanent change. I strongly hope that is the case. Our company has stated emphatically that it stands with Black Americans and that it will take multiple, focused actions to further embrace diversity and inclusion in our journalism and as a company. 

As journalists, we pledge to maintain the ability to judge a situation fairly and to report on what it means. But the devotion to objectivity — a false premise to begin with in my view (who truly is objective?) — has at times held us back from telling necessary truths. It’s time to put “objective” in the trash bin of history. Fair, of course. Complete, always. But we are truth tellers, first and foremost.

Today is part of an ongoing process. Hold us accountable for these words.  We know we have much to do.

Peter Bhatia is editor and vice president of the Free Press. He can be reached at pbhatia@freepress.com

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