Dori Maynard: Reflections on technology and diversity in the news business
February 25, 2015 — Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, died Tuesday, February 24, 2015. She was 56.
Maynard was a tireless advocate for more racial diversity in the newsroom, as well as for greater awareness of diversity issues within news coverage itself. As part of her Maynard Institute work, she helped train huge numbers of minority journalists in leadership and multimedia skills. Prior to joining the institute, she was a reporter at the Bakersfield Californian, the Patriot Ledger and the Detroit Free Press. Her father, Robert C. Maynard, was a pioneering journalist who went on in 1979 to become editor of the Oakland Tribune; in 1983 he bought the paper, becoming the first African-American to own a major metropolitan daily. Both father and daughter were Nieman Foundation Fellows at Harvard University in 1966 and 1993, respectively.
In September 2013, Dori Maynard was interviewed at the Shorenstein Center about the intersection of technology and diversity over the past two decades, and the evolution of the news landscape.
The accompanying transcript has been edited for clarity.
Shorenstein Center: When is the first time that you met the Internet, and what was your response?
Dori Maynard: The first time I met the Internet was probably in the early 90’s. My father was an early adopter. He actually, very interestingly, went from a manual typewriter straight to a computer. When he met the computer, he completely fell in love, completely. He was on those early chat rooms, The WELL. I don’t know if you remember those.
He, in 1992, I believe, he sold the Oakland Tribune, but leading up to the sale and then really particularly after the sale, he was so excited about what the Internet was going to mean, the way he put it, for new deliveries for the news.
He, Nancy [Maynard] and Eric Newton [now of the Knight Foundation] were busy really planning these new projects that were going to take advantage of what they then called “convergence.” He really saw this very much as an opportunity. Some of his colleagues viewed the Internet with some suspicion, but he absolutely did not.
During the last few months of his life, he was very ill. And so the Internet, he used it very much the way people use it now. It was his lifeline to the world, to news, and he really thought that that’s…I had just spoken to somebody who said, “You know, your father was telling us in the late 80’s that one day we were going to get our news on the computer, and we all thought he was crazy.”
SC: What did you think as you started to become aware of the emerging technology?
Dori Maynard: My thought very early on was this is very exciting, and we are in clear danger of replicating what’s happening in traditional media.
SC: Which is?
Dori Maynard: Which is a majority of white journalists trying to cover a multi‑cultural community. In 1994, I came here [to Harvard] to the first conference, I think, that the Nieman [Foundation] did on the emerging technology. And I left wondering – something just was bothering me. And I finally realized that it was because I only saw one person of color there on the panel.
I thought, “OK.” At the institute, where I was not [then] in any big position, we began having conversations there that we need to prepare journalists of color, and we need to try and change the conversation.
SC: What was the sense about whether or not technology would ultimately enable more opportunity for journalists of color?
Dori Maynard: When you tried to raise the issue of race in the coming technology, what you heard was, “Oh, no. The Internet is going to solve all this. Race and gender will no longer matter. This is going to be a race and gender neutral world.”
Here we had a chance, back then, when we really could have built in structures that ensured that we were as inclusive as possible. Instead, the people driving the conversation told us, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that. This is all going to be taken care of.”
What we ended up doing was replicating the structure of the traditional media. Now, at the institute, we were very early to make sure we were training people with what we call “cross media” — making sure that people were as prepared as possible. And yet what we also kept hearing, very much reminiscent to the 1960s, is, “We’d love to hire some people of color. We just can’t find any qualified.”
Meanwhile, you had people like David Ellington who started NetNoir, which was an online site really catering to the African American audience. You have … in 1995 [the start of] Latino Link. There were people who were very active — Steven Chin and Bruce Kuhn.
Steven Chin founded Monkey King Media. They were very much part of the mix and very much not part of the conversation.
SC: Now we’re talking mid ’90s?
Dori Maynard: Mid ’90s.
SC: So, there were some startups that came out of the community, which you just discussed. What about the traditional minority or black, Latino press? How did that digital disruption start to affect them?
Dori Maynard: The disruption in the black press really happened in the 1960s, with some of the integration. After the riots and the white‑owned media realized that they needed to have black people to cover the biggest story facing the nation, that was really more of a disruptor. Now as a result of the Internet you do have the equivalency of the black press, the Latino press, Asian press, and Native American press, all kinds of rich websites that are out there.
SC: Talk a little bit about your role with the institute and, if you would, just discuss a little more about what sorts of skills you began seeing the need to train journalists in, and how that went. If you can remember, do you have some anecdotes about friction?
Dori Maynard: Oh, there was. Yes. We have a program. It was our signature program called the Editing Program, and it had a very strong board of advisers, who had really nurtured this program, from the Washington Post, the New York Times. Really great people.
When we decided that we needed to change the program — when the institute board and leadership decided that they needed to change the program — it was a huge battle with our Editing Program Advisory Board, many of whom quit. They just believed that we needed to focus on the fundamentals of copy editing, of headline writing.
We were saying, “Well, yeah. But this world is changing.” There was a lot of experimentation. “Is it coding?” But we knew we had to prepare our graduates to meet the growing demands of the job. I think history has shown that we were right. But, yes, that was a couple of years of very painful friction with people who had been big supporters of ours.
SC: When roughly were those years of real tension?
Dori: I’d have to say they were mid‑to‑late 90s. Yes, mid to late 90s. I’d actually forgotten until you mentioned that there was a friction.
SC: I’m glad we surfaced it. Let’s talk about the experience of journalists of color in newsroom after the emergence of the Web. What’s the feedback that you’ve gotten in the past decade?
Dori Maynard: One of the things that happened was that the technology did disrupt the business model, and what ended up happening as a result of the disruption of the business model was that a lot of news execs said, “Well, we really must work on the business model. Diversity’s a luxury that we can’t address right now.”
The number of journalists of color that are leaving the industry has been just a much higher rate than white journalists. We know that the industry is contracting, but for journalists of color it’s contracting at a higher rate than it is for our white peers.
SC: What explains that?
Dori Maynard: Those are some good questions. Studies have shown that part of what explains it is that journalists of color feel there’s no room for advancement, and that when we come with our story ideas, we’re hired because we have a different outlook at things. Then when we come with our story ideas, we’re told, “No, no, no. that’s not a story.” So just the frustration of not being able to do your best work I think has a lot to do with it.
SC: If we could, let’s talk just a little bit more about the kinds of programs that the institute’s students and attendees have been doing in recent years.
Dori Maynard: One of the programs that we do, we have our diversity framework that looks at diversity through the prisms of race, class, gender, generation, and geography. We think that those five things shape our perceptions of ourselves, each other, events around us – and they’re necessary tools to help you in your coverage.
You need to look at stories and say, “What does this look like across the five fault lines?” We’ve been doing a lot of work around that. We use a lot of what’s going on online as our examples. Politico did a story that last September, before the first [2012 presidential] debate, that looked at Pennsylvania.
The story was, “Romney’s secret: Pennsylvania may be something he can win.” I read the story. It was a three-jump story. As you may know, Pennsylvania was ground zero for voter ID laws, which some people feared were going to suppress the vote. A three-jump story — and they never mentioned it once.
We used that as an example. If they had looked at what that story looked like across race or across class or across generations, it might have been harder for them to leave that out. That’s something that we’re spending a lot of time going to newsrooms with.
We’re also really trying to teach people how to use Twitter more effectively. The argument we hear is, “Well, people can’t get out of the newsroom.” You can use Twitter to really find out about what’s going on in communities other than your own — across your communities in more effective ways. It’s almost like eavesdropping on private conversations. We’re spending a lot of time trying to help people use Twitter… What ended up happening with this disruption is that it really only disrupted the business model, but not the way we tell stories.
We spent a couple of years doing content audits of some of the online sites that have risen up: Slate, Salon, Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. Just looking at how people of color are portrayed. What we found was, again, very similar to the traditional media.
African Americans are primarily [portrayed] in crime, sports and entertainment [stories]. Latinos [through] episodic coverage of immigration. Native Americans and Asian Americans apparently just don’t contribute to the daily fabric of our lives. That’s what’s happening in the new media.
We’re spending some time trying to raise that issue. There was one time on The Daily Beast where the only story about people of color, the only thing that included people of color, was on a feature on grunting tennis stars. You know, really? I actually could have been left out of that one.
SC: Talk more about Twitter and how it may be changing information flows and may be giving more voice to communities.
Dori Maynard: Twitter is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen. I think I mentioned earlier that the only thing that was disrupted by the technology that I can see was the business model, but not the stories we’re telling, or the way we’re telling stories.
We’re not using the new tools to tell new stories, but Twitter and the power of the hashtag — that really does surface things in ways. Stories that might not otherwise get attention are getting attention.
I go back to March 16th, 2012, when I was glued to Twitter watching two separate conversations: Mike Daisey had just admitted that he fabricated part of the story he told on the factory in China that produces a lot of the Apple goods. He told that on “This American Life” and so he had just admitted he fabricated part of that story.
Many of the white men who are the press’ sort of codex, they were just deep into that conversation. On the other side, on another conversation, were people like Roland Martin and Goldie Taylor and Touré and Charles Blow. They were deep in a conversation about, what was for most people, an unknown young man named Trayvon Martin, who had been shot while he went home.
Well, we all know the story now. That was unknown. I knew it, but it was not really breaking out of the African American community. I watched that day as those two conversations, really very intense deep conversations, never intersected.
The intensity around Trayvon Martin meant that that following Saturday… This was a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. I can’t remember. Don Lemon had some people on CNN to talk about it. By Monday, it was all over the news. It was on “The Today Show,” and that was the beginning. I think that hashtags have the opportunity to push things in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise hear about.
SC: Any time you have sort of chaos or disruption, there’s opportunity: Whether that means in terms of the business model, but also in terms of the kinds of coverage and editorial budgets. Are there any key decision points that you might identify that could have sort of gone a different way within the business?
Dori Maynard: There was. I can’t remember what year it was. It was probably early 2000s, and this is just the business model. I was talking to a publisher of a major news organization who said, “Well, at least thank God Craigslist isn’t in Des Moines.” I was at my computer and I was like, “No, Craigslist is…” And I started listing all the places that Craigslist was. I didn’t get very far. He was like, “OK, OK.” It was like, “Wow.”
Even in the 2000s, people were — instead of adopting this technology — saying it was going to go away. That’s one key. I also think and I think this persists: The inability to understand that you need to create coverage that is relevant and reflective if you’re ever going to get your mass audience back.
That’s something that people still have a hard time with. If you’re going to give a very narrow slice, which I think is crime, sports, entertainment … and then put up a paywall, I’m going to go on your site if it’s free. But are you really going to ask me to pay to be insulted and ignored? That probably isn’t going to happen.
This idea that diversity is still a luxury, instead of a business strategy, that is going to continue to mean that we’re going to have very niche publications and people are betting [that] white wealth is going to be their savior. I think people need to be a little broader.
SC: If your dad were here and seeing the landscape as it is in 2013, what do you think he’d say?
Dori Maynard: This is the 20th anniversary of his death, and one of the things that we’ve been doing at the institute is we’re getting ready to do an online commemoration because he was so enthusiastic about the Internet. One thing he would say is: Why would you do a brick and mortar?
The other thing we’ve been doing is we’ve been going through his old speeches and his writings and we post a quote a day, so many of the quotes that he said back then are relevant now. I think to the point is, if we expect to grow as an industry, we need to reflect our communities. He would say that.
The big thing is he would have ripped everything up. I think he would have a hard time understanding why people weren’t ripping up the model and starting something different. He would be baffled that the news industry that he loved so much had made so little progress, both in terms of the technology it was using and in terms of the ability to cover the communities.
SC: When you wake up in 10 years where do you expect things to be? Where do you hope they’ll be?
Dori Maynard: You know, I was thinking about that on the way over. My hope is that in the next year that we can change the conversation around the coverage of communities of color from one where we’re all really embracing the notion that, to live up to our moral and ethical obligations – that instead of distorting the lines of color – we’re telling the true story. That we’re no longer so terrified of the coverage, but that we’re all engaged in creating these new models.
As you know, people of color over-index on mobile [technology]. The audience is there. Instead of running from that audience, I hope that we are really fully embracing it, and making sure that we are including people of color in, not only our news coverage, but also our business models. Because we should be going to the customers and figuring out how do they want to use these.
Time magazine did a piece this Father’s Day online where they had dads write letters to their daughters, and they included no African American, Asian Americans, or Native American fathers. Not one. Now, have you looked at Time’s circulation lately? I have. It’s just going down, down, down, down.
The reason I suspected it was going down was because there was no uproar over this. I wrote something, but you didn’t hear about it. When things are really important to people and people are putting out one-dimensional pieces, the uproar and the blow-back after the fact is so intense that my hope is that that’s part of what’s going to get people to embrace it this next year. I know that’s ambitious. Now we want to have diversity.
When we front load diversity, then we don’t end up having to figure out and apologize, and our conversation isn’t steered from what we wanted to talk about to: Why weren’t women and people of color included? I think my hope was that everyone’s going to begin to see what’s in it for them, and it’s a better product.
SC: To that point, are there any particular media projects right now that are taking advantage of that “over-indexing” on social media, that rich dialogue and enthusiasm for technology that is in the black and Latino communities that we know about? Are there any particular projects that you’re aware of that are making a business model out of that engagement enthusiasm?
Dori Maynard: I’m not seeing anything.
SC: What about with the legacy media — are there any projects you find exciting or interesting in this regard?
Dori: Not seeing any. I love some of the sites that cater solely to an ethnic audience, and I love some of those voices. I guess you could argue Twitter. No, I’m not seeing anybody. The other thing is the multicultural nature. That’s the thing that I’m a little concerned about because I don’t want to just have my story, I also want to read about you and my Latino colleagues and friends – that place where everything’s all together.
SC: Are you pessimistic or hopeful at the end of the day?
Dori Maynard: I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful because I think that the hashtag allows us to surface new voices. It amplifies some of the voices. I think going to a single website and creating a website where I have to go to to get to that voice, that’s a model that continues to silence us.
A hashtag where I can amplify my voice and then you amplify my voice and I amplify your voice and we start raising stories – that makes me hopeful. I also hope because it’s one of the things we spend time at the institute trying to help people do: How do we have these conversations that are constructive across differences?
My hope is that – and I know sometimes Twitter can get a little out of control – there are people who will keep those conversations constructive and on point so we begin to really talk to each other and not at each other.
SC: We hope it comes to pass.
Dori Maynard: If I weren’t hopeful I wouldn’t get up. Do I get discouraged? In the privacy of my own little office or car. Sure. But if I weren’t hopeful, I would definitely go into another business.