The Asian American Journalists Association’s Voices program provides college students and recent graduates the opportunity to work on ambitious journalism projects focused on AAPI and other underserved communities with the assistance of professional mentors. The following is a condensed version of a story originally produced by AAJA’s Voices 2021 investigative team.
In 2012, Marissa Evans wanted to make history when she applied to be editor-in-chief at Marquette University’s student newspaper, the Marquette Tribune.
If she got the job, she would become the second Black person — and first Black woman — to lead the Tribune since the paper was founded in 1916. Black students comprise less than 5 percent of the student body at the private university in Milwaukee, where Black residents make up 38 percent of the city’s population.
Besides having worked two years at the Marquette Tribune, Evans had already completed four internships and was an alumna of the prestigious New York Times Student Journalism Institute. By the time she applied for the editor position at the end of her junior year, she had already been selected for an internship at the Washington Post for that upcoming summer.
Despite these credentials, Evans didn’t get the job. A journalism professor who had knowledge of the hiring discussions later told her that there were concerns of how well she “would work with other people.” Instead, the hiring committee selected a younger white man.
Evans, now a health reporter at the Los Angeles Times, did not return to the paper for her last year at Marquette.
“I didn’t feel wanted by student media,” Evans said. Left unfulfilled were her aspirations of recruiting more journalists of color and leading the paper to focus on issues important to Black communities in Wisconsin’s most populous city.
Since Evans left, none of the editors who have led the Tribune have been Black. The one, and only, Black editor of the Tribune held the job a generation ago — in 1988 — a decade before many of today’s college students were born.
Our reporting shows that many college newsrooms across the country share a similarly bleak record for Black and Latinx representation in their highest ranks.
To gain a snapshot of how well editors-in-chief at student newspapers reflect the demographics of their schools, we identified 75 newsrooms that were honored for their work in 2020 from one of two organizations: the Associated Collegiate Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. We chose news organizations that won or were finalists for ACP’s Newspaper Pacemaker award or SPJ’s regional Best All-Around Student Newspaper award.
During spring 2021, those newsrooms were led by 81 editors-in-chief, some of whom shared leadership duties as co-editors-in-chief. Of the 73 editors who responded from 66 newspapers, we found that Black and Latinx students were roughly half as likely to become editors-in-chief relative to their share in the total racial and ethnic makeup of those colleges.
Less than 6 percent of editors-in-chief were Black, even though Black students comprise nearly 10 percent of the corresponding colleges’ total population. And 11 percent of top editors were Latinx, despite Latinx students making up almost 22 percent of that total population.
The data underscores the deep-seated lack of representation in American journalism amid a national reckoning with racial issues.
College newsrooms are a pipeline to professional ones, with staff and leaders who largely do not reflect the diverse localities they cover. Student journalists — both white and nonwhite — told us that the overall lack of diversity in newsrooms resulted in failures to adequately report on underrepresented communities.
The Marquette Tribune is not alone in how rare it is for a Black student to ascend to the highest leadership position, and serves as just one example of the barriers Black and Latinx students face in college newsrooms. We interviewed dozens of student journalists this summer, many of whom said that the lack of diversity in their newsrooms troubled them. Some said that low or zero pay may pose a barrier to student journalists of color.
Evans and others said that too often, student editors-in-chief — or the people who hire them — fall short on welcoming underrepresented students in historically white-dominated newsrooms. And that includes recruiting and retaining nonwhite students into leadership positions.
Lack of diversity: missed opportunities harm coverage
When Evans was a student journalist at the Marquette Tribune, she was one of only a handful of Black students in the newsroom, reflecting broader trends at the university. The largely white newsroom resulted in gaps in coverage, she said.
“The only time that these underrepresented populations were being spoken to is when a crisis had happened, or when they needed to find one person of color who fits this very specific story they’re trying to write,” Evans said. “To me, it was pretty rare to see a student of color on the cover.”
Evans had big aspirations for the Marquette Tribune. She planned to heavily recruit journalists of color and to expand coverage into issues impacting Milwaukee’s Black communities. Black residents comprise the city’s largest racial or ethnic group.
“I know people who have had to leave [the paper] because they have had to work multiple jobs.”
— Sarah Harris, editor-in-chief of the Daily Californian, 2021
“There were a lot of students who were coming from outside of Milwaukee who had never had to interact with Black people, or touch on underrepresented populations,” Evans said. “A lot of students… never really confronted homelessness, hunger, all these major social justice issues that student journalists nowadays are tackling head on in their work.”
Had she been selected as editor-in-chief, Evans said, one of the ways she would have tried to increase newsroom diversity is by recruiting and retaining commuter students, many of whom are students of color who couldn’t stay late at the paper because they’d miss the last bus.
In becoming the first Black woman to be named editor-in-chief of the Daily Northwestern in its 140-year history, Marissa Martinez was the third consecutive top editor of color in recent years, and showed the potential for what can happen when people of color assume top roles more routinely.
“Once there was a shift in leadership, it was more about the narratives we are putting out,” said Martinez, who graduated this spring and is now a fellow at Politico. “How are we making sure marginalized communities on campus, and underrepresented communities on this campus and in the city are getting heard?”
During her time at the paper, Martinez advocated for the creation of a diversity and inclusion editor. As the first person to hold that position, she led an effort to have reporters and editors track their sources for each story, so that viewpoints that had been long underrepresented in the Daily Northwestern’s coverage would gain more attention.
The cultural shift led reporters to move past the kind of reporting where journalists would simply “get both sides,” to better, more in-depth journalism that brings attention to voices that have long been ignored, Martinez said.
Pay as a barrier to diversity
In interviews, multiple newsroom leaders pointed to the same possible root cause for lack of diversity at their papers: poor pay.
According to 2019 and 2020 College Board reports on student aid, Black recipients of bachelor’s degrees graduated with more cumulative debt than any other racial group, and median incomes for Black and Latinx families were around 60 percent of the median for white families. For students facing severe financial burdens, jobs like newsroom gigs with low wages — or no pay at all — are often infeasible.
“It’s difficult for students who come from lower income and/or minority communities to work unpaid, because they can’t afford to put in those hours when those hours could be going to a paid on-campus job,” said Ananya Panchal, the diversity and inclusion chair of the nonprofit arm governing the Daily Free Press, the independent student newspaper of Boston University.
In our survey, we asked the newsrooms for hourly wage information to determine whether better pay for student journalists could increase the chance of having more diverse top editors.
But since there were so few editors-in-chief of color representing the surveyed newsrooms, it is difficult to definitively conclude whether low pay poses a barrier.
We found that, in aggregate, student newsroom leaders often worked long hours for very little pay despite their positions. Nearly half of surveyed editors-in-chief reported working at least 30 hours a week. Despite the long hours, only a minority of editors-in-chief were paid above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
The Daily Californian, the independent student newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley, is a prime example of the prohibitive financial reality of student journalism. Only editors and managers get paid, earning anywhere between $12.50 and $100 per week.
“I know people who have had to leave [the paper] because they have had to work multiple jobs,” said Sarah Harris, editor-in-chief of the Daily Californian during the spring 2021 semester.
Harris’ newsroom is not unique in not paying its reporters. At the Daily Orange, Syracuse University’s independent student newsroom, writers are not paid at all, and editors are paid poorly, said Casey Darnell, the 2020-21 editor-in-chief.
According to Darnell, lack of pay not only excludes some people from working in newsrooms, but also sets implicit filters on which students get opportunities for leadership positions, like editor-in-chief.
“The people who are able to work their way up to these higher positions are people who don’t need to work those other jobs,” Darnell said. Positions like editor-in-chief are so demanding that “we know that they don’t have time for anything else.”
Pipelines and solutions
At some college newspapers, role models for journalists of color are not as hard to come by.
Southwestern College, a two-year college in Chula Vista, Calif., is 48 percent Latinx. Students can see Mexico from their campus, and some make a daily commute from Tijuana — 11 miles away — to attend their classes.
The campus newspaper, the Southwestern College Sun, reflects these demographics and is staffed predominantly by people of color — a sharp contrast to most other newsrooms we surveyed.
“When we were able to attend national conferences like ACP [Associated Collegiate Press], our staff was usually one of the few staffs of color that could afford to be in places like that,” said Julia Woock, the Sun’s editor-in-chief. “People would stare at us.”
The fact that the Sun’s staff has many Latinx journalists and is representative of its border community helps make it a better newspaper, Woock said.
Woock, of Indigenous Mexican heritage, said that she has written about Indigenous issues that have not been covered widely by the mainstream media, like the border wall’s construction on Indigenous burial grounds and the high rate of unsolved murders of Indigenous women.
“Everyone in the news media is working towards diversity, equity and inclusion. We still have a long road ahead of us,” Woock said. “But I think it really starts in our student newsrooms because we’re training the next generation of journalists.”
“How many Black and brown students would have maybe joined the paper, had they seen that I was running it?”
— Marissa Evans, Los Angeles Times reporter and former Marquette Tribune reporter
In one predominantly white community, students at Humboldt State University in California advocated for creating their own bilingual English and Spanish newspaper to serve a growing Latinx community. El Leñador launched in 2013.
El Leñador is separate from the Lumberjack, the 92-year-old weekly student newspaper at Humboldt State University. Sergio Berrueta, one of three co-editors-in-chief at El Leñador during the spring 2021 semester, said that the publication was started not only as a resource for bilingual students and faculty, but for Humboldt County.
“I don’t want to say [El Leñador] gives a voice to the voiceless, because we have a voice. We just haven’t gotten the right stage for it,” Berrueta said. “I think El Leñador emphasizes that — by focusing on the stories that are relevant, that matter, that wouldn’t be covered otherwise.”
Some student newsrooms are changing hiring practices, fundraising, or even setting aside funds for reimbursing meals or transportation as ways to promote diversity among their ranks.
At the University of Alabama, the Crimson White’s former editors-in-chief Victor Luckerson and Rebecca Griesbach created an independent nonprofit to increase diversity in student journalism after George Floyd was murdered last year. Luckerson, who graduated in 2012, said he was the second — and most recent — Black person in the 127-year-old newspaper’s history to be editor-in-chief. The nonprofit donated $1,440 last year to help the Crimson White launch a team focused on covering race and identity, with two paid reporters.
Recruiting the next generation
While formal initiatives to increase diversity can help, it’s also essential that leaders and those making hiring decisions interact with people outside their racial and ethnic groups.
It’s important for student newsroom leaders “to really sit back and think—who are your friends on campus? Bluntly, do you talk to Black people? Are you friends with Black people? Friends with Latinx people, friends with Asian people?” said Evans, who didn’t get the Marquette Tribune post.
Similarly, recruiting and retaining new journalists, and choosing whom to promote, shouldn’t just be about looking at a resume, said Martinez, the first Black woman editor at the Daily Northwestern. “It’s about their passion, it’s about their ability to teach other people. It’s about the perspectives that they bring to the table or the people that they surround themselves with.”
As Black woman journalists, both Evans and Martinez said they faced deep skepticism from some people about their future potential as leaders, even as they received warm support elsewhere.
“I am sure some people thought I was a harsh Black woman,” Evans said. “You know? It’s inevitable.”
“I’ve definitely had people behind my back, say ‘oh, she’s not qualified,’ or ‘she doesn’t deserve certain things she’s gotten,’” Martinez said.
Evans said that even now, she reflects often on the opportunities she could have had to recruit that next generation. Perhaps more students of color would have seen that journalism could serve their communities, Evans said.
“How many Black and brown students would have maybe joined the paper, had they seen that I was running it?” Evans said. “How many would have perked up to the idea, warmed up to the idea, thought a little bit harder about it?”
To learn more about the methodology of this study, click here.
Janice Kai Chen, Ilena Peng, Jasen Lo, Trisha Ahmed, Simon J. Levien and Devan Karp are 2021 Voices students. Irena Hwang, Romy Varghese and Rong-Gong Lin II edited the investigative team.
Irena Hwang is a data reporter at ProPublica.
Romy Varghese is a reporter at Bloomberg News
Rong-Gong Lin II is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, and previously served as editor in chief of the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley.