By Roland S. Martin
When it came to championing media diversity as the right thing to do, Al Neuharth was one of the few white male media executives who “got it.”
No, he isn’t like many of the guys today who make broad pronouncements, organize special panels and commissions to tout business-related reasons for reaching multicultural audiences, and slap themselves on the back for making a few ethnic and gender hires.
The former CEO of Gannett, and the founder of USA Today, was a no-nonsense guy who let it be known throughout the company that if you didn’t buy into the notion of how vital diversity was to the future of the media industry, there was no place for you. And yes, that meant telling some folks it was best they moved on somewhere else.
Neuharth, who died April 19 at the age of 89, wasn’t a Southern-born journalist who witnessed life under Jim Crow and wanted to make amends when he had the chance to run a media company. He was born in Eureka, S.D., and came to the smart conclusion that giving people a shot to excel, instead of being relegated to second-class jobs, was what any smart CEO should do.
His obituary in the New York Times read: “In an industry long dominated by white men, Mr. Neuharth led the way in the hiring and promotion of women and minorities, tying compensation to hiring goals. By 1988, the proportion of minorities in Gannett newsrooms was 47 percent higher than the national average. Women accounted for nearly 40 percent of the company’s managers, professionals, technicians and sales agents and an unheard-of quarter of its newspaper publishers.”
I was a college student in the final two years of Neuharth’s 16-year reign as chairman of Gannett, and I can tell you that when I would attend the annual conference of the National Association of Black Journalists, everyone knew about the opportunities afforded at Gannett.
In fact, all of the other major news companies — Knight-Ridder, Cox, Belo, Times Mirror and others — knew full well that if they didn’t want to be embarrassed by the lack of diversity, they needed to do all they could to keep up with Neuharth and Gannett.
In his autobiography, “Confessions of an SOB,” Neuharth wrote about his role in selling the Oakland Tribune to Bob Maynard, making him the only African-American to own a major daily newspaper in America.
It’s easy to dismiss the role Neuharth played in changing the media landscape for minority and women journalists, but when you understand how both have been systematically frozen out of power positions for decades, you can understand why he was quite the exception.
But Neuharth’s admonition went beyond hiring.
It also extended to newspaper photos and stories.
It was clear that Al Neuharth understood America was changing, and the nation’s newspapers couldn’t continue to exclude black and brown faces from its pages. The company pushed and prodded its editors to reflect their communities and seek out sources and stories that would appeal to a cross-section of readers, not just white subscribers.
Unfortunately, too many other media executives continued to move at a snail’s pace, and didn’t heed the advice of Neuharth then.
Today, minority journalists are still fighting for a shot at the top jobs, whether its newspaper or television. And the nearly all-white newsrooms we used to see in newspapers can now been seen at many online outlets, where minority journalists are few and far between.
The legacy of Al Neuharth as a champion of media diversity is secure. Let’s just hope and pray other media leaders today will look at what he accomplished and decide that they will want to be remembered for not just talking the talk about diversity, but walking the walk.
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.” Please visit his website at RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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