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Columnists and the minority population.

NSNC convention attendees hear about ways they can improve their coverage of America's diverse communities

IF COLUMNISTS WANT to do a better job covering minority communities, they might try writing fewer columns some weeks.

This suggestion came from Portland Oregonian editorial page editor Robert Landauer during a recent National Society of Newspaper Columnists convention session in Portland.

"If you write three or more columns a week, you have my sympathy," Landauer told NSNC attendees. "You don't have enough time for tough, sensitive subjects. If your newspaper cares about getting into other communities, they should let you write one column [some weeks] so you can do your homework."

Landauer said it is important for columnists to do reporting when writing about minority issues - or when writing about anything else, for that matter.

"The surest way to lose your vitality as a columnist is to become a thumbsucker and forget you're a reporter," he declared.

"Opinion writers have to do reporting and interviewing," agreed Oregonian assistant city editor David Austin, the session's other panelist.

Austin went on to note that many local white columnists cover minority matters inadequately or not at all. He said one problem is a mind-set that sees "minority issues as simply minority issues rather than inclusive community issues" of relevance to everybody.

"There are a ton of stories out there about regular people who look different but they're just like us," Austin added later in the session.

New York Times columnist Diane Ketcham, speaking from the audience, said some white columnists hesitate to write about minority-related subjects because of a worry that they, rather than the content of their pieces, may "become the issue."

Oregonian copy editor/columnist Osker Spicer, also speaking from the audience, said columnists who back up their opinions with good reporting have less to worry about when it comes to reaction from minority readers.

"Good reporting will reveal the truth," he remarked.

Austin noted that minority communities usually appreciate it when columnists at least make an effort to write about them.

"Absolutely the greatest cruelty is to ignore people," observed Landauer, who said this alienates minority communities and hurts newspapers, which lose even more potential readers at a time when circulation is already lagging behind population growth.

The small percentage of minority columnists, of course, is part of the problem. Austin said newspapers are slowly bringing in more minority staffers, but many of them are in relatively low-ranking positions.

Landauer observed that a recently hired journalist of any color "may not have the experience to qualify for columnist yet" but did emphasize that there are plenty of competent minorities who can be hired for all kinds of newspaper positions.

"I 100% reject the notion that you cannot find really great people," he stated. "They are out there. You just have to expand the field until you find them."

This may include looking for people working in non-journalistic fields and trying to interest students in a newspaper career while they are still in school, said Landauer.

New York Newsday columnist Patricia Kitchen, speaking from the audience, noted that good journalism candidates can also be found via her papers minority jobs fair.

As for the NSNC, president Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star and New York Times News Service said the organization is actively trying to diversify its membership. He noted that the NSNC has been in contact with associations representing black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, female and gay/lesbian journalists.

The NSNC certainly had a diverse speaking roster at its convention, where a humorous presentation by "cowboy columnist" Jon Bowerman followed the minority session.

The cattleman and wild-horse rider, whose clients include the Oregon Beef Producer magazine, spoke about such things as the cowboy code of wearing a hat at all times.

"That's why cowboys, when they're not on a horse, always drive the biggest, tallest four-wheel-drive pickup they can get their hands on," noted Bowerman, explaining that it's tough getting into a compact car without having one's hat knocked off.

Convention attendees also heard from Oregon Natural Resources Council conservation director Andy Kerr, who spoke about efforts to save the small amount of old forest remaining in the Pacific Northwest.

He noted that loggers tend to blame environmentalists and the spotted owl for threatening their livelihood but said the main culprits have been "overcutting, automation and log exports."

When asked about newspaper recycling, Kerr said, "The industry has taken some steps to recycle but needs to do more."
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Title Annotation:better news coverage of minority communities advocated at Newspaper Columnists convention
Author:Astor, David
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Jul 17, 1993
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